New Delhi: The Haj subsidy has often been raised by BJP leaders as an example of “Muslim appeasement”. Minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has now announced that the subsidy will be stopped, raising the question once again of whether it was an excuse to keep the national carrier, Air India (now in the initial stages of disinvestment), financially afloat. At the same time, while cancelling the Haj subsidy, the Centre and several states continue to spend thousands of crores of rupees on promoting the social and cultural activities – and religious pilgrimages – of other communities, especially Hindus.
Despite the subsidy being withdrawn, Naqvi said that a record 1.75 lakh Muslims would be going on the Haj pilgrimage from India this year. He added that the Saudi Arabian government has agreed in principle to allow the Haj journey from India by ships and the matter would soon be deliberated upon.
Naqvi was also quick to add that this withdrawal of the subsidy “is part of our policy to empower minorities with dignity and without appeasement”. He said that the decision was the outcome of the Supreme Court’s order on the matter six years ago: “A constitutional bench of the Supreme Court had, during the Congress regime in 2012, directed that the Haj subsidy be done away with. Hence, in the new policy, as per the recommendations of a committee, we have decided to do away with the Haj subsidy gradually.”
Much of Haj subsidy has financially supported airlines
But the issue of Haj subsidy has many layers to it, with many saying that the subsidy itself is nothing but an eyewash. Outlook magazine reported that while pilgrims were made to pay a “subsidised return airfare” of Rs 45,000, this was actually a rip-off since if booked well in advance, the Delhi-Jeddah return fare stood at only around Rs 30,000. So who was the subsidy meant for: those going on Haj or Air India?
In 2016-17, the Centre had only allocated Rs 450 crore for Haj. In fact, the subsidy amount has been decreasing since 2012, when the Supreme Court ruled that the subsidy be phased out in ten years.
At the time, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader Asaduddin Owaisi had in fact demanded that the subsidy be removed right away, saying it was actually being used only to sustain airlines companies.
Owaisi had also demanded that the money thus saved be used for social activities like educating girls and opening of more schools and hostels for them.
On their part, Air India officials say the higher fare during the Haj season is due to the fact that a large number of planes are deployed to essentially ferry passengers one way at the start of the Haj season but these planes return to India virtually empty. The same happens in reverse at the end of the season. This, they say, is the reason for higher fares. But Muslim critics of the Haj subsidy like Owaisi say the problem can be solved by ending Air India’s monopoly over the transportation of Hajis. “If a global tender is called, on lesser prices more people will go for Haj,” he said.
Centre, states spend huge sums on Kumbh, other festivals
While right-wing groups have repeatedly been raising the Haj subsidy issue in the media, what has escaped public scrutiny so far is the huge sum of money paid out by the Centre and state governments for various Hindu festivities and pilgrimages.
The Centre spends huge amounts to support the four Kumbh melas, which are held in Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain, and are attended by crores of people. In 2014, the Centre spent about Rs 1,150 crore on the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. And for the Nashik kumbh, the Maharashtra government had set aside a sum of Rs 2,500 crore.
Of course, the government of India also incurs expenditure in India and in Saudi Arabia in facilitating the journey of pilgrims and ensuring they have a safe Haj. The amount spent is not known but those sums are not considered to be part of the subsidy.
The Union culture ministry had also allocated Rs 100 crore to the Madhya Pradesh government for the Simhastha Mahakumbh, which is held in once in 12 years in Ujjain. The BJP-led Shivraj Singh Chouhan government had spent nearly Rs 3,400 crore on the event in 2016 and this is expected to rise to Rs 5,000 crore.
The Centre also spends significant amounts on the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra, for which the pilgrims travel through the Himalayas to Tibet.
State governments have also been spending large sums on various Hindu pilgrimages. Under Akhilesh Yadav, the Uttar Pradesh government began giving a grant of Rs 50,000 to pilgrims from the state to undertake the pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet, China. Under Yogi Adityanath, this has been raised to Rs 1 lakh. The Adityanath government also grants a Rs 10,000 subsidy to every pilgrim from the state going on the Sindhu Darshan in Ladakh, J&K. Several other states like Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand also financially support Kailash Mansarovar Yatra pilgrims from their state.
Apart from the Kumbh melas, the Centre and states also spend significant amounts on the Amarnath Yatra, as well as cleaning water bodies around the Navratri period, Ganesh Chaturthi and even Chhath Puja. Is this expenditure also likely to be abolished by the courts or the government?
Apart from the major Hindu festivals, state governments have also been spending huge sums on more local festivals. The Andhra Pradesh government organises the Godavari Pushkaram, the Madhya Pradesh government subsidises various pilgrimages through the Mukhyamantri Tirtha Darshan Yojana; the Jammu and Kashmir government supports the Amarnath yatra through the Amarnath Shrine Board; the Uttarakhand government spends on the Kanwar yatra; and Haryana had earmarked Rs 100 crore for the Geeta Festival in Kurukshetra.
In addition, governments have also been spending money on the construction and renovation of temples, erecting statues of various gods and goddesses, and even for organising havans to appease the rain gods and for paying the salaries of priests in certain temples. In such a scenario, much can be said about the withdrawal of the Haj subsidy – and the other government spending that continues unabated.