Not unlike the pending legislation to ban triple talaq, the central government’s decision to abolish the Haj subsidy is as per the directions of the highest court in the land. So, those decrying the ruling BJP for acting against the Muslim community, ought to stop ascribing base motives. In 2012, a bench of the Supreme Court had directed the government to withdraw the Haj subsidy over a period of ten years.
Significantly, the judgment was written by Justice Aftab Alam, and, no less significantly, the government in power at the time was the Congress Party-led UPA. Indeed, sections of the Muslims themselves had openly called for an end to the subsidy. There were certain religious injunctions as well, which apparently suggested that Haj could be done only by those who could themselves pay for it, and not on borrowed money or alms. Admittedly, the amount of money allocated for the subsidy was relatively small, reflected in the fact that a mere 0.1 per cent of the total Muslim population had undertaken the pilgrimage to Mecca-Medina in the last decade. Aside from the country-specific quota allocated by Saudi Arabia each year for the Haj, the amount of subsidy too acted as a constraint on the number of Indian Muslims going for the Haj.
Yet, it was undeniable that during the political discourse the subsidy attracted a lot of adverse comment, especially from sections of the polity which complained about the appeasement of the minorities for the sake of votes. That there was manipulation of the process whereby the annual lists for the grant of the Haj subsidy were drawn was also not in doubt. Sensing the mood in the country, and the directions of the apex court, the Central Haj Committee itself called for the abolition of the subsidy at its last meeting a couple of months ago. Though, rabid elements like Asaduddin Owaisi, the Lok Sabha member belonging to the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, have questioned the abolition of the subsidy, by and large most political parties have welcomed the move. Curiously, the Kerala leadership of the Congress Party condemned the withdrawal, whereas Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha, welcomed it.
The abolition of the Haj subsidy has naturally turned attention to various subsidies and concessions that numerous State governments offer to members of the other religious groups, including Hindus, of course, for pilgrimages. These could become controversial following the abolition of the Haj subsidy. For instance, the MP government has a scheme, Mukhya Mantri Teerth Darshan Yojana, which allows non-income-tax-paying senior citizens to visit various religious places such as Rameshwaram, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Shridhi, Ajmer, etc. One lakh people from the State are entitled to avail of the subsidised pilgrimage each year.
Already, this year nearly 90,000 people, selected by a draw of lots at district headquarters, have done the pilgrimage under this scheme. Most other States too have similar schemes. Maybe in the coming days, a PIL will question the continuance of these schemes in view of the abolition of the Haj subsidy. A general policy on such subsidies by the States should be framed, which ought not to offend the sensibilities of any one particular religious group.