Hajj subsidy ends: Fund to be spent on empowerment of Muslims, says govt
New Delhi: In a major decision, the central government on Tuesday decided to end the subsidy given to thousands of Muslims for the annual Haj pilgrimage -- an issue which the BJP had always called a means of appeasement.
Announcing the decision, Union Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said it was in line with the BJP government's agenda to empower minorities without appeasing them.
"This is part of our policy to empower minorities with dignity and without appeasement," Naqvi told reporters here.
He said the government would utilise the funds saved from withdrawing the subsidy for education of minorities, particularly girls.
Naqvi said the subsidy amount ranged from Rs 500-700 crore, which mainly went to the national carrier Air India that flew the pilgrims to Jeddah, along with Saudi Airlines, in a 50:50 ratio.
With the government already moving ahead with privatisation of Air India, the subsidy would not make sense, he felt.
Naqvi said the withdrawal of subsidy would not make much difference in the airfare from major cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Kolkata, though it would make travel costlier from smaller cities.
"But to offset this cost hike, we have for the first time given the choice to pilgrims to select their point of embarkation.
"So, for example, a pilgrim from Srinagar may now embark from Delhi, or a pilgrim from Gaya may embark from Kolkata to avoid extra expenses," Naqvi said.
The Minister said Saudi Arabia had also agreed to allow people to go on the Haj by ship, which is cheaper than flying, and added that officials of both countries were working out the details.
However, the Minister said that the government would "fulfil all its responsibilities it has towards its citizens" and make all the arrangements for the pilgrims in Saudi Arabia apart from ensuring their safety, security and comfort.
Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad welcomed the move and said the real beneficiaries of the subsidy were not Muslim pilgrims "but the airlines".
"The impression that was being given that the government was doing something extraordinary for hajis by giving them subsidy is false," he said.
Azad said the decision was taken by the Supreme Court in May 2012 asking the then Congress-led government to abolish the Haj subsidy in a phased manner by 2022. "We had started reducing it gradually. In 2012, it was around Rs 650 crore but today it would be much less. The government is not disclosing it."
The Congress also asked the government to honour the Supreme Court direction and utilize the saved funds on empowering the minority community through education and skill development, especially girls.
All India Muslim Personal Law Board said the withdrawal of subsidy would not affect Muslim pilgrims because they did not get any direct benefit from it. "If the government has abolished the subsidy it is between them and the Indian Airlines. Hajis are nowhere in the picture," AIMPLB General Secretary Maulana Wali Rahmani said.
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi said he had been demanding its removal since 2006 and used for Muslim girls education and upliftment.
He said the subsidy last year was only Rs 200 crore and challenged the Modi government "to walk the talk by allocating funds for Muslim girls scholarships".
"Will Modi do it? I doubt. Will wait and see in the next budget," the Hyderabad MP said.
Last year, the government had formed a committee comprising eminent Muslims headed by retired IAS Afzal Amanullah to revise India's Haj policy.
The committee had recommended abolition of Haj subsidy and allowing women above 45 years of age to proceed on Haj without "mehram" (male guardian), among other things.
The government accepted most of the recommendations made by the committee.
This year, the highest number of Indian pilgrims are likely to go for the pilgrimage after Saudi Arabia increased India's quota by 5,000.
A total of 1.75 lakh Indian Muslims can go for Haj this year.