March  2001 
Cover Story

Should the Haj subsidy go?

Yes, say a large number of Muslims. But what about the mahakumbh 
and Amarnath yatra, others ask. 

Dear Zaka, I hope all is  well with you. You will  doubtless be surprised  to find a Rs.10 note enclosed with this letter.  This is a loan I took  from you nearly 35 years ago. As I intend to go for haj this year (Inshaallah), I am clearing all my debts. Things were so bad for me between 1964 and 1972 that I was hardly in my senses. Then, when it got better, I partly felt embarrassed returning such a tiny sum; partly distance was the excuse. In any case, please forgive me for my negligence. And please pray to Allah that he accept my haj. Ameen.
AU Siddiqui, Mira Road, Thane, Mumbai.

(A letter that ‘Zakabhai’, the proprietor of Fourways Travels, Mumbai, received from his long lost friend several months ago). 

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal want the government of India to stop its subsidy to haj pilgrims. Last month, the BJP-led Union government decided to hike the subsidy amount by over Rs.900 per haji compared to the amount paid last year. At Rs.20,000 per pilgrim, the subsidy for 72,000 hajis cost the government a total of around Rs.148 crore.

Not surprisingly, the announcement was greeted with the following from the national convenor of the Bajrang Dal, Surendra Jain: “If this is not vote bank politics, then why are they not extending the subsidy to Mansarovar (China) and Nankana Sahib (Pakistan) pilgrims.” While castigating his own saffron sibling, Jain also “appealed” to the “Muslim community” not to avail of the “extravagant” subsidy.

In support of its oft-repeated demand, the sangh parivar has found a formidable ally — Saudi Arabia. A report published in the February 26 issue of The Indian Express quotes both the Saudi ambassador to India, A. Rahman N. Alohaly, and the Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al-Faisal, trying to impress upon the Indian delegation accompanying India’s foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, during his tour of Saudi Arabia in January, that any state subsidy for haj pilgrimage is “wrong”. ``Our ulema will help you in explaining to your people that the subsidy goes against the spirit of the Shariat,’’ Al–Faisal reportedly told the Indian delegation. 
Quick on the uptake, the VHP’s senior vice–president, Acharya Giriraj Kishore, wrote to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and, quoting the Saudi viewpoint, demanded immediate withdrawal of the subsidy. “Even the ulema of Mecca have said that taking subsidy for Haj was un-Islamic and robbed (it of) the very purpose of undertaking the pilgrimage,” he cooed.

It should not be surprising if sooner or later, the sangh parivar even starts citing (and why not?) the example of Pakistan. While disposing of a petition before him in 1997, justice Tanvir Ahmed of the Lahore High Court had ruled that any expenditure defrayed by the government in subsidising hajis was contrary to the Shariat and therefore, wrong. Since then, the Pakistani government has stopped all subsidies for haj pilgrimage. Confusing as it might seem, while the Saudi orthodoxy and neighbouring Pakistan under growing Islamic fundamentalism find haj subsidy un-Islamic, secular India now under increasing saffron sway persists with the subsidy and the quantum keeps growing with every passing year.  

But what might come as an even greater surprise for Hindutva, a very large section of Indian Muslims – from the ulema to Islamic scholars to intellectuals to ordinary citizens – believe that only that haj is acceptable to Allah the entire expense of which comes out of the personal finances of the haji concerned. While speaking to Communalism Combat, a large number of Muslims, cutting across the Mr.—moulvi divide expressed themselves in favour of the haj subsidy being scrapped by the government of India. 

The letter of AU Siddiqui cited at the beginning of this report, as also the account of Mohamad Amin Khandwani, former chairman of the all-India Haj Committee and currently chairman Maharashtra State Minorities Commission (see box) are eloquent testimony to the punctiliousness of a very large number of Muslims on the question of haj.
Such qualm about whose money is spent on haj is part of a widely prevalent Muslim belief. This is evident from the fact that none less than the editor of Muslim India and former MP, Syed Shahabuddin, has consistently demanded for the last 15 years that the government of India phase out the haj subsidy. “I have told successive Prime Ministers of the country that this haj subsidy is there because of their political need; it has never been our demand. No Muslim leader has ever demanded subsidy”, Shahabuddin told CC in a telephonic interview. 
When newspapers reported the 1997 Lahore High Court judgement, castigating the Pakistani State’s subsidies for haj, Shahabuddin was quick to make xeroxes and despatch them to our own ministry of external affairs. But even swayamsevaks like Vajpayee, Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati in the BJP–led Union government have not had the courage to follow the example of ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ Pakistan.

