A divided house

The Supreme Court on Tuesday, directed the Central Government to gradually reduce the Hajj subsidy and eliminate it in another 10 years. While some Muslim leaders and scholars have welcomed this move, a section of the Muslim community is upset with the Supreme Court’s decision on Hajj subsidy. In a press conference held at the Press Club in the city yesterday, Mumbai based Muslim Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and groups have voiced their concern over the apex court’s decision to do away with Hajj subsidy.

Pilgrims from all over the world: An aerial view shows Muslim pilgrims walking around the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque of the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia during the annual Hajj pilgrimage rituals last year. PIC/AFP

Said Mahmud Dariyabadi, Secretary General, All India Ulema Council, “Subsidy is our right so why should subsidy be phased out for Hajjis? If subsidy is curbed, then any form of religious subsidy should be done away with. We believe that instead of phasing out subsidy, an inquiry commission should look into the way subsidy is being utilised during Hajj. There should be a global tender floated and whichever airline gives the cheapest fare should get the contract. Subsidy should be awarded on this fare. Also a Hajji must know how much subsidy he/she is getting. Hence the process becomes transparent.” What needs to be realised is, “end of subsidy means—the Hajjis will be at the mercy of Private Tour Operators (PTOs) who can now charge exorbitant amounts for the trip,” said Dariyabadi. Maulana Burhanuddin Qasmi, Director of Markazul Maarif Education and Research Centre added, “Privatising Hajj will make the religious trip beyond the reach of Hajjis who are poor.”

Demand: Mahmud Dariyabadi (centre), Secretary General, All India Ulema Council makes a point during the press conference. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi

The Supreme Court also directed that ‘the subsidy money may be more profitably used for upliftment of the community in education and other indices of social development’. Dariyabadi clarified, “Even if the Government is setting aside an amount to help the minority community, there is no guarantee that the amount will reach the people who deserve it. This is simply because of the corruption that is part of the system.”

Press conference panelists welcomed apex court’s decision to cut the strength of the goodwill delegation, sent by the Government along with the pilgrims every year, from 30 to two (see box). When a member of the audience mentioned that according to the Quran, one should undertake Hajj only if one could afford it as the apex court had rightly pointed it out, Qasmi clarified, “The subsidy taken from the Government is in the form of a gift and there is nothing wrong in it. The tradition of subsidy has been there for the last 19 years and no authoritative Muslim institute has ever objected to it.” The organizations therefore demanded that

>> an immediate review petition should be filed in this regard
>> the Hajj Committee of India be entrusted with whole Hajj operation from India to Saudi Arabia
>> distribution of Hajj quota and other public-interest matters be more transparent
>> air-ferrying must be made through global tendering system to choose the best offer and best services so that the benefit goes directly to the Hajjis
>> to initiate an empowered inquiry commission to probe huge Hajj scandal in the past years and book those responsible

>> The Supreme Court on Tuesday favoured doing away with the Hajj subsidy and directed the Government to eliminate the financial sops extended to pilgrims in the next 10 years. The court said, "We are also not oblivious of the fact that in many other purely religious events there are direct and indirect deployment of state funds and state resources. Nevertheless, we are of the view that Hajj subsidy is something that is best done away with."
>> The court said that, "the subsidy money may be more profitably used for upliftment of the community in education and other indices of social development".
>> The judges also cut the strength of the goodwill delegation, sent by the government along with the pilgrims every year, from 30 to two.
>> The court took note that in 2011 each Hajj pilgrim was charged Rs 16,000 towards air fare and the government paid to the airlines an additional amount of Rs 38,000 per Hajji — the amount termed as "subsidy". In 2011, 125,000 Indians undertook the pilgrim.
>> India provides subsidy to over one lakh pilgrims who go to Makkah and Madina annually and spends over Rs 600 crore ($120 million) every year on the pilgrimage.

'Do away with subsidy'
Many Muslim leaders and scholars have hailed the SC’s decision to do away with Hajj subsidy. Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali, Professor of Islamic Studies at St Xavier’s College said, “Whatever amount the Government was providing to the Muslim community as subsidy was going to the specific airline. Instead, the Government should use that money for the upliftment of Muslim women by investing in schools and their education. Why should any particular airline derive benefit from it?” Mubarak Kapdi, an educationist from Dongri echoes a similar sentiment. “We don’t want subsidy. On the contrary, we demand educational grants from the Government, which can help non-aided Muslim institutions. In fact why should one wait for 10 years, the subsidy should stop immediately.”

Attar Azeem, a social worker and a Right to Information (RTI) activist from Mumbra said that end of subsidy will also ensure the end of monopoly of specific travel agents and tour operators, which are favoured by the Government. “The subsidy given to Hajjis was mainly to benefit Air India and was a mere eyewash. Air India got bulk bookings for months. There are some travel agents and tour operators, which are favoured by the Government. Hence, they can arrange for maximum number of tickets. These travel agencies in turn extort higher fees from Hajjis. End of subsidy will ensure transparency as one will be free to choose any travel agent and can travel by any airline he/she wants to,” added Azeem.

Doctor Asghar Ali Engineer, Islamic scholar too emphasizes that planes should be hired for Hajjis and open tender should be floated. He clarified, “According to Quran, Hajj is not obligatory for those who cannot afford it or are poor. Only if one can afford it, should he/she go for Hajj. Often Hindu right wing political parties have spoken about the Hajj subsidy, as a special concession given to the Muslim community. The subsidy issue has been raised particularly during election campaigns. This, I believe will stop now. On the economic front, it has been worked out by Muslim leaders that if one is given an option of choosing any airline to travel for Hajj, then the cumulative cost of performing Hajj is much less than what the Government is charging now from Hajjis. Infact the Government should cut down its expenditure during other religious occasions too. The money should be invested in education and other purposes.”

Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali concurs, “According to Islam, people who can afford the trip should go for Hajj, it is not mandatory. So those who cannot afford to pay for their trip should not go for Hajj. The Government should now invite open tenders and the airline, which provides the cheapest fare, should be allowed to carry Hajj pilgrims.” Talking about vote bank politics, Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali further added, “While many political parties might see providing subsidy as part of vote bank politics, one must realise that a Hajji goes for Hajj for spiritual cleansing and becoming a better human being. There is no place for politics here.”

What is hajj subsidy?
Hajj subsidy is an airfare subsidy given to Indian Muslim Hajj pilgrims. Pilgrims applying through the Hajj Committee of India are offered the concessionary fare. The Government of India paid the subsidy to Air India, but in 2010, the Centre got three Saudi airlines —Saudi Arabian Airlines, Al-Wafeer Air and NAS Air — to fly Hajj pilgrims. 

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