The Supreme Court sought the assistance of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta on Monday to find an amicable solution in resolving the grievances of the Parsi community, which is unable to perform the traditional burial of its members who died of COVID-19.
A bench of justices DY Chandrachud and AS Bopanna asked Mehta to use his office and have a word with the office of the Director General of Health Services in order to tweak the existing guidelines for the burial of Covid victims.
Senior advocate Fali S Nariman, appearing for the Surat Parsi Panchayat Board, said the Parsi community is the only community in the country that has professional pallbearers.
He said the existing guidelines do not allow for a burial as is done in the Parsi community.
The counsel appearing for the Gujarat government said they are following the guidelines issued by the Centre in this regard.
Nariman said the Centre, in its affidavit filed in the Gujarat High Court, has said it will bow down to the orders of the court.
The bench then asked the solicitor general, who was on the screen for another matter, to intervene on the issue.
Mehta said he will look into it as it is not an adversarial issue and would talk to the authorities concerned.
The bench then posted the matter for further hearing on January 17. On December 6, the top court had sought responses from the Centre and the Gujarat government on a plea seeking a traditional burial for the members of the Parsi community who died of COVID-19.
The appeal filed by the Surat Parsi Panchayat Board has challenged a July 23 order of the Gujarat High Court, dismissing its plea.
Nariman, appearing for the board, had submitted that the issue is relevant as a new variant of the virus has emerged.
There is a community of corpse bearers among the Parsis, he had said, adding that when someone dies, the family members do not touch the body and only the corpse bearers can do so.
He said general guidelines have been issued for the cremation and burial of Covid victims, but there is nothing about the Parsi community.
The top court had said the issue requires consideration and highlighted that there is a judgment in this regard, which has dealt with obsequies rights that are essentials in some faiths.
On July 23 last year, the Gujarat High Court had a plea filed by the Parsi panchayat body that sought a permission to perform the last rites of the community members, who died of COVID-19, in accordance with the Zoroastrian traditions, instead of cremating them.
The high court had disposed of the petition, saying it lacked merit and cited the remarks of the top court with regard to the Kanwar Yatra in Uttar Pradesh.
In its plea, the Surat Parsi Panchayat Board had sought to protect the fundamental right to perform the last rites of the community members, who died of Covid, in accordance with the tradition of Dokhamanshini and not cremation, as has been directed by the authorities in view of the pandemic.
In the Dokhamanshini tradition, the body is kept at a height on a structure referred to as a well or the tower of silence, to be eaten by vultures, and the remains are left to decompose under the sun, it was stated.
Considering the prevailing COVID-19 situation, the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare regarding the disposal of dead bodies by cremation or burial are in the larger public interest and cannot be said to be violative of the fundamental rights of the Parsis, the high court had said.
Observing that the petition was devoid of merits, it had rejected the plea.
The petition before the high court had stated that the Parsi community was compelled by the authorities to opt for cremation or burial of its deceased members, ”as against its religious practice and sentiments”.
”Since the guidelines do not recognise other methods of disposing bodies of deceased COVID-19 patients, authorities do not allow the Parsi community to follow their religious and customary mandate for last rites,” it had stated.
No guideline prohibits such religious customary practices and it is the interpretation of the local authorities that is causing problems, resulting in a violation of the fundamental rights of Parsis, the plea had stated.