India is among the top 10 countries sending most Hajis. Until early 1960s when Bombay was connected to Jeddah by air, most pilgrims went by boats run by Mogul Line Ltd., a British-controlled company. In 1975, the Shipping Corporation of India, a government undertaking, took over Mogul Line. The oil crisis of the early 1970s made the cost of sea fare higher than air fare, so the ships were abandoned. Instead, the GOI gave Air India monopoly over Haj travel in 1975. The oil crisis further escalated the cost of air fare forcing the government to introduce “Haj subsidy” to Air India, not to the individual, pious pilgrim.
Who exactly pays the Haj subsidy to Air India? Is it the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) or the Ministry of Civil Aviation? What is the exact amount? Does it change annually? These are matters of detail, but irrelevant to the principle that State should not subsidise religious pilgrimage of any kind to any place irrespective of religion.
In this particular case, the canard that the State is paying Muslims to perform Haj has done immense damage to an already demonised community. A senior Muslim leader like Syed Shahabuddin and the young Lok Sabha member from Hyderabad, Asaduddin Owaisi, have both expressed the will of the community to terminate the subsidy. The impediment to Haj subsidy abolition lies squarely with Air India, a state corporation. The Government of India, through the Central Haj Committee, should invite biddings from various airlines in India for Haj group travel and designate the lowest bidder as the official carrier of the Haj passengers.
The second matter in which the GOI is involved in Muslim pilgrimage is the Haj Goodwill Delegation. It originated in the aftermath of 1965 war with Pakistan. During the Haj, Pakistani diplomats and officials used the occasion of the international Muslim gathering to present their perspective on the Kashmir conflict. The MEA decided to counter the Pakistani version of the conflict by sending a Haj Goodwill Delegation to Mecca, obviously at state expense. Since its inception in 1966, it is led by a union minister who meets his Saudi counterpart and others.
No goodwill generated
The delegation consisted of five members. Now its numbers have shot up to 70, including spouses of the delegates. The corridors of power, the chambers of ministers and the houses of MPs in New Delhi are filled with aspirants to Haj delegation. The aspirants are mostly self-seeking politicians, unemployed, unemployable maulanas and maulavis seeking a