Given the BJP-RSS track record, it is natural to assume that the BJP-led government at the Centre is interested in withdrawing the subsidy that the government extends to Haj pilgrims. On the face of it, the government is acting on a 2012 Supreme Court order asking the Centre to withdraw this support to the pilgrims in a phased manner over a period of 10 years. The court order has its merits, and to that extent the decision to end the subsidy cannot be questioned.
As stated by minorities affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, this money would instead be channelled to a fund for education of needy Moslem girls. The idea obviously is good, and this is also seen against the backdrop of a serious move by those backing the Modi government to up the ante against Moslems in general, on various counts. The kind of deprivation that has come to mark the lives of Moslem women, not just in India but across the world, is a matter of serious global concern. The most fundamentalist of the Moslem societies are in the Middle East and more prominently in Saudi Arabia. But, there too, there have, of late, been winds of change, as in the grant of freedom to drive vehicles, visit stadiums to watch games and such activities. This change in the extreme orthodox kingdom of the Saudis could come about after the recent change of guard in the royal family of that country. It is likely that the Moslem women in India too, relatively more free, would appreciate decisions aimed at empowering them. That this governmental step comes close on the heels of introduction of the triple talaq bill to end the pernicious instant divorce system in Moslem community is notable. The bill has not passed the Parliament’s muster, but it is likely that it would, in one way or the other, pass through.
At the same time, some other moves are currently under way to help Haj pilgrims, such as introduction of sea travel facility for journey to Saudi Arabia and back. The Saudi government has agreed, in principle, to facilitate this endeavour. This is bound to reduce the travel expenses for those who cannot afford to travel by air. Notably, over a lakh and half of pilgrims are to go on Haj from India according to available figures for 2018-19. The reason cited by the Supreme Court in 2012 to stop Haj subsidy was also mainly of the high cost factor involved in air travel, due mainly to the regulations imposed by Saudi Arabia. Rather than tightening stipulations, the Saudi government could do well to simplify travel-related rules and help pilgrims from around the world to go and perform their life’s most sacred of duties. Also, in a new step, the Indian government has given clearance for women above age 45 to go on Haj pilgrimage without the accompaniment of male family members, but in groups of four or more women. How far this will be in consonance with the strict Moslem guidelines that the Saudi authorities might enforce has to be observed.
In India, notably, the subsidy for Haj pilgrimage has progressively been coming down, and currently stands at around Rs700 crore. The system started during the British era and the Congress government enlarged its provisions in 1959 through new legislation passed by Parliament. The number of pilgrims for Haj from India almost equals that of the pilgrims from the Islamic state of Pakistan. The Gulf boom and the money that comes to Indian Moslem families helped increase the numbers of pilgrims from India.
Also notably, the Supreme Court directive to end subsidy was passed by a Constitution Bench headed by a judge who was a Moslem himself. The exasperation on the part of sections of Moslem leaders on this count can well be understood. No one would gladly agree for withdrawal of a government or institutional facility that was enjoyed for long. When it comes to communities, there could be more of protests. And, there could now be complaints of interference by the government in the spiritual matters of that religion. Moslems as a community form a strong segment of the Indian society. National uplift or progress will not be easy unless government takes this segment along too and removes misgivings where there is scope for these. In this case too, it is important that the government makes positive efforts to take the Moslem elders into confidence and make matters clear to them before rolling back the subsidy.