A Nice Idea Fraught With Deadly Risks

Easing the burden of Hajis is a noble goal, but a lot of caution is required for endorsing the new move

Haj has been difficult for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land from distant countries in all ages. As recently as the first quarter of the 20th century, pilgrims from India were warned of pirates on the high seas and wandering bands of bedouin marauders on the land route via Iraq. Added to that constant danger were the issues of frequent sea sickness for Hajis going by the sea route (most of them did that only) and uncertainties plaguing the caravans on the land route. Before the advent of antibiotics during the World War II, a large number of pilgrim died from easily treatable infections like cholera, gastroenteritis,  typhoid and assorted health issues.

Making it easier, safer and affordable for an ever larger number of Muslims has always been the desire and effort of community leaders and Muslim governments everywhere in every age. Keeping that in view a one-day conference on the issue on June 19 in New Delhi seems an idea worthy of a hearty welcome. It is with efforts like this (although made generally by governments) that most of the difficulties have been overcome over the decades and centuries.

From the perspective of four generations, Yours Truly can vouch for the tremendous progress that has been made over the last eight to nine decades. Going on Haj pilgrimage in 1968 as a chaperon for grandma, I was told about how my great-grandfather and great-grandmother were written off as potentially dead when they were going for Haj as quite a few people routinely died while on pilgrimage.

Leaving for my Haj, I did not understand why we were being given tearful send-offs. When I was down with sea sickness, I had some idea of the difficulties. It took a pilgrim ship ten days to reach from Mumbai to Jeddah and another ten to get to Mumbai from Jeddah. Then you had to wait for weeks for your turn to board the ship which plied between the two port cities. Even the stay in the Holy Land seemed comfortable, the food agreeable and the climate like our own Rajasthan's, except Medina Munawwarah which had been pretty mellow all the time.

Our passports did not carry the warning about prospects of being attacked and looted that my great grandfather's and great grandmother's did so vividly. Within four generations things had eased considerably. The last time I went to the Holy Land (two years ago), it took only five hours of flight from Delhi to Jeddah (via Riyadh), which was an immense relief.

The Haj itself consists of some hardships which have been mitigated over the decades considerably. Such hardships cannot be removed completely even with the best efforts of the Saudis, Indian government, or its state or central Haj Committees. Some imperfection is inevitable, which does not mean that attempts at perfection should be dropped.

However, when it comes to supporting the line adopted under the leadership of Member of Parliament K Rahman Khan, I am for the cautious approach taken by Law Minister Salman Khursheed and Minister of State for External Affairs E Ahmad. There is no need to go overboard on every issue where the name of Islam is taken by people with mixed motives.

There are people, including reporters of some Urdu newspapers, who have reported the event with a pro-Tabong Haji slant and ill-disguised disapproval of the cautious attitude of the two ministers. We have got this old habit of hastily following every Pied Piper to our doom and regretting it when it is too late. We jump wildly on every new bandwagon that comes our way. We have to keep in mind that everybody in it is not there for the Love of Allah only. There are quite a few who are angling for worldly gains.

There are people who are coveting a Rajya Sabha seat, a peripheral position like chairmanship of some Minority Commission or Haj Committee, or a ministerial birth in the next Union Cabinet reshuffle. We cannot go by every word that they utter, every promise that they make, every castle they make in the air. Tabong Haji, an organisation with which Indians are hardly familiar, is being touted as a new idea.

We also have to keep in mind that a good share of such gestures are made to keep the state and central governments under the impression that people hungry for positions of power are the trusted representatives of Muslims of India. It is We, the Common Indian Muslims, who are used as saleable commodities without our consent, or, even knowledge.

This is a great political bazaar where people are being bought and sold without their knowledge or approval. We have to resist being sold. Nobody should be allowed to cash in on our sacred symbols. Nobody should be allowed to appoint himself our representative in government just because he has hosted one of the imams of the Ka'bah or dined with the chairman of Islamic Development Bank.

Of late, religious politics has grown among us as everyday, new players are joining it with new paper organisations and mischievous agendas. They are under the impression that it is the easiest route to influence, affluence and power.

The worst point of all this is that even upright, mainstream politicians have started copying the religious language and posturings of this class. A famous politician, not ready to be left behind in the religious one-upmanship of people deficient in Islamic character but with Islam written on their sleeves, chose to speak at the above-mentioned conference in a religious language. He should not have done that.

If respected ulama like Maulana Asghar Ali Imam Mahdi Salafi or Maulana Mahmood Madni use that language people take it as a marker of their piety because they use the same language in their drawing rooms, in class rooms, in public meetings and in their solitude. But if somebody who uses it only in public gatherings of an Islamic nature, he is a charlatan. Islam cannot be used as a special-effect device.

There is another, more serious dimension to it: it has people in it whose financial integrity is under a cloud. This is particularly ominous in view of the fact that the Forum for Haj Pilgrimage Management India wants Haj affairs under private control. It sends shivers down your spine if you consider the fearsome implications.

Think of the huge funds siphoned away by people who launched Al Falah, Al Meezan, Al Barkah and Amanat, all in the name of Islam. Putting Haj affairs under private control of persons with dubious integrity would be a lethal mistake. I reiterate: this is a trap to be avoided at all cost.

Everybody in the FHMRI does not have the financial background, integrity and wherewithal of Siraj Qureishi. Sadly, even he cannot control habitual financial offenders. My sincere advice: don't give the control of such a big affair as Haj to people who are not capable of running smaller operations like those mentioned above.

Finally, don't condemn the ministers, whatever their language or motive. They are right in advising caution. In any case, the Indian state is not easily going to abdicate its responsibility in favour of unproven private players.  

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 July 2012 on page no. 11

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