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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

India scraps British-era subsidies for Haj pilgrims 

Decision sparks accusations of government favouring Hindu festivals

Indian Haj pilgrims form a queue as they prepare to board an aircraft at Sadar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport in Ahmedabad on August 13, 2017, to undertake the Haj Pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Sam Panthaky / AFP
Indian Haj pilgrims form a queue as they prepare to board an aircraft at Sadar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport in Ahmedabad on August 13, 2017, to undertake the Haj Pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Sam Panthaky / AFP

India has scrapped subsidies for Haj pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia four years early, promising instead to direct the funds towards the education of Muslim girls and women.

Announcing the move on Tuesday, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the minister of minority affairs, said the decision was “part of our policy to empower minorities with dignity and without appeasement.”

The programme’s closure has been on the cards since 2012, when the Supreme Court directed the government to phase out the subsidy. One of the two justices pointed out at the time that, according to the Quran, the Haj is only required of those pilgrims who can afford to make the journey.

A 10-year time frame had been specified within which to reduce and eliminate the subsidy. But prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has ended the subsidy only six years after the ruling.

The BJP has frequently held up the Haj subsidy as an example of the “vote-bank politics” employed by its rival congress party, maintaining that such targeted schemes at government expense were merely ways to secure the electoral support of Muslims.

The roots of the subsidy programme lie in a British-era law that funded Haj committees in Bombay and Calcutta, port cities where pilgrims tended to embark upon the sea voyage to Saudi Arabia.

In 1954, seven years after independence, the Indian government introduced a new law that provided for subsidised air travel between Bombay and Jeddah. Other flights on Air India, the state-owned carrier, were added over time.

The Haj Committee of India, run by Mr Naqvi’s ministry, screened applicants for subsidised flights and allocated their travel dates. It also assisted pilgrims in finding affordable accommodation, meals and medical care in Saudi Arabia during the pilgrimage. No extra subsidies were extended for these expenses, however, and Mr Naqvi has not yet specified the future role of the committee or whether it will continue to provide logistical help to pilgrims.

In 2011, the year before the Supreme Court verdict, the Indian government spent 6.85 billion (Dh393.7 million) rupees on the programme, with 125,000 people receiving 54,800 rupees. That was a vast increase from 1994 when only 21,035 pilgrims were granted the 5,000 rupees payment.

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Since 2012, the expenditure has dwindled. Last year, the programme's cost fell to 2 billion rupees. However the number of Indians attending the Haj have continued to increase, to roughly 175,000, according to Mr Naqvi.

The opposition congress party welcomed Tuesday’s announcement, pointing out that it had stopped benefiting pilgrims as much as it once used to. “The normal fare from any part of India to Jeddah is 30,000 to 40,000 rupees,” Ghulam Nabi Azad, a Congress leader, told reporters on Wednesday.

Air India, however, charges much higher fares during Haj season, he pointed out. “They were raking in profits.”

But Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim member of parliament from Hyderabad and the president of a party called All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, said he was happy that the programme had been done away with.

“I’ve been saying since 2006 that this Haj subsidy money should be used for the education of Muslim children, especially girls,” he said, insisting Muslims would not be adversely affected.

But he also accused the BJP of double standards. The state, he said, continues to fund or subsidise several events for Hindu pilgrims. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP-run state government has just sanctioned 8 billion rupees to build infrastructure for pilgrims travelling to the temple towns of Ayodhya, Varanasi and Mathura.

The government of the state of Karnataka provides a subsidy of 20,000 rupees apiece for Hindus embarking on yatras—or pilgrimages—to the shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri in north India. Both federal and state governments spend billions of rupees to organise Kumbh Melas, the giant Hindu festivals that occur, in rotation, at four sites in India.

“If the Haj subsidy was appeasement for minorities, then are the funds spent on festivals and yatras also appeasement for the majority [community]?” Mr Owaisi asked.