Shahabuddin, widely perceived as a rabble–rouser, is a politician whose career depends on building for himself the image of a champion of Muslim causes and the cultivation of Muslim votes. Would he risk being such a consistent opponent of haj subsidy if he had the least doubt that this would make him unpopular with the moulvi sahebs and the Muslim masses? 

For an answer to the question, here is the gist of an exposition that Abdussattar Yusuf Shaikh, secretary, All India Muslim Personal Law Board and office bearer of a host of Muslim educational institutions gave to CC.
Ø Of the five essentials of Islam, three are obligatory on all Muslims. These are, kalma (the declaration that there is no God but one and that Mohammed is his Prophet), namaaz (prayers five times a day) and roza (fasting during the entire month of Ramzaan). The remaining two are obligatory only for Muslims with adequate financial means to fulfil them. These are zakaat (annual Islamic tax payable according to a prescribed formula depending on the financial status of a Muslim) and haj (pilgrimage to Mecca). 

Ø Haj is obligatory, only once in a lifetime and only for those Muslims who are both physically capable of undertaking the journey and have the adequate financial capacity. It is not obligatory for others. The issue of adequate financial ability has also been clearly specified. 

Ø The money needed for the performance of haj should come out of one’s own legitimate earning or possession and the amount should be sufficient to meet the entire expenses to be incurred on the performance of haj. Among other things, this includes the entire travel expenses, whatever the mode of travel. 

Ø Before embarking on haj, a Muslim pilgrim must ensure that he leaves enough money behind for the expenses of all his dependants during the entire period that he is away. Further, on his return he should be sure of adequate resources to maintain his current standard of living for at least the next six months. 

Ø If there are pending family obligations (for example, if daughters are of marriageable age), they must be fulfilled before one plans a haj pilgrimage.
Ø All pending personal loans must be settled before one takes stock of one’s financial ability to perform haj.
In view of all these stipulations, for Shaikh saheb, haj subsidy is nothing but “bheek ka paisa” (alms) which is “no good” for haj. “The position in Islam is very clear. If I do not meet the required conditions, haj is not obligatory for me. Moreover, the most important consideration before Allah is my niyat (intention). If I sincerely desire to perform haj but do not have the means to do so, Allah will still grant me all the rewards due to a haji. On the other hand, if I perform a haj merely for show, it is useless before Allah. No, there is nothing wrong if the government withdraws this bheek ka paisa for haj,” he categorically asserts.

Is haj subsidy un–Islamic, then? If an entire array of Muslim ulema, scholars, intellectuals and ordinary Muslims — stretching from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to India — are so clear that this is so, shouldn’t Indian Muslims themselves ask the government to discontinue the subsidy or at least refuse to avail of it? The problem is that there are also a fair number of important personages who support the existing government practice on grounds that range from simple opportunism, to rationalisation on grounds of communal parity, to statements of principle.
The let-it-be argument: “Chodiye bhi. After all, if some Muslims are benefiting, why rake up the issue? Who benefits if the subsidy is withdrawn?” A variant: “How can you blame the ordinary Muslim going on pilgrimage? He is keen to go to haj, the government–appointed Haj Committee says pay so much for air travel, and he pays it. How is the poor man supposed to know anything about government subsidy? So how can anyone say that his haj will not be accepted Allah?” 

The communal parity argument: “The VHP claims only Muslims benefit from subsidy. But if not subsidy on airfare, what about the crores that the government regularly incurs on logistical support to help Hindu pilgrims reach highly inaccessible places like Mansarovar (in China) or Amarnath (in Kashmir)? And what about the actual expenses incurred on the recently concluded mahakumbh at Allahabad?” (According to Shahabuddin, the UP government spent Rs.150 crore, while the Centre provided another Rs 50 crore for the mahakumbh). 
The issue is further complicated because, as in case of the uniform civil code debate, the campaign is being led not by secularists or ordinary citizens but by blatantly communal Hindutvavaadis. 

