The Amarnath Yatra has been cancelled this year in the view of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Deccan Chronicle reported. The Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), which held an emergency video conference on Tuesday and decided to cancel the yatra, said it was doing so “in the larger public interest”. The board, headed by J&K Lieutenant-Governor Girish Chanra Murmu also announced that the darshan could be done online or on TV as provisions for live telecast for the morning and evening prayers would be made.
The press release stated, “The Board discussed the Hon’ble Supreme Court order dated 13.07.2020 in which the decision to conduct the Yatra was left to the Administration/ Government after assessing the ground realities prevailing in Jammu & Kashmir.”
It added, “The Board further discussed that pandemic has put the health administration system to its limit. The spike has been particularly very sharp in July. Health Workers and Security Forces are also getting infected and the focus of the entire Medical, Civil and Police Administration at the moment is on containing the local transmission of the Covid-19 pandemic. The health concerns are so serious that the strain on the health system, along with the diversion in resources to the Yatra, will be immense. This would also unnecessarily put the Yatris at risk of catching the Covid-19.”
Citing these reasons, the board stated that the cancellation of the yatra would enable the “Health, Civil and Police Administrations to focus on the immediate challenges facing them rather than diverting resources, manpower and attention to the conduct of the Shri Amarnathji Yatra”.
Back and forth on cancellation
The Amarnath Yatra was scheduled to commence on June 23 and conclude on August 3, on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan. However, the SASB officials in April itself had expressed their concern regarding the yatra due to the outbreak of coronavirus. It had suggested that the yatra be cancelled, but had met with a lot of opposition from various Hindu religious leaders and right-wing political organizations, Deccan Chronicle reported.
Giving in to pressure, the SASB had then decided to conduct a short 14-day yatra through the restricted Baltal route, starting July 21. However, the SASB overturned its decision and issued its final decision just days before the yatra was about to commence.
Implications of the cancellation
The Amarnath Yatra is an example of communal harmony. Not only does the civil and police administration ensuring a smooth pilgrimage consist of Muslim officers, the yatra is conducted with the support of local Muslims. They are the local service providers who set up base camps and put up food stalls to make sure that the pilgrims have a hassle-free journey. Most work as palanquin bearers and porters and earn handsome amounts during the time of the yatra. An example of these high earnings was brought forth in a report by The Tribune in 2017. It had reported that the business of walking sticks touches nearly Rs. 40 lakhs during the yatra and over 200 people are involved in preparing and selling these sticks. The cancellation of the yatra is now likely to take a toll on their seasonal earnings.
Though official numbers of the loss are not available, the cancellation of the yatra is said to hamper the earnings from religious tourism as well.
A few people have also criticized the decision of the cancellation. Former minister and senior Congress leader, Raman Bhalla decried the cancellation of the yatra saying that the yatra had been a way of earning revenue for the locals by offering services to the pilgrims, State Times reported.
Professor Bhim Singh, Chief Patron J&K National Panthers Party (JKNPP) also expressed his resentment saying, “It is sad and tragic that centuries’ old Amarnath Yatra was cancelled this time by an official declaration of the Government without having any consultation with the Dharmarth Trust or any other social or political representative in J&K. It was only yesterday that the BJP Government took an unfortunate decision to cancel the Yatra at the 11th hour. Neither the political representatives nor social or religious leadership were consulted by BJP Government in Delhi or UT administration before taking this draconian decision for the first time in history, that too when all preparations were completed,” State Times reported.
However, the Amarnath Yatra is not the first religious event to be cancelled in India. Prior to this other events that were cancelled or scaled down were –
The Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Mumbai – The celebrations this year have been scaled down. The government has asked community mandals to keep idols under 4 feet. The biggest attraction, the Lalbaughcha Raja has been cancelled and the organizers of the celebrations have stated that they will hold blood and plasma camps during the 11-day festival.
Haj 2020 – ABP News had reported that the Indian government, in June, had stated that it wouldn’t be sending pilgrims to Saudi Arabia to perform Haj keeping in mind the coronavirus pandemic. The call was taken after Saudi Arabia had said that it would be welcoming only a limited number of pilgrims for Haj this year.
Kanwar Yatra – The Kanwar Yatra was cancelled and it was decided that the government would transport water of the holy Ganges and provide it to devotees of Shiva who would have taken the pilgrimage had the pandemic not hit.
Jagannath Rath Yatra – The Jagannath Rath Yatra was carried out in a conservative manner in the temple premises, without participation from the public owing to the pandemic.
Other celebrations like Durga Puja and the Vaishno Devi yatra have framed norms to hold celebrations during the pandemic. All through the lockdown, religious institutions of all faiths have understood the importance of public health and requested devotees to offer prayers from home. During the pandemic, religious services went online and many institutions instead offered their premises to be converted to isolation centers or hospitals to serve the ailing; decisions that had garnered praise from people throughout the country.