Hajj pilgrims walk toward Mina, near Mecca in Saudi Arabia, on Sept. 22, 2015. India is ending the subsidy for pilgrims. (Photo by IANS)
A new debate has started in India about state-sponsored religious pilgrimages after the Hindu-run government ended the subsidy given to Hajj pilgrims to visit Mecca and Madina, Islam's two holiest cities.
Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi told reporters in New Delhi that the government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has decided not to provide a subsidy to Hajj pilgrims from this year.
"The funds that were spent earlier on the Hajj subsidy will be from now on used for the educational empowerment of girls and women from minority communities," he said on Jan. 16.
Several Muslim groups and political parties have welcomed the move, which follows a 2012 Supreme Court direction to end the subsidy by 2022.
Brinda Karat, leader of the Communist Party in India, told reporters that her party believes the government should not spend tax money on pilgrimages by individuals.
"Regardless of religion, the subsidies should end at once," she said, hinting that the government should also end the millions it spends on Hindu pilgrimages across India.
The Hajj subsidy offers discounted airfares on national carrier Air India alongside subsidized accommodation and assistance at ports of departure and overseas. It also covers tents, medicines, local travel and ambulances overseas. For example, in 2016 the government budgeted US$238,000 for medicine.
In the last six years, an average of 100,000 pilgrims benefited annually from the subsidy after registering with the Hajj Committee of India, while some 35,000 traveled with the help of private tour operators.
Following the Supreme Court direction, the government has been cutting the budget for the subsidy. From US$127 million in 2012, the allocation fell to US$30 million in 2017, with a plan to phase it off from this year.
Several Muslim groups wanted the withdrawal of the subsidy because they said it violated the Quran.
"The Quran says Hajj should be performed by those who are financially capable. It is high time that the government stayed away from Hajj affairs. Muslim organizations should be allowed to manage their own religious obligations," Kamal Faruqui of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board told ucanews.com.
He is among critics who suggest the real beneficiary of the subsidy was financially ailing Air India. Instead of subsidies, the government should help make long-term agreements with airlines to provide better facilities and cheaper fares for thousands of Muslims.
The state subsidy began in British India in 1932 with the Hajj Committees Act that legalized it. After India's Independence in 1947, the government continued the system while adding more to the budget to subsidize pilgrimages.
The federal government spent billions of dollars in organizing several Hindu festivals including the mammoth Maha Kumbh Mela, which happens every 12 years in Uttar Pradesh state and attracts millions of people.
Other pilgrimages attracting government funds include the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra, which involves an arduous trek into the mountains of Tibet, where the government spends money on organizing security and health facilities for pilgrims.
The Uttar Pradesh government led by BJP leader Yogi Aditiyanath has allocated 8 billion rupees (US$125 million) for the pilgrimage to Ayodhya, a tiny town in the state considered the birthplace of Hindu lord Rama.
Waris Pathan, leader of Muslim group All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, said the government should not take credit for ending Hajj subsidies when the Supreme Court had already asked the government to abolish it.
"The government says it will be using the funds for empowerment of Muslim women. What has happened to the earlier grants that were issued for the same purpose? Nothing was given to Muslims and those funds remain unspent," Pathan said.
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