Many media outlets have reported the phasing out of Haj subsidy as “breaking news”, seeming to imply that the decision was not anticipated at all. While NDTV ran the news as its ‘Big Story’, Times Now ran the news as ‘Breaking News’. Many other media outlets have followed suit.
The “utter surprise” of these media outlets seems unfounded. If they had tracked the events leading up to the move, they would have seen why. For example, the following story in The Hindu had mentioned in November 2017 that the decision was perhaps in the offing: Haj subsidy to be phased out next year. But let us look at the facts ourselves.
The amplified shock of many commentators seems to stem from the fact that this decision was taken under the current government. Before any allegations are made with a sectarian twist to it, it is perhaps advisable to look at the chronology of events that led to this decision announced on Tuesday, January 16, 2018.
The subsidy was provided to those who went through the Haj Committee of India, and not through private operators. An aircraft that took the pilgrims on Haj flew back empty. This meant a substantial loss to the state exchequer.
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. Moreover, the Haj Committee had asked for a phasing out with the 2022 deadline.
The Restructured Haj Policy 2018-22
A lot of news channels have been calling the decision as an “end to Haj subsidy”, but it is actually a restructuring of the Haj policy as per the recommendations of the Haj Committee.
The decision to phase out the Haj subsidy was a recommendation made by the Committee in its draft policy, and it was in the pipeline.
The new Haj policy aims at targeting a wider demographic of the Muslim community — women and poor Muslims. Women devotees above the age of 45 can travel in a group of at least four without a male Mehram.
In a recent signing of bilateral annual Haj 2018 agreement, Saudi Arabia has given the green signal for 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.
As noted in out 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. Hence, hereon, Haj can be performed by Indian Muslim women without a male guardian.
Where Will the Money Go Now?
The money saved on the Haj subsidy will be used for the educational empowerment and welfare of minorities, especially girls.
This would appear to be in keeping with several progressive steps that have been taken under the current administration to socio-economically empower minorities and ensure that the bottommost rungs of minority communities, who are usually among the most deprived in society, are included financially and educationally. (For details, also read our earlier articles: Empowering Minority Communities: A Few Examples and The Minority Report.)
Therefore, the end to the Haj Subsidy appears to be an attempt to make Haj actually accessible to all. The move also got the endorsement of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board’s Kamal Farooqui, who welcomed the move as per news reports.