March 13, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

Haj subsidy is not the sole villain

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad is now up in arms against the annual Haj subsidy given by the Union government for Indian Muslims to undertake their annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Is the VHP justified in asking for the abolition of that subsidy? The answer is both 'yes' and 'no.'

Firstly, it must be accepted that the Haj subsidy violates the dictionary meaning of 'secular.' A truly secular state is 'not concerned with religion' and should not, therefore, specially encourage or promote any religion; a secular state should consider religion as a purely personal matter that ought not to be allowed to interfere in matters of state.

Though the 'secular' Constitution of India does not define 'secular' -- a conspicuous omission that has been deliberate and devious in intent all along -- the validity of the Haj subsidy could well be challenged in the courts as being unconstitutional. Among the grounds of challenge could be that it aids people of a specific religion and thereby interferes in the matter of the state's allocation of its financial resources.

The fact that the Haj dole was introduced by the Narasimha Rao government subsequent to the demolition of the Babri structure in December 1992 is proof enough that the subsidy was an act of blatant appeasement of the Muslim community.

There is the fact, too, that the Haj subsidy has now ballooned into a pretty big lollipop to one exclusive religious community. Excluding the ministry of external affairs's annual expenditure on the Haj goodwill mission (mentioned but not quantified in the Union Budget), the Haj subsidy itself has grown from Rs 250 million in 1994 to Rs 1,370 million (as per the revised Budget 2000-2001) and to Rs 1,545 provided in the Budget 2001-2002.

This giant leap of over 500 per cent in just seven years is an alarming, non-secular appeasement of one religious community when one considers that the Indian government is so desperate to reduce food grains and fertiliser subsidy to the large and poor farming community. The nation would thus have frittered away some Rs 5 billion on Haj subsidy by this time next year.

Would this amount not have served a truly national purpose if, instead of being given away for mere pilgrimage of a particular community, it had been employed to, say, provide drinking water facilities to women and children in Rajasthan and elsewhere who trudge over two miles a day to fetch a bucket or two of that essential commodity?

What's more, there is a discriminatory element in the present Haj subsidy. As doled out till now, it is given by the Union civil aviation ministry to Air-India towards its charter operations for the Haj pilgrimage. In other words, only those Muslims who choose to go to Mecca by air avail of the subsidy. As per one newspaper report, of the 120,000 Indian Muslims who went on the Mecca pilgrimage this year, some 70,000 were to go by air and, therefore, got the subsidy at rate of more than Rs 20,000 per head.

The other 50,000 pilgrims obviously went by ship for whom, apparently, there is no such subsidy. In fact, Syed Shahabuddin (an ex-Indian foreign service man and a leading protagonist of the Muslim cause) has gone on record that a large number of Mecca pilgrims from India come from the rural areas and are not even aware of the government subsidy. Is the Haj subsidy then meant only for the elite 'flying' Muslims?

A bigger irony is that the government of Saudi Arabia, home of Mecca, believes that any subsidy for the Haj pilgrimage goes against the spirit of the Shariat. In fact, Islamic religious authorities have been quoted to the effect that, strictly speaking, Haj is a religious duty only for those who can afford it and that the pilgrimage may not be 'accepted by God' if expenditure on transport to the holy sites and on food is not the pilgrim's own.

Thus, in a case before the Lahore high court in 1997, Justice Tanvir Ahmed ruled that any expenditure defrayed by the government for the Haj pilgrimage was contrary to the Shariat and therefore wrong. Accordingly, even the Islamic Pakistan government has discontinued Haj subsidies to pilgrims as well as goodwill delegations -- something which a constitutionally declared 'secular' India continues with.

An incidental, but critical, mystery is why our so-called Muslim scholars like Asghar Ali Engineer -- who dashes off an article in our 'secular' English media every now and then to project some or the other Islamic point of view and criticises the Sangh Parivar in the process -- have maintained silence on the continuation of the un-Islamic dole by the Government of India.

This silence can perhaps be traced to the mindset of 'grab what you get and demand more' created among the Muslims by Jawaharlal Nehru, patron saint of India's pseudo-secularism. Thus, instead of scrapping the Port Haj Committee Act, 1932, established by the British to woo the Muslims, Nehru got our Parliament to enact the Haj Committee Act, 1959. That piece of legislation is totally non-secular insofar as it --

  • Ordains that a complement of 16 government officers/MPs/MLAs/municipal officers/central government nominees to be part of a 19-member committee to undertake literally all the duties connected with the organisation of a Haj pilgrimage when, instead, a private Muslim outfit should do all that donkey work
  • Creates a Haj Fund to which can be credited 'any sums allotted by the central government or any state government.'

Thus, Nehru the 'secularist' got the state to be directly associated with a religious pilgrimage; moreover, he, the committed 'secularist,' who had written to the Saurashtra chief minister that no funds should be utilised for the Somnath temple project or even for the inauguration of the renovated temple, permitted, by law, the state and central governments to contribute to the Haj fund meant exclusively for Muslims. How utterly contemptible was Nehru's duplicity and hypocritical secularism!

That Haj Committee Act, 1959, even defied every conceivable English dictionary by defining the word 'pilgrim' to mean 'a Muslim proceeding on or returning from pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran or Jordan' though Nehru's law drafting bureaucrats were resourceful enough to find the Arabic phrase 'Amirul-Haj' to denote a 'pilgrim on board a pilgrim ship to represent the grievances of the pilgrims to the master or owner of the ship.'

If then, for reasons stated above, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad wants the Haj subsidy to be abolished, it should simultaneously seek the repeal of the Haj Committee Act.

But how, in the name of Ram, can the VHP's case be strong when it is itself on a weak wicket? For, probably unknown to most in the VHP itself, the Hindus themselves receive government subsidy for their religious pilgrimage to Kailash Manasarovar. Yes, sir, they do!

According to a leading RSS journalist's e-mail message of the other day --

  • The Union ministry of external affairs routes, through the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam, a subsidy of Rs 3,250 to each KM yatri
  • The UP state government gives Rs 5,000 to every KM yatri irrespective of the state to which s/he belongs
  • The Delhi state government gives Rs 5,000 to every KM yatri who is a domicile of Delhi
  • The Gujarat government gives a kit worth Rs 2,500 to every KM yatri belonging to that state.

Thus, if you are were a citizen of Delhi, you would get Rs 13,250 as total government subsidy for your pilgrimage to Kailash Manasarovar that costs some 100,000 rupees in all. That gross subsidy amount is lesser than the Rs 20,000 that a Muslim flier to Mecca is estimated to have got this year, but it is still entirely non-secular in concept.

A Hindu would therefore be justified in asking for the abolition of the Haj subsidy only, and only if, he simultaneously demands the scrapping of the subsidy he himself gets for his Kailash Manasarovar yatra.

Meanwhile, the Muslim community in India should voluntarily forego the Haj subsidy if only to demonstrate that it follows the Shariat at all times and not only when it is a convenient cocoon to hide in. Meanwhile too, all secularists, genuine and fake, should demand the repeal of the Haj Committee Act that has reduced a host of government officers and elected legislators to the level of part-time travel agents, facilitators and co-ordinators who also manage a religious fund.


N Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, has often enough loudly proclaimed himself to be an upholder of 'secular' ideals. But a little bird tells us that his government recently released Rs 50 million for the Haj House under construction in Hyderabad, and another Rs 50 million towards the repair of shadi khanas and mosques in his state. There, for you, is a modern, dynamic and principled 'secularist!'

Arvind Lavakare

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