The government’s decision to abolish the existing subsidy on the annual Haj pilgrimage taken up by Muslims has drawn some stiff criticism from opposition parties. The Congress, which was initially guarded in its response, has upped the ante against the decision. The Congress’ Kerala unit demanded that the central government continue with the Haj subsidy, terming its removal as yet another offensive against the minority community.
The BJP, however, maintains that its decision is in compliance with a Supreme Court judgment in 2012 directing the Centre to do away with Haj pilgrimage subsidies and part of the government’s vision to empower minorities without appeasing them. Minority Affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said the funds would instead be used for minority education. “We believe in empowerment without appeasement,” Naqvi said, adding, “Development with dignity is what we believe in. The Haj subsidy will be used for educating girls.”
What is Haj Subsidy?
Haj subsidy, which refers to discounted airfares given to Mecca-bound pilgrims who fly by government-owned Air India and included assistance for domestic travel within India to reach special airport terminals meant for Haj departure, finds its genesis in the British era. The programme was later expanded through the Haj Committee Act of 1959.
According to The Indian Express, while the subsidy was initially given only for flights between Mumbai and Jeddah, other flight routes were added later. Since 1984, Haj-bound traffic had been shared by Air India and Saudi Arabia.
How figures stack up
A look at official figures shows that subsidies for the annual Haj pilgrimage have dwindled under successive governments in the past five years. As per government figures, the subsidy given in the last few years stood at Rs 782 crore in 2012, Rs 575 crore in 2013, Rs 477 crore in 2014, Rs 401 crore in 2015, Rs 284 crore in 2016 and Rs 200 crore in 2017. For 2018, the Haj Committee had proposed a subsidy of Rs 305 crore.
Till 2017, the notional savings following the gradual abolition of subsidy since 2012 was to tune of Rs 636.56 crore, PTI reported, citing sources in the minority affairs ministry. The total national savings would have have been around Rs 5,970.6 crore by 2022, had the government chosen to continue reducing the subsidy at the same rate, it added.
What SC said in 2012
In 2012, the Supreme Court, citing the Quran, ruled: “We…direct the Central Government to progressively reduce the amount of subsidy so as to completely eliminate it within a period of 10 years from today. The subsidy money may be more profitably used for upliftment of the community in education and other indices of social deployment.”
How political parties reacted
Political reactions to the move have, however, been largely critical of the BJP-led central government. Congress leader and former Kerala CM Oommen Chandy termed it as the most unfortunate and called for it to be reversed. “Giving subsidy for Haj is historically relevant and has been going on for ages. This is a clear act of targeting the minority community and will disturb the secular fabric of our country and hence should be reversed,” he said.
This response, however, was contrary to the stand taken by the party’s central leadership. Addressing a press conference on Tuesday, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said: “Government withdrew Haj subsidy 4 years before the date prescribed by SC, we don’t have any issue. First part of SC judgement has been implemented by Government Of India. I am sure the second part of the judgement will also be implemented. Let it be clear that Hajis are not benefited by the subsidy, airlines are.”
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) said the government’s decision on revoking Haj subsidy has no meaning as there was no such concession and Muslims were being cheated in its name.
AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi said the subsidy had to be stopped since it was a Supreme Court judgment. “But it is important to see where the funds saved will be utilised. Will they increase the allocation of funds for scholarships to Muslim girls? The verdict is around the corner. Let’s see if the government makes a separate allocation for funds to scholarships to Muslims, especially girls,” he said.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, on the other hand, welcomed the move and demanded that the subsidy savings be allocated towards the education of Hindu girls.