Sumera B Reshi
January is gone, so gone are the privileges given by the government of India since 1959 to Muslims for performing Hajj. Muslim pilgrims will no longer be given subsidy on Hajj from 2018. The decision was announced by Minister for Minority Affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. However, the subsidy funds will be used for educational empowerment of girls and women of minority community added Naqvi.
In 2017, the Ministry of Minority Affairs constituted a committee to review the Hajj policy and suggest a framework for a new Haj policy for 2018-22. “A constitutional bench of the Supreme Court had, during the Congress regime in 2012, directed that the Haj subsidy is done away with. Hence, in the new policy, as per the recommendations of a committee, we have decided to do away with the Haj subsidy gradually,” said Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
“We believe in empowerment without appeasement,” said Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. However, he didn’t explain “appeasement” properly. The big question arises is that has Modi government abolished subsidies on all religious activities or just on Haj? Also was the pilgrimage to Makkah ever subsidized in real terms? There are many raised eyebrows vis a vis Haj subsidy. Critics are doubtful of the benefits of the Haj subsidy.
As per the documents, the government budget for 2016-17 was Rs. 4.5 billion for 100,000 Muslims who performed Haj last year. Every pilgrim had to pay Rs. 220,000 for airfare, accommodation and miscellaneous expenses. This money is paid to the government-managed Haj committees which then transfers the money to various agencies. In reality, every Muslim pays for his/her own Haj expenses.
Observers believe that in the name of subsidy, a substantial chunk of money paid by Muslims goes to India’s government-owned national carrier – Air India which enjoys an implicit domination on Haj circuit. The government here makes a point to prove that it provides the subsidy to Muslim pilgrims by saying that the actual expenses incurred by Muslims are more than what they pay.
Thus the government chips in with a subsidy slogan and show off the appeasement drama. Usually, it has been observed Air India inflates India-Jeddah airfare during the Hajj season. Thus, according to the government version of the subsidy story, the government of India (GOI) pays for the tickets that are always higher than any airfare from other private carriers and part of the subsidy goes to loss-making airline coffers. Thus actual subsidy is much lesser. Policy analysts believe that Air India ticket to Jeddah costs more than a trip to Los Angeles from India.
They believe that the government takes money from one pocket and puts it back in another one. Nonetheless, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi claims that his party placates none yet his government spends billions of rupees in organizing Hindu pilgrimages every year. So it is clear that the Modi government has done away with Haj subsidy only and this policy makes the above-mentioned quote by Nelson Mandela applicable to minorities in India especially Muslims.
Haj subsidy was extended to Muslims by the government in the form of airfare only. The program was initiated by the British in 1932 but expanded by the Government of India in 1959 with Haj Act. All the Haj traffic has been shared by Air India and Saudia (Saudi Arabia’s national carrier) and since then the monopoly of these airlines has proven the most belligerent one.
Some Muslims object to the subsidy by claiming that the actual beneficiary is Air India and not the pilgrims. Moreover, a chunk of Muslim populace favor the move and request the withdrawal of the subsidy as it is against Islam. In Islam, one who can afford has to perform Haj, else it is not an obligation.
Haj subsidy was used by BJP to embarrass rival political parties of pacifying Muslims by subsidizing expenses involved in the pilgrimage to Makkah & Madina. Also, it targeted Muslims for being a beneficiary of government aid to fulfil their religious obligations. The accusation was not acceptable to Muslims, therefore they demanded to end the privilege which actually wasn’t in their favor.
Since long, the Haj subsidy has come under heavy criticism, particularly because of the monopoly formed by Air India in carrying out the pilgrimage. Allegedly, the government subsidies have resulted in major profits for Air India, benefiting the airlines far more than the pilgrims. According to several critics, if a pilgrim book air travel months in advance, it is possible to buy cheaper air tickets, thereby doing away with the need for subsidy.
Some of the political parties have also called the subsidy as minority appeasement. In a Central Haj Committee meeting in November 2017, it was decided that Haj subsidy will be completely phased out in 2018 and funds will be utilized on educational programs especially for girl children of the minority community. On 16th January 2018 Union minister for minority affairs said that the Haj subsidy has been completely taken off (Rs 700 crore) and this amount will be made used for educational purposes of the children belonging to the minority.
Furthermore, Naqvi cited a host of measures, such as providing jobs and job opportunities to 8.5 lakh minority youth and scholarships to 1.83 crore students, to claim that the BJP-led NDA government has been working to empower minorities. In reality, how far will the Modi government and Minority Affairs Ministry walk the talk is a debatable question and its answer lies with the future, not with the figures mentioned by Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
Valson Thampu, former principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi and former member of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI), makes a point here that the very idea that the funds saved from the Haj subsidy will be used to educate Muslim children is a bait to the public and a barb to the community.
“I wonder how many are convinced that the only way the government can boost the educational profile of Indian Muslims is by re-routing Haj subsidy. One need does not have to be met – except in times of famine and starvation – at the expense of another. An attitude of uncharity lurks behind assumptions to the contrary,” wrote Thampu in an article.
Citing government data, the Congress leader Ahmad Patel said during 2014-17, the grant for Hajj has been reduced from Rs. 401 crore to Rs. 200 crore. He went on to say that the Centre should give an account of how it plans to expend the remaining Rs. 200 crore in welfare schemes for Muslims.
“I sincerely hope that this reduction in outlay by nearly Rs. 200 crore has been matched by an increased investment in the welfare of the community, as mandated by the Hon’ble Supreme Court. I hope that the Ministry has implemented the guidelines of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in letter and spirit and if possible share details of such expenditure,” Patel wrote.
So what is the subsidy amount?
Every year Muslims avail the Haj subsidy. Since 2000, over 1.5 million Muslims have used the subsidy; since 2008, over 120,000 Muslims availed the opportunity. The average airfare subsidy was about Rs. 73,526 (US$1,200) per Muslim pilgrim in 2008; while the average non-airfare financial assistance was Rs. 2,697 (US$42) per pilgrim. The total subsidy provided by the Government of India was US$1,815 per Muslim pilgrim in 2008.
The amount of subsidy varies depending on the category of accommodation and airport charges from the point of embarkation. In 2014, the subsidized airfare charged for Haj per pilgrim was Rs. 35,000, while the actual amount was anything between Rs. 63,750 and Rs. 1, 64,350 depending on the point of boarding. By 2016, the amount paid by each pilgrim had risen to Rs. 45,000.
In 2017, the Haj subsidy was cut down by almost 50 per cent of the expected cost. After the 2012 Supreme Court order to phase out the subsidy in the next ten years, the government had been steadily declining the amount of subsidy offered to Haj pilgrims each year. Between 2012 and 2017, a total of 6, 71,388 Muslims went on the pilgrimage through Haj Committee of India (HCOI) and 2, 12,490 through private operators. The quota remained at 1.36 lakh till 2016 and increased to 1.7 lakh pilgrims in 2017.
Certainly, Haj subsidy was a hoax and even Naqvi admitted that Haj subsidy didn’t benefit Muslims much so then why exaggerate that the subsidy will be abolished in total. Surely, government carrier – Air India will be in a sorry state instead of Haj pilgrims and now government must invite private players to provide transport and logistics for Haj pilgrims to enhance the services. By doing so, it can prove the point that all these years the subsidy was a burden on the exchequer and a tool to appease the Muslim minority. Masses will get to know did the government rescued Haj pilgrims in the guise of subsidy or its own carrier Air India which is ailing since long and Haj subsidy was a short-term cure for it.