The practice of providing subsidy to Haj pilgrims had started in the British era.
The 1932 Port Haj Committees Act allowed government funds for the Haj pilgrims going via the Mumbai and Kolkata ports. The Haj Committee Act that was passed in independent India in 1959 was a continuation of the provisions related to subsidy in the British Act. According to this Act, those who go on a pilgrimage through the Haj Committee of India are given concessions in the air fare. This is the reality of Haj subsidy which is highlighted by the Sangh Parivar as a major evidence of Muslim appeasement.
However, it is when one delves deeper into its details that the deceptions come to light. Haj services are operated by Air India or any other company in agreement with it. In other words, it is the monopoly of Air India. If an open tender is floated, so that other companies as well get an opportunity to operate the Haj services, the fare would be significantly reduced. The Haj pilgrims may even be able to travel at a fare lower than the subsidy rate. Instead, Haj subsidy is only a deceptive practice carried out by fixing a big amount as fare for the Haj travel, and giving Air India a monopoly over it. This means that Haj subsidy is only a gratis given to Air India by the government in the name of the Haj pilgrims. It’s the Muslims who bear the brunt of gratis given to Air India. Except as a tool for communal propaganda for the Sangh Parivar, ever adept at carrying out politics by lying constantly and frequently, the Haj subsidy does not hold any more relevance. And therefore the decision of the Central Government on January 16 cancelling the Haj subsidy, need not at all evoke apprehensions among the Hajis or the Muslims. But there are narrow-minded agenda hidden in the decision; it conceals certain realities. They should be brought to light.
For a Haj pilgrim, the government charges double the amount required for an ordinary visit to Saudi Arabia. The justification they give for this is that the flights would be empty while returning after dropping the pilgrims and also while going to pick the pilgrims. If the authorities are willing to provide tickets at concessional rates to Saudi where lakhs of Indians make their livelihood and back, it can attract passengers and the issue of planes flying empty can be avoided. Haj is obligatory only for those who are physically and financially capable. It is not a ritual which should be carried out with the mercy of strangers. The verdict by the Supreme Court bench of Justices Aftab Alam and Justice Ranjana P Desai in May 2012 that the Haj subsidy should be eliminated by 2022 was also upholding this spirit of Shariat. The court also directed to use the money for social upliftment of the Muslim community. The Muslim organisations have not opposed that verdict.
But the latest government decision withdrawing haj subsidy does not emerge from any high moral ground. Nor is it an outcome of a secular modernism dictating that funds from state treasury should not be given for religious ceremonies. If it were so, the government should have stopped allocating large amounts for Hindu pilgrimages like journeys to Amarnath and Manasasarovar. Crores of rupees are spent from the exchequer on the Kumbh mela in Nasik, Ujjain and Allahabad which no body has questioned. And no Muslim organization has portrayed them as Hindu appeasement. In the Indian context which allows prominence to religious ceremonies, no quarter has raised rigid secular objections. That being so, the decision to stop haj subsidy alone is a clear discrimination. It just fits into the Centre's anti-Muslim trade mark, and will serve to hide the international contradictions within the Hindutva parivar and to appease their extremists.
The court order was to do away with haj subsidy by 2022 in a phased manner. The abrupt withdrawal of subsidy without waiting for that deadline makes the government's motive clear. The court verdict had also directed that the amount used for subsidy should be used for the uplift of the Muslim community. It would be worthwhile to probe what percentage of the amount dervied from the reduced subsidy over the last few years was spent in this direction. Further, there should be a watch on whether such amount is spent in the manner prescribed by the court in the years to come. But haj subsidy has come to be nothing but a political tool. Therefore, instead of demanding its reinstatement, Muslims have to see this as an opportunity to lay bare the exploitation happening behind the curtain of subsidy. There should be effective pressure on the government to put an end to the fleecing through exorbitant air fares. But the worst exploitation surrounding haj is related to the private haj operators. And because it is a goldmine for everyone, no government is prepared to move a finger against it. The real need of the time is an earnest endeavour to put an end to all swindling including that, and to make haj more transparent and free from exploitation.