“I totally agree that subsidy – as different from discounts that are normal for flights chartered by any group — for haj is un–Islamic and I would appeal to Muslims not to avail of the government subsidy. But if someone demands that the government scrap the subsidy, I would say that any financial benefit — including the tax benefit to available only to Hindus according to the Hindu Joint Family system — given to any religious community must also be scrapped,” argues businessman, politician and community leader, Ghulam Mohammed Peshimam. 
The man-does-not-live-by-bread-alone argument: Interestingly, the strongest pro- subsidy argument was forwarded by Muslims who claimed simultaneously that such a practice was neither un-Islamic, nor contrary to the principles of a secular state. Fuzail Jaffrey, editor of the Urdu daily published from Inquilab, is one of them. 
Jaffrey told CC: “I am by no means a shariah expert. But as a laymen I do not see anything wrong with the state subsidising airfare for haj or money for maintenance of temples. I don’t see this in Hindu Muslim terms; I don’t see why Muslims should feel guilty or defensive about it. After all, doesn’t our secular state also provide financial support to many temples in the country? And what about state aid to educational institutions like madrassas, pathshalas and Vidyapeeths run by religious bodies? Should the state stop supporting all of them? If it does so, haj subsidy will also go along with everything else”. 

Senior advocate, legal advisor to the Bohra head priest Syedna Burhanuddin and member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, Yusuf Muchchala, is equally unrelenting in his defence of financial support by the state for haj as much as or for mahakumbh or for the temples maintained by the Travancore Dewasvom Board in Kerala and Tamil Nadu as provided for in the Indian constitution itself (Article 290 A). According to him, a deeply religious society like India has wisely opted for the secularism model adopted by an equally religious Ireland, instead of the erstwhile Soviet (anti-religious) or American (aloof from and indifferent to religion) models of secularism. “Muslims would be deeply hurt if the subsidy is withdrawn simply because of the naked communal demand of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal,” Muchchala told CC.

If neither Jaffrey nor Muchchala lay any claim to being Islamic experts, none less than the president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), Maulana Qazi Mujahidul Islam Qasmi, too, finds nothing un–Islamic in haj subsidy. In a telephonic interview to CC from his Patna residence, Maulana Qasmi lent the authority of a theological heavy weight to the ‘Islamic-cum-secular’ argument in favour of state subsidy for religious activities. 
Remember the ‘sarkari peshimams’ scheme: When contacted telephonically at his Nagpur residence for his comments, Maulana Abdul Karim Parekh, treasurer of the AIMPLB, recipient of the Padma Bhushan award on Republic Day this year and a man reputed to hold ‘moderate’, ‘earthy’, ‘practicable’ views, dodged a direct response to the subsidy controversy. Instead, he chose to recount how the ulema were not at all amused by former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s attempt to win over the entire constituency of peshimams who lead prayers in mosques across the country. The ulema believed that here was an attempt to convert lakhs of moulvis throughout India into ‘sarkari peshimams’ or servants of the powers that be. 

“I told Rao that if such state largesse was extended to Muslim clerics, surely priests from other religions would legitimately stake their claim, too? OK, girjaghars and gurdwaras are relatively better off, so maybe Christians and Sikhs will not press their demand. But I asked Rao whether he had given any thought to how easy it was to set up temples overnight and what the government would do if lakhs and lakhs of Hindu priests, too, demanded salaries from the state. Rao smiled knowingly and that was the end of the scheme in–the–making for India’s peshimams”.
Is there a moral contained in this real life story that Maulana Parekh chose to recount of his own volition? Was the good maulana subtly suggesting that there is a connection somewhere between the question of subsidies for haj and Rao’s aborted salaries for peshimams scheme? That, apart from the Islamic and secular dimensions of the subsidy issue, there is also the need to consider the political dimension of issues, specially in the context of growing competitive communalism and Hindutva’s sustained drive towards majoritarian politics in India?
What Maulana Parekh really intended is a matter of conjecture. But Maulana Qasmi was head on when asked whether continuing haj subsidy adds bite to Hindutva’s “Muslim appeasement” propaganda. And, therefore, would it not be better if as a matter of political strategy as much as a matter of secular principle, Muslims themselves demanded an end to all state support for purely religious activity. No, was Maulana Qasmi’s response. “The ‘Muslim appeasement’ bogey is raised even when Muslims raise legitimate demands. Should Muslims stop raising even their legitimate demands?” 

