Every few years, the question is raised of the Haj subsidy given by the government to Muslim pilgrims flying to Mecca on state-owned Air India – whether it should continue, whether it is financially viable, whether it compromises India’s secular credentials. The Haj is a journey Muslims are enjoined to make at least once in their lifetimes to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, which is considered sacred in Islam.
Now, just after Saudi Arabia increased its quota of the number of Indians who will be permitted to make the pilgrimage for the first time in three decades, the minority affairs ministry has formed a committee to reconsider the subsidy. The government said it was following up on the Supreme Court order of 2012, which dictated that the subsidy should be phased out in 10 years.
There have been questions about the way in which the subsidy is administered. It has been claimed that funds routed through the Haj Committee to various community leaders were distributed as political largesse. Some say that there have been various irregularities in the flow of cash. Others contend that the subsidy is no subsidy at all but merely a transfer of funds from one part of the state machinery to the other: people availing of the subsidy travel to Saudi Arabia on the national carrier, Air India. The pilgrims fly out from Mumbai and in 2016 were given a concession of Rs 45,000 for their airfare.
Over the last decade, the Haj subsidy it was seen as part of the United Progressive Alliance government’s policy of outreach to Muslims, thought there have been voices of criticism from within the community. This week, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president Asaduddin Owaisi said the money for the subsidy – believed to total Rs 450 crore at present – would be better spent on the education of Muslim girls.
Not just the haj
While these objections to the Haj need to be considered, what has passed without scrutiny is the fact that India also spends money on a raft of pilgrimages, directly or indirectly.
Chief among these are the four Kumbh Melas, held in Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain. Millions of people attend each fair. To ensure that they go off smoothly, Central funds are routed through state governments to pay for constructions on the mela grounds, facilities for pilgrims and security. In 2014, for instance, the Centre spent about Rs 1,150 crore and the Uttar Pradesh government Rs 11 crore on the Allahabad Kumbh. Of this, Opposition parties alleged that Rs 800 crore had been misused.
Last year, the Union culture ministry also set aside Rs 100 crore to be granted to the Madhya Pradesh for the Simhastha Mahakumbh, which is held in once in 12 years in Ujjain. The state government had already spent Rs 3,400 crore on the event.
Other pilgrimages attracting Central funds include the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra, which involves an arduous trek from North India into the mountains of Tibet. The yatra is organised by the government, which spends money on security and health facilities for the pilgrims.
Meanwhile, several states have explicit subsidies earmarked for various pilgrimages or religious events. Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand provide money to residents going on the Manasarovar yatra to cover a part of the expenses, which amount to about Rs 1.5 lakh each. The Madhya Pradesh government subsidises a range of pilgrimages for senior citizens and their attendants under the Mukhyamantri Tirtha Darshan Yojana, including visits to Ayodhya, Mathura, the birthplace of Sant Kabir and St Thomas Church in Kerala.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the Amarnath Shrine Board was set up by an act passed by the state assembly in 2000. Headed by the governor, who is aided by senior civil servants from the national and state administrative services, the board is responsible for “developmental activities” on the shrine and its environs, the “payment of suitable emoluments to the salaried staff”, constructing accommodation for pilgrims and other allied activities.
What of Article 27?
Pilgrimages in India involve mass movements of people, tremendous pressures on the site of the event and security concerns. Horror stories about stampedes and casualties frequently accompany the rituals of worship. Given the circumstances, government involvement in the arrangements seems unavoidable – even necessary. Subsidies for individual pilgrims, on the other hand, seem to depend on the political priorities of the government concerned.
All of these public expenditures, however, could be said to contravene Article 27 of the Constitution, which stipulates that “No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religions denomination.”
As the Supreme Court itself pointed out in its 2012 judgment, we cannot be “oblivious of the fact that in many other purely religious events there are direct and indirect deployment of state funds and state resource”. Curiously enough, these expenses on pilgrimages other than the Haj have rarely been attended by concerns about thrift and secularism.