The Indian Express opinion piece ‘Haj subsidy scrapped: Credit for phasing it out goes to Supreme Court’, published January 17, 2018 on the paper’s website, argues that the credit for ending the Haj subsidy should go to the Supreme Court (SC) alone, and that “When Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi told The Indian Express last week about the discontinuation of the Haj subsidy, he was merely reiterating the government’s obligation to go by the apex court’s order, flagging an ongoing process.”
While it is true that the government was acting in accordance with the apex court’s direction, that phasing out the Haj subsidy has been an ongoing process since the Court’s pronouncement, is it fair, let alone accurate, to deny the government any credit for the decision and the pace of its action? What about the Court’s 2022 deadline and the fact that the process has been sped up? These are questions which need pondering and also answers.
Now, it has been seen that usually when it comes to any decision taken by the current administration vis-à-vis minorities, the narrative spun by a section of the media tends to depict it in a sectarian light, or if they do agree with the decision, there have been attempts to credit someone else for the same. And this tendency has been observed in political quarters too, where there appeared to be a contest as to who deserved the credit, with public figures lining up to claim that discontinuing the Haj subsidy was their idea, or that they had all asked for it. Below is one instance:
Indeed, it appears that any blame will never be shifted, but credit will always be denied as far as the government of the day is concerned.
Let us, therefore, do a background check and retrace the build-up to the decision announced on Tuesday January 16, 2018.
The Supreme Court’s Pronouncement
After the cost of the subsidy had risen to Rs 827 crore in 2008, in 2010, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) under the then UPA government had floated a proposal to cut the subsidy by 10% every year.
In 2012, the Supreme Court directed the Union government to gradually reduce and ultimately completely remove the Haj subsidy by 2022. The subsidy has been progressively reduced since 2012.
For certain, the apex court asked for the phasing out of the Haj subsidy. But what were the reasons cited? In the 2012 judgment of the case Union of India & Ors vs Rafique Shaikh Bhikan & Anr, delivered by Justices Aftab Alam, Ranjana Prakash Desai (authored by Justice Aftab Alam), the reason cited for phasing out the subsidy was not based on the Constitution of India but the Quran.
Many news outlets have been calling the decision an “end to Haj subsidy”. However, it is actually a restructuring of the Haj policy as per the recommendations of the Haj Committee, constituted by the MEA under the current government. It is as per the recommendations of the new policy for 2018-22.
The SC did ask for an end to the subsidy right away, but the decision was supposed to be taken in 2022. The Haj Committee had asked for a phasing out with the 2022 deadline, too.
The government not only acted in consonance with the SC decision as well as that of the Haj committee by taking the decision sooner, but it also went ahead and restructured the policy to benefit a wider demographic of the Muslim community and as soon as possible.
The Restructured Haj Policy, 2018-22
The new Haj policy aims at targeting a wider demographic of the Muslim community — women and poor Muslims.
As noted in our earlier article Muslim Women on Haj Without Male Guardians – Who Should Get the Credit?, “Under the erstwhile procedure followed by the Haj Committee of India (HCoI) and Government of India, all Muslim female Haj pilgrims had to be accompanied by their Male Mehrams (male guardians). This was despite the fact that there was no restriction from the Saudi Government regarding performance of Haj pilgrimage by women above the age of 45 years without male guardians.”
The current government lifted this anomalous ban on November 12, 2017. Women devotees above the age of 45 can travel in a group of at least four without a male Mehram. Was this not pro-active reform undertaken by the administration?
In a recent signing of the bilateral annual Haj 2018 agreement, Saudi Arabia has given the green light to India’s decision to revive the option of sending Haj pilgrims by the sea route, which was stopped in 1995. This means more number of Haj pilgrims, especially those from a weaker financial background, can travel on Haj. Ships available these days are modern and well-equipped to ferry 4,000 to 5,000 persons at a time. This, too, appears to be in keeping with the decision announced on January 16 on the Haj subsidy and its objectives.
Scope of the Reform & Question of Agency
Therefore, we can conclude from the above facts that what the Supreme Court had given was a direction, with a timeline. The Court fully deserves credit for this. However, a directive or order needs agency to be followed and/ or implemented. Herein comes in the government. As noted, acting on the Court’s direction, the Haj subsidy was already being reduced.
But then, it also follows that the government was not caught in a bind or lacked room to exercise choices. In fact, the government could easily have continued with the hitherto policy of gradually reducing the subsidy. Instead, what we see is a structural reform undertaken by the government – which, incidentally, did not come as a surprise despite media proclamations to the contrary, as it had been hinted at earlier – with a new timeline within the original deadline and with shifting of the funds to where it was felt to be really needed and where it was meant to go. This last happens to be educational uplift and welfare of minorities, especially Muslim girls and their education where the government will be investing this money. Is this an instance of a pro-active administration or not?
Decisions and actions at the ground-level vis-à-vis the Haj subsidy always rested with the government. Thus, beyond the direction or order or suggestion, what was needed was agency on the part of the state. This agency is what the current administration appears to have demonstrated. And as observed above, it did not merely carry out a court directive. It brought about important structural changes to the policy. As such, the restructured Haj policy will now benefit many more people in the Muslim community and in more than one way. Thus, we are also looking at socio-economic benefits which have no religious dimension to them at all. Therefore, it may also be safely said that the scope of the reform the government is implementing goes beyond the original scope of the direction given to it in 2012.
Also read our earlier article:
Why Did Sections of Media Appear to be Surprised by Reform of Haj Subsidy Policy?