The Big Story: Pilgrim’s progress

The Centre has withdrawn the Haj subsidy for Muslim pilgrims, adding that the funds will be used for the education of women from the minority community. Such a move, said Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, was in line with the government’s aim to empower minorities “with dignity and without appeasement”. It is also in line with the Supreme Court order of 2012, which said the subsidy should be phased out in 10 years, with the money used for the “uplift of the community in education and other indices of social development”.

On the whole, it is a sensible move, which seems to aim at replacing tokenism with more meaningful investment in the welfare of minorities and at putting the distance required between a secular government and religious practices. But it is open to question whether Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments apply the second principle with sufficient rigour.

The subsidy, which mainly entailed lower fares for Air India flights, had long been criticised for being badly thought-out. It was claimed that funds routed through the Haj Committee were distributed as political largesse to community leaders, that the inflated airfares meant the money was actually a subsidy for the failing national carrier rather than Muslim pilgrims. For these reasons and more, the subsidy became a symbol of the Congress’s “minority appeasement”. It became ammunition for the BJP’s attack on “pseudo-secularism” and gave hardline Hindutva organisations an opportunity to vilify Muslims.

In the past, members of the community had called it an “albatross around our neck”. Few Muslim leaders now contest the removal of the subsidy, though some have expressed unhappiness that it should be so “sudden” and “targeted” at one community. All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi, who had earlier urged that the money be spent on educating Muslim girls, has challenged the Narendra Modi-led government to stop “Hindu appeasement” too.

This is a charge that the BJP must take seriously. The Centre might justify expenditure on massive religious events like the Kumbh Mela on the grounds that it is the government’s duty to ensure the necessary facilities as well as law and order for large gatherings in any part of the country. It is less apparent why the Centre should set aside funds for the boarding and accommodation of pilgrims going to Tibet on the Kailash Manasarovar yatra. Besides, several state governments provide money for residents making the pilgrimage.

While states like Karnataka and Delhi, currently ruled by other parties, also provide such grants, the expenditure is most conspicuous and rising with BJP-led governments. Madhya Pradesh subsidises a range of pilgrimages for senior citizens and their attendants, including visits to Ayodhya, Mathura, the birthplace of Sant Kabir, St Thomas’s Church in Kerala as well as Hindu religious destinations in Pakistan, China, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. The Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh not only doubled the grant for the Manasarovar Yatra, but it also proposed to build a Manasarovar Bhavan. Recently, it also faced charges of diverting government funds to the “Gorakhpur Mahotsav”, a star-studded extravaganza in the chief minister’s former Lok Sabha constituency.

The BJP seems quite willing to be seen spending on Hindu pilgrimages and religious practices, and not just on the security arrangements. It is curiously at odds with the secular standards the party sets for itself when it comes to the Haj. To repeat a truism in secular politics, if the state is to retreat from religion, it must retreat from all religions equally.

The Big Scroll

Shoaib Daniyal argues that the Congress’s Muslim tokenism has hurt both the party and the community.

Here is an explainer on why the Haj subsidy so controversial.


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