The Supreme Court of India’s order to the Government to end its Hajj travel subsidy for Muslims within ten years has far-reaching implications.
What matters more? – the life hereafter, or food on the table today?
Although India has spent years mulling over the idea of ending the subsidy which not even Pakistan provides, it has been unable to muster the political will – until now.
In a country with over 138 million Muslims comprising over 13 percent of the population (according to the 2001 census) the community forms a major vote bank. The judicial order to phase-out the subsidy over the next decade offers some respite, with an executive decision to do away with the subsidy immediately likely to have spelt political suicide.
The apex court on 8 May did not question the constitutional validity of the subsidy. Instead, it considered its economic and religious implications, referring to the Quranic injunction against borrowing or using the means owned by someone else as being ‘religiously impermissible’.
‘[If all the] facts are made known a good many of the pilgrims would not be very comfortable in the knowledge that their Hajj is funded to a substantial extent by the Government’, the court observed.
It further directed that the subsidy be more profitably employed for ‘upliftment’ of the Muslim community ‘in education and other indices of social development’.
Just two months ago, India’s Planning Commission released stark statistics indicating that despite the improving economy, poverty was getting worse, with Muslims comprising the nation’s poorest community. One in three Muslims in urban areas (33.9per cent) now lives below the poverty line – set controversially low at Rs.28.65 per capita daily consumption in cities - more than any other religious group.
Sikhs have the lowest proportion of poor in rural areas at 11.9 per cent, whereas in urban areas, Christians have the lowest proportion at 12.9 per cent of the total.
Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court order has split opinion within the community.
‘It is interesting to note that the court has taken a Qur’anic perspective on Hajj subsidy rather than a constitutional view’, observed social activist Javed Anand, Co-Editor of Communalism Combat, and General Secretary of Muslims for Secular Democracy.
Although Hajj is one among the five pillars of Islam, it was mandatory only for those who had the resources, he said.
Even Pakistan had done away with it. The Lahore High Court in Pakistan in 1997 had ruled that any expenditure defrayed by the government in subsidising Hajis was contrary to the Shari'a and therefore wrong.
In January 2001, the Saudi ambassador to India, A. Rahman N. Alohaly, and the Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al-Faisal, had tried to impress upon a visiting Indian delegation that any state subsidy for Hajj pilgrimage was un-Islamic.
They offered the service of their Ulema to help explain to India’s Muslims that subsidy went against the spirit of the Shari’a.
Reformist writer and activist Dr Asgar Ali Engineer, Chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, welcomed the move, since Hajj was purely a religious obligation. The subsidy was ‘mere symbolism’ since it was mostly paid direct to government-run airlines.
It encouraged communal forces like the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to exploit the issue for political gain, he added.
‘The government should use the money to provide educational aid and scholarships to poor Muslims to help them get out of poverty’, he said.
Hajj subsidy in India began in the early 1970s as travellers shifted from sea to faster but more costly air travel.
The Government in a goodwill gesture offered to cushion the cost, which has risen steadily as numbers and travel costs have soared. Since 1994, the number of pilgrims going on Hajj from India has risen from 21,035 to 125,000 in 2011.
The cost of travel per pilgrim in 1994 was Rs. 17,000 (GBP197) rising in 2011 to Rs. 54,800 (approx GBP637). As a result, the total Hajj subsidy rose from Rs.10.51 crores (approx GBP1,216,069) in 1994 to Rs. 685 crores (nearly GBP80million) by 2011.
In addition, higher fares apply during the Hajj period since airlines carrying passengers for the pilgrimage to Jeddah which lasts for 40 days necessarily return empty.
During the 2011 Hajj, each pilgrim paid Rs.16,000 (approx GBP185) towards the airfare with the rest – around Rs.38,000 (approx GBP440) per Hajji – being paid by government to the airline.
M. Burhanuddin Qasmi, Director at the Markazul Ma’arif Education and Research Centre in Mumbai said the Hajj subsidy was a ‘symbolic’ gesture of goodwill, which did not amount to much for pilgrims who made their own financial arrangements.
He said it gave Indian Hajjis pride in their government. The Supreme Court order was all the more ‘shocking’ as it reversed an order made as recently as January 2011 to uphold the constitutional validity of Hajj subsidy.
‘State funds and resources are deployed in many other purely religious events.
‘It is amazing that the court passed this order even though it agreed that it has no claim to speak on behalf of all the Muslims about what is a good or bad religious practice’, Mr. Qasmi said.
Considering India’s socio-religious demographics, this debate may be far from over. But despite disparate voices among community leaders, it is to be welcomed that much of the political class seems reluctant to exploit the issue electorally, at least for now.