A history of the subsidy
The Haj subsidy is the amount of money subsidized by the Government of India to every pilgrim for covering the expenses of air travel from the port of embarkation in India to Jeddah or Medina in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrim is supposed to pay for the other costs incurred by the Haj committee which are substantial in themselves. However, this subsidy has become a bone of contention in recent times.
The practice of subsidizing Hajis or any kind of pilgrim is very old in India and every kingdom large or small since antiquity has done it. In modern times, the British Empire, stepping into the shoes of the Moghul Empire found that the state and local worthies were supposed to provide sustenance and transport to Hajis travelling to Mecca. They did this by contracting dhows and ships from local harbors and charging Hajis for tickets. Very soon, they discovered, much to their chagrin, that many Hajis, not having the means to by a two-way ticket, would settle down in the Hejaz (the area where Haj is performed) and become indigents on the local Ottoman officials. This marked a significant loss of prestige with the other imperial powers too so it had to be addressed.
This prompted the charging of two-way tickets right from Bombay or Karachi. However, to the relief of the Muflis (indigent) many Muslim worthies stepped in, and under the aegis of Europeans, provided some relief to the pilgrims, in effect subsidizing the trip. In 1932, under pressure from the nationalist movement, the British created the Port Haj Committees Act, to help pilgrims make the trip to Hejaz. This subsidy was maintained by various Haj committees operating out of Bombay and Calcutta.
Upon the departure of the British and the dismemberment of the country, the Haj committees were left bereft, without funds or organization. Here is where the government of India stepped in and out of the generosity that was quite typical of Jawaharlal and his ilk, it was decided to formally provide a subsidy for Hajis so that they could proceed for pilgrimage with more ease and less strain on their purse.
Thus was born the Haj Committee Act of 1959. The express purpose of which was to help the pilgrims with more logistic and material assistance. I cannot help but be amused by the fact that the act does not provide specifics of any material help. Article 9.1(c) of the act insouciantly states that the committee shall “provide relief to indigent pilgrims”. Article 9.1(h) is even more vague: “the committee shall look after the general welfare of the pilgrims”. How much and who shall provide the monies?
Why the government of India, of course (specifically stated in Article 9.2)! No ambiguities there! No doubt there were much fewer Hajis then and the expense was not considerable but still, the generosity of thought still leaves one feeling warm and gooey inside.
Among many Muslims, it is recognized, with sincere affection for their country, that the Haj is organized very well in comparison to anything else that the “sarkar” does. The astonishing efficiency of documentation; the deeply attentive bespectacled “babus”; the medical care at various places in the Haramain(sanctuaries); even the provision of Aab-e-ZamZam at the 19 ports of disembarkation is amazing to be seen. Go once if you can, and see for yourself the amazing scenes at the “Haj terminals” (Cargo Terminals that are transformed during Haj) when Hajis are going or returning from the pilgrimage. They literally turn into fairgrounds with everyone hugging each other; the air perfumed with the scent of garlands; and whiffs of Biryani and other delicacies thrown in the mix.
The cost of it all
The problems started to surface when air travel became the norm and, vague as the terms of subsidy were, they were also covered by the tax payer of India. As an example, the airfare has ballooned in recent years, going from ₹17,000 in 1994 to ₹54,800 in 2011. In that year, every pilgrim was still being charged ₹17,000 for airfare. The total price of Haj that year was ₹1,25,000 per pilgrim. When questioned later, the counsel for the government even expressed embarrassment at asking the Hajis to pony up the extra money, Bless him!
There are other costs that the state incurs during Haj. The Haj Committee oversees preparation of documents and visas for Haj and provides medical and logistics care during the pilgrimage. It is estimated that the government spends ₹73,000 per pilgrim (this includes the previously stated transportation cost)! That is quite significant and shows a concern for Muslims that is very touching and kind.
However, it does present a significant strain on the exchequer. In the year 1994, the number of pilgrims going for Hajj from India was as low as 21,035; in 2011, the number of pilgrims increased to 125,000. As a result, the total Hajj subsidy that was Rs.10.51 crores in the year 1994 swelled up to Rs.685 crores in the year 2011.
The rise of the cynics
It is sad that in this day and age, the multi-religious construct of India is under severe attack from various right-wing elements, both from within Muslims and from among the Saffron brigades.
The former completely rejects the notion that the subsidy is in anyway an act of generosity. They point out that the government is really subsidizing the national carrier (Air India) in the guise of doing Muslims a service. They also contend that they don’t need the subsidy and the private agents will do a cheaper, better job anyway. Besides, the state does provide subsidies for Hindu pilgrims in various areas so the Haj subsidy is being unfairly picked on too.
The latter, no doubt stung by the fact that the government does not spend anywhere near this kind of money for any individual Hindu pilgrimage points to this as Muslim appeasement in a Hindu land. They are correct to point out the costs but suffer from serious inferiority complexes about their own legitimacy in a multi-religious land and cannot abide by anyone getting any perceived preference over our Hindu brethren. They quite forget that empires and kings of all stripes over several millennia have provided for pilgrims (religion no bar) out of their own and public exchequer. It is considered an act of great piety among us, especially Hindus.
So, this vicious fight continues with no mercy or genuine affection shown from any side of the argument. Some contend that as a secular country, India is not supposed to provide any religious subsidy. However, that is not correct. We are not a secular state in the Western sense (opposed to religion or religious expression in the public space) but a multi-religious state. We bow before all deities, and so it is not out of character if the state behaves in the same way. If anything, subsidies for religious pilgrims and accommodation for them should be increased. It will go some way in promoting religious comity and make us appreciate our millennia old culture even more. But who will listen in this age of cynicism and lack of trust to this line of argument.
Begone thou beggar full of faith!
Even the Supreme Court did not. The Hon. Justices of the court ruled in 2012 that the government shall cease to provide this subsidy within ten years, or by 2022. The court used the Holy Quran in its ruling pointing out that it is the duty of every Muslim to provide for the Haj himself/herself. They cited a commentary of the Surah Al-e-Imraan, verse 97. While the verse is quite open, the commentary that the Hon. Court cites is quite unequivocal. This clearly is at the behest of some Muslims to whom it is anathema to owe their Hindu brethren anything, much less such a central tenet of their faith as the Haj.
Where does this leave the common Indian Muslim, one who makes enough to save for a one-way trip to Haj? What of his longing to visit Madinat-un-Nabi (City of the Prophet), whether it is “farz” (obligatory) or not? You see, any pilgrimage is not only about rituals and the mindless following of them. Anyone who has stood at the plains of Arafat knows that it is not the obligation that makes him full of faith, it is a deep-seated conviction; a perception that the Divine is closer. I guess now, with the pride of Muslims and Hindus assuaged, the Muflis(indigent) Haji is left out and will think….
“Muhabbat karne waale kam na honge,
Teri mehfil main lekin hum na honge”
There will be many lovers at thy door beloved,
Alas! I shall not be of those fortunate ones