The Narendra Modi government has decided to phase out the Haj subsidy extended to Muslim pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia from next year.
Confirming the phase out plan to The Hindu, Union Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said, “The subsidy has been progressively reduced since 2012 and we are looking to phase it out completely by 2018.”
Naqvi said the subsidy would be reduced to “almost nil” from the Rs 450 crore that was spent in 2017.
‘“We would like to spend the funds on educational programmes, especially for girl children of the minority community.” he added.
Earlier this year, the union government had formed a five-member Haj panel headed by former Secretary, Minority Affairs, Afzal Amanullah to devise a plan to do away with the subsidy. Apart from the proposal to end the subsidy by next year, the panel also suggested allowing women above 45 years to undertake the Haj pilgrimage without a male relative/escort/ mehram. The panel also proposed to send pilgrims by ship, which is relatively less expensive than flights.
Decision in light of SC order
Notedly, the government’s move is in consonance with the 2012 Supreme Court order asking the Union government to gradually reduce the Haj subsidy and completely remove it by 2022.
“We direct the Central government to progressively reduce the amount of subsidy so as to completely eliminate it within a period of 10 years from today,” a bench of Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana P Desai had said.
“The subsidy money may be more profitably used for uplift of the community in education and other indices of social development,” Justice Alam wrote in his order.
Haj subsidy is availed by those who go through the Haj Committee of India and not through private operators. The subsidy amount has, in the recent years, been between Rs 650-700 crore. In January, Saudi Arabia had increased India’s annual Haj quota, increasing it from 1,36,020 to 1,70,520.
Ship was more popular mode of communication
Till the 70s, most Indian pilgrims sailed from Mumbai to Jeddah. “Only some pilgrims could afford to travel by air. Hajis from all over India would gather in Mumbai and the Musafirkhanas – lodges – and Mumbai was known as ‘Bab-e-Mecca’ (Gateway to Mecca),” Mufti A Rehman Mili, an expert on the pilgrimage told Hindustan Times.
Sea travel started fading away when two of three ageing ships that ferried pilgrim were withdrawn from the services.
It was around this time in mid 70s, the Indira Gandhi government introduced Haj subsidy to help devotees who could not afford airfares.
On radar of Right wing forces
The subsidy was also a target of BJP and other Hindutva outfits, which have traditionally attacked the concessions on grounds that it was contrary to the principle of secularism and continues to appease the minority.
Speaking at an event in Ahmedabad in March this year, Vishwa Hindu Parishad president Praveen Togadia demanded the withdrawal of all subsidies provided to Muslims from the money of Hindu taxpayers.
“If Muslims could be helped with the money collected from taxes paid by Hindus, why not Patels, Thakores and Koli (communities)?” the firebrand leader said.
Prominent Muslim leaders against subsidy
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) president and Lok Sabha MP from Hyderabad Asaduddin Owaisi is not in favour of the government subsidy on Haj. Underlining that the Muslims do not need government subsidy for going to Haj, he told a TV news channel that subsidy amount of Rs 450 crore was actually being utilised by the airlines, either Air India or some other international carriers.
Speaking with the Times of India, Maulana Azmat Shah Makki an Islamic scholar and Qazi Shahjehanabad circle offered more Islamic reasons for not accepting subsidy. “Haj is compulsory for any Muslim who has the resources and has taken care of his family responsibilities (like marriage of his daughter). It is not prudent to perform the holy pilgrimage with subsidy. This money can be used for serving the poor and needy,” said Makki.