|Should the Haj subsidy go?
Yes, say a large number of Muslims. But what about the mahakumbh
BY JAVED ANAND
(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.
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.
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 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.
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 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).
“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.
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
“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”.
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.
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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