Haj subsidy: A tool to aid Air India?
Muslim bodies across the nation have argued that Islam does not promote subsidy for Haj and it is a strategy to sustain the loss-making national carrier.
Every year, Muslims across the country go for Haj pilgrimage for which the government provides them with Haj subsidies. However, abiding by the Supreme Court ruling in 2012, to phase out the subsidy by 8 May 2022, the government has withdrawn the subsidy it provided for the pilgrimage from this year. The Supreme Court in its ruling upheld that the subsidy was not only unconstitutional but was also contradictory to the principles of the Holy Quran.
The withdrawal of the subsidy has been welcomed by different Muslim bodies across the nation have argued that Islam does not promote subsidy for Haj and it is a strategy to sustain the loss-making national carrier. According to these bodies, Islam does not promote subsidy for Haj, as it is obligatory for only those Muslims who can afford it. Islam does not support taking loans or subsidies from individuals or the government to fulfil their religious duties.
“I believe this is a welcome move that has been accepted by all sections, especially since the saved amounts are to be used to benefit the minorities through education and related activities” Dr. Shashi Tharoor, INC Lok Sabha MP
General Secretary of the Muslim Personal Law Board, Maulana Wali Rahmani expressed, “The subsidy was not given to those going on Haj, but it was for Air India that is running in losses. It was eyewash.” The critics of Haj subsidy also argue that if the tickets for Haj were pre-booked, the airfare would automatically fall. In 2017, the Hajis who travelled to Jeddah through The Haj Committee of India (HCOI), had to pay ₹2,19,900 which included the subsidized return airfare. However, research reveals that during such a peak season, the Delhi-Jeddah return air fare, if pre-booked, would only cost ₹30,000. What then, was the subsidy for? To sustain Air India, or to appease the minorities, the politics of subsidies, continued all this while by the government in the name of empowerment. However, Union Minister for Minority Affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi stated, “Muslims didn’t benefit from it (subsidy)…We believe in empowerment without appeasement.”
In 2017, the Hajis who travelled to Jeddah through The Haj Committee of India (HCOI), had to pay ₹2,19,900 which included the subsidized return airfare. However, research reveals that during such a peak season, the Delhi-Jeddah return air fare, if pre-booked, would only cost ₹30,000. What then, was the subsidy for?
Air India officials, in their defense said, the fares were high because the planes would return empty from Saudi Arabia to India and that the same would happen in reverse, at the end of the season. Critics of Haj subsidy suggested shutting the monopoly of Air India over transportation of Hajis and that the government should float global tenders for all flights. As a result, due to intense competition, the fares will come down, which will directly benefit the people. They argue that the Haj subsidy must not be used as a marketing strategy to sustain Air India, in the name of empowering and benefiting the minorities.
The government spent ₹420 crores in 2016 and ₹225 crores in 2017 on cheaper air tickets, which they now plan to divert towards welfare-oriented activities for the minorities like education of girls, setting up of schools and hostels. A new Haj policy has also been framed by a committee, headed by former bureaucrat Afzal Amanullah, which suggests that women above the age of 45 years will, from this year, be allowed to go on Haj without ‘Mehram’ or male escorts.
The matter of Haj subsidy being provided to either appease or empower, a community, is just one case out of a lot. The Supreme Court, as rightly pointed out in the 2012 judgment opined that we cannot be “oblivious of the fact that in many other purely religious events there are direct and indirect deployment of state funds and state resource.” The government, of both Centre and State, bear expenses of religious pilgrimages of other communities as well. The central funds are channelled through the states, to sponsor pilgrimage to Kumbhmelas, Kailash Manasarovar Yatra, Sindhu Yatra, Ajmer Sharif and many others which should ideally be done away with, for the social and political development of the society at large. The notion of separation of politics and religion, and private and public affairs, must be followed to make India, secular in its truest sense.