How, in the maulana’s view, should Muslims react if the government were to decide on scrapping the haj subsidy? “Well, why should we tie our hands right now. If such a situation arises, the time and the then prevailing circumstances will govern our response”, came the answer. 
Given such sharply divergent views within the community, should the ordinary Muslim accept or refrain from accepting the haj subsidy as suggested by Abdussattar Yusuf Shaikh Ghulam Mohammed Peshimam, Islamic scholar, Asghar Ali Engineer and numerous other Indian Muslims, not to mention the Saudi and Pakistani perspective on the issue?

It is a question that exasperates people like Peshimam and Hisamul Islam Siddiqui, editor of the Urdu/Hindi bilingual weekly, Jadeed Markaz, published from Lucknow. “Our ulema are fully aware that this issue continues to simmer and Hindu communal bodies are fully exploiting it for their purposes. Why can’t they sit together, deliberate on the issue and come to some consensus on whether Muslims should support or oppose government’s subsidy?” Others would argue that as in the case of Muslim Personal Law, the issue is far too important to be left in the hands of the ulema alone.

The secular argument: If opinion on the subject is divided among Muslims, the situation seems to be no different among secularists either. Nikhil Wagle, editor of the Marathi eveninger published from Mumbai, Apla Mahanagar, is categorical: “We must move away from the Sarva Dharam Samabhav (equal respect for all religions) concept practised so far to that of a Dharam Nirpeksh (indifference to religion) secular model. I am totally opposed to any state subsidy for any religious activity, whether it is mahakumbh or haj”.

But another crusader for human rights, Justice Hosbet Suresh, has a contrary view that may surprise many secularists. “Of course, the state must be secular, but can one ignore or deny citizens their right to religion? I would not see the issue of haj subsidy as a religious issue but as a human, social issue. Who can decide that a human being’s need for faith is less important than his need for education, health services or a clean environment? If we expect the secular state to cater to his other needs, what is wrong in a state extending financial support to his spiritual needs as well? Of course, just as the argument for free education or free health is in support of those who cannot afford it, I would say that similarly in religious matters, state assistance should be strictly need based and non–discriminatory”. 

The need–based caveat is something that people like Yusuf Muchchala and Fuzail Jaffrey readily accept. Even as the debate continues, could one not begin, right now, with a minimum common denominator — the demand that pending further clarification on the subject, state subsidy for haj and all other religious activities must strictly be need–based, not community-based? 

But conceding the argument for a need-based subsidy is to concede that there is no rational basis to justify any haj subsidy. The government currently pays Rs.20,000 towards subsidising the airfare of haj pilgrims only because the airline is paid Rs.32,000 per ticket, whereas through proper negotiations the fare can be pegged down to around Rs.24,000. This would then mean that, if at all, only Rs.12,000 need be paid towards subsidy instead of the current Rs.20,000. In either case, an intending pilgrim must still put together at least Rs.65,000–70,000 for haj. By Indian standards this is a large sum of money, clearly way beyond the reach of the overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims. By what logic can anyone argue that a person who can spare/afford Rs.60,000-70,000 is incapable of raising another Rs.12,000 and is, therefore, deserving of subsidy on a needs basis? 

More pertinently, even currently, there are well over a hundred travel agencies which offer an all inclusive haj tour package to hajis for the same Rs.65,000–70,000. Not only is there no government subsidy involved in case of the privately conducted tours, the tour operators even make a profit for themselves. (See accompanying box, ‘Sarkari haj is no cheaper’). In sort, private initiative leaves no room for any justification of subsidy on a needs basis.    n

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