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EDITORIAL: 16-31 March 2001

Hajj Subsidy

The annual subsidy incurred on the Hajj, pilgrimage to Makkah, amounting to Rs 150 crore (US$ 33m) this year, has been criticized by an Arab official who is said to have expressed the view that the subsidy goes against the spirit of the Shari’ah. This was leaked to a Delhi newspaper and was lapped up by the Hindutvites, ever-eager to find an issue to embarrass Muslims.

Leaking the story the paper claimed that the Qur'an specifically insists that the pilgrimage must be done from ‘within’ the pilgrim’s own resources and gave the fatwa that one's pilgrimage may not be ‘accepted by God’ if expenditure on transport to the Hajj holy sites and on food is not out of the the pilgrim’s own money. The paper also disclosed that in 1997 even Pakistan discontinued government subsidies to Hajj pilgrims. After this introduction the paper disclosed that the Ministry of External Affairs, which is the apex body that deals with the pilgrimage, has ‘over the last few years’ [i.e., since BJP came to power!] has argued that the subsidy be gradually discontinued, 'but the government hasn’t been able to take a decision on the matter.'

New Delhi’s subsidy for the Hajj began only in 1993, the year after the Babri Masjid demolition, when the then prime minister Narasimha Rao used it as a sop in the hope of 'assuaging' the Muslim community which had deserted the Congress Party en masse in the wake of the Babri sacrilege and the communal riots that followed all over the country.

Before we move further let us clarify that there had never been any plea on the part of any Muslim individual or body, however poor or small, to the government to defray Hajj expenses, and the subsidy was introduced voluntarily only to persuade Muslims to accept the mode of air travel after the government itself for whatever reason had decided to discontinue sea voyage to Jeddah which, traditionally and historically, was the usual mode of Hajj travel for Indian pilgrims. In 1993, the price for the pilgrim’s airfare was fixed at Rs 12,000 and the additional subsidy per person then amounted to Rs 2,000. Ever since the government has been defraying the travel cost per pilgrim in excess of Rs 12,000. This year, the subsidy came to an additional Rs 20,000 per person, amounting to Rs 150 crore. Let it also be clear that this subsidy is paid only to around 60 percent Indian pilgrims going through the Haj Committee, an official organization of the Indian government, while around 40 percent going through commercial operation are denied this subsidy.

There has been a consistent complaint from Indian Muslims that the subsidy is grossly hiked in order to make way for huge kickbacks and malpractices. The normal round-trip airfare for Delhi-Jeddah-Delhi sector through commercial carriers is around Rs 23,000 but the chartered flights on the same route are costing the Haj Committee Rs 32,000! Everyone except the government of India knows that chartered flights are always cheaper than normal commercial flights. We raised this issue even last year and there was hue and cry which, as is normal in India, quickly died down.

It should also be made clear that there is no religious ban on accepting subsidy from the government which is bound to take care of all its citizens especially while going abroad in large numbers. The government of India spends huge amounts on the administration of internal pilgrimage by Hindus, for instance to Vaishnu Devi, Allahabad and other tirths. The Indian government also bears huge costs to facilitate pilgrimage of Hindus and Sikhs going to Pakistan for religious pilgrimage.

The Qur'an nowhere says that the pilgrimage should be done from 'within the pilgrim’s own resources.’ It only says that Hajj is obligatory for whoever 'can make it' (Surah 3, verse 97). The Saudi government invites over a thousand people from all over the world to perform pilgrimage at its own expenses. Traditionally many people go on Hajj paid by others. Indian Muslims did not demand the Hajj subsidy and they will not demand its withdrawal either. If the government decides to withdraw it, it will have to withdraw all similar subsidies and facilities provided by official agencies to pilgrims at home.

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