Coming out against the government policy of subsidies to pilgrims going for Haj to the holy city of Makkah in Saudi Arabia every year, an apex court bench of Justices Aftab Alam and R.P. Desai also cut the strength of the goodwill delegation sent by the government from 30 to two.
The court said that the goodwill delegation sent by the government every year to Makkah would comprise only two members - its leader and the deputy leader.
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.
The court also sought details from the state-level Haj committees and the Haj Committee of India as to how subsidy was given and what the total expenditure on it was.
The apex court said this while pronouncing its judgment on the central government's petition challenging the Oct 5, 2011 High Court judgment by which it directed the government to give its remaining quota of 800 Haj pilgrims to private operators so that this did not go unutilised.
The gradual end of the Haj subsidy, which has been operational since 1954 in India, and helps more than 100,000 pilgrims every year saw several clerics welcome the move while others said it would impact on poor Muslims. The subsidy has often been described as "vote-bank politics".
A section of Muslim clerics said such a subsidy is illegal under Islamic Sharia laws, as it is stipulated that a Haj pilgrim should travel to Makkah and Madinah bearing the costs from their own earnings.
"A Haj is undertaken only if you have the money, are in good health, and have performed all your duties towards your family. Going on a Haj with money you borrowed from someone is absolutely prohibited," Shahi Imam of Delh's Fatehpuri Masjid Mukarram Ahmed told IANS.
This view was supported by Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid Syed Ahmed Bukhari.
Sunni community leader Haji Khalid Rasheed felt a little differently and told IANS: "We have asked the government to axe the subsidy but to alternately follow it up with open tendering of air tickets."
"We have to study the ruling and to see that the ruling does not hit the poor Muslims who would be deprived of their holy Haj if the subsidy is withdrawn," Shia cleric Kalbe Jawwad told IANS.
Wasim Ahmad, Uttar Pradesh minister for basic education, agreed and said the ruling would deprive the poor Muslims of their Haj pilgrimage.
The Haj Committee of India (HCI) has received over 300,000 applications every year since 2009. The government provided subsidised air fare to 120,131 pilgrims in 2009, to 126,191 pilgrims in 2010, and 125,051 pilgrims in 2011.
It spent Rs.690 crore in 2009, Rs.600 crore in 2010 and Rs.605 crore in 2011, according to the figures government provided to parliament last month. These subsidy figures do not include the service tax paid for each of the pilgrim's trip to Makkah and Madinah.
In the inaugural year, Air India operated flights between the then Bombay and Jeddah. But progressively Haj flights operations were extended from Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and other major airports in the country.
The subsidy was introduced to Haj pilgrimage in view of the high cost of chartered air travel - twice the normal fare - due to flights returning empty to India after carrying the pilgrims to Jeddah or flying empty to Jeddah to bring back the pilgrims.
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