India abolishes Haj subsidy for pilgrims
The Center has withdrawn subsidies on Haj this year onwards. This could affect the 1.75L Muslims registered to go for the pilgrimage in 2018, the highest ever. In 2012, the SC had ordered gradual abolishment of the subsidy by 2022. Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Naqvi said the government would save Rs. 700cr with this move, which will be used for empowering the minority community.
The Haj subsidy and its beneficiaries
The Haj subsidy is given to Indian pilgrims by the government in the form of discounted Air India airfares; it was started in 1954. The Haj traffic is shared by Air India and Saudia, the national carriers of India and Saudi Arabia. The monopoly of these airlines is the most controversial part as some Muslims claimed Air India is the subsidy's real beneficiary.
Several Muslim leaders had urged removal of the subsidy
Over the years, several Muslims including high-profile personalities have urged the government to withdraw the subsidy, which, though helpful, is against Islam. The Quran reportedly dictates that Haj is obligatory, solely for those who can afford it. Muslim leaders have instead suggested agreements with airlines for facilities and cheaper fares. Last year, the government instituted a committee to evaluate the merits of the subsidy.
Saved money would be used for education, welfare of Muslims
The abolished subsidy would be transferred for education and welfare of Muslims, officials said. For pilgrims, it would introduce new air and waterways options to offset the rise in costs. This is part of the government's agenda of empowerment of minorities without appeasement, it said.
Many laud move while others indifferent
There were many positive responses to the government's move. Kamal Farooqui of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board welcomed it, saying it was Air India that was actually benefitting. Journalists Shujaat Bukhari of Rising Kashmir and Sadiq S Bhat of Gulf News too tweeted in support. However, some said it made no difference to pilgrims as they weren't benefitting anyway.
Muslim women above 45 can now go for Haj alone
This comes a day after the government allowed women above 45 to go on Haj without a mehram- a male guardian. But they have to go in groups of four or more. The government-appointed committee has more suggestions: reducing the number of embarkation points and increasing quota for J&K pilgrims from 1,500 to 2,000, among others. A new Haj policy is in the works.