Haj subsidy: Politics to the fore

A court quashes the Haj subsidy; government offers similar subsidies for all communities.

27 April, 2007: The Union Government is, as always, banking more on secularism. This time around, it has come up with an offer to protect Haj subsidies.

The government has gone ahead and told the apex court that it was ready to offer similar support, at state expense, to pilgrimages organised by other communities too. By this, it means that it the Centre is open to provide financial assistance to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and other religious communities going on pilgrimages. Significantly, the Centre's earlier stance was limited to arrangements for law and order during the Kumbh Mela and the management of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. However, it has stopped short of specifying whether the aid would be in the same scale as that provided to Haj pilgrims.

Critics of the government see this as a ploy of the Centre with an eye on the UP minority vote as the state is seeking a fresh government. It is more than common knowledge that the Centre would see a setback on Haj subsidies as a big blow to its political calculations. If at all the Haj subsidy was struck down, it would have seen all the secular parties baying for its blood.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry had, in response to a public interest litigation that challenged the Haj subsidy said that it was very much pertinent to state that the government is not averse to the idea of granting support to the pilgrimages conducted by any community. The words very clear, showing the government’s unambiguous stance.

Besides, the ministry sounded stubborn in its defence of the government policy to subsidize air-travel of pilgrims to Mecca for Haj. On criticism that granting subsidy to one community violated secularism, the ministry clarified that the policy decision to grant subsidy to Haj pilgrims is in no way going to affect the principles of secularism. On the contrary, such policy decisions stimulate the ideals set out by the Constitution which intends to secularise amongst others the liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship, equality of status and opportunity, it said.

While the Allahabad High Court order banning subsidy on all pilgrimages has been interpreted by the Muslim clerics and religious leaders in the state in different ways, it is to believed that the order will affect only the Haj pilgrims. This, according to a report, is because the pilgrims are the only ones who avail of the government subsidy. Meanwhile, the developments have triggered responses like these. Muslim clerics were divided in their opinion on this. While one section that subsidy did not go against the Quranic belief that a Haji should finance his pilgrimage on his own, another said the subsidy was bad for the Muslims. The Muslim Personal Law Board has said that a meeting of the board will together decide the future course of action.

Significantly, according to the Holy Quran, the expenditure incurred by a Haj pilgrim should be borne by the person himself or his close relatives. The Muslim clerics and leaders denied that enjoying a subsidy on Haj pilgrimage is against the tenets of Islam.

There are also opinions that applauded the subsidy saying that it was like somebody giving you something as a gift on your way to the pilgrimage.

Further, the Allahabad HC order which banned financial support for Hajis drawing many a response, positive and negative. A division bench had passed the order on a petition moved in 1995. The petitioner had sought curbs on aid by Central and state governments to pilgrims going on Haj or on any other pilgrimage by people of any religion.

The Congress party has expressed unhappiness over the order even as senior government sources asserted that it would soon be challenged in the Supreme Court. The party believes that there are sufficient grounds to challenge the court order. On the other hand, the BJP said it would come out with a detailed response only after it had gone through the court order. However, it said it had nothing against the order.

Meanwhile, taking things one more step forward, the Haj Committee has asked the government for the right to choose private airlines, instead of the state-owned Air India, for ferrying Haj pilgrims. The move comes following the Allahabad High Court order banning Haj subsidy. According to the committee, the order creates confusion about concessions on flying Air India or Indian Airlines.

It may be noted that every Haji pays Rs 12,000 towards airfare while government subsidises the remaining amount. However, all the Hajis undertaking the journey to Saudi Arabia have to fly by the government carriers, Air India or Indian Airlines. Last year, as the government carriers could not handle the passenger load, Saudi Arabian Airlines too handled Haj operations from India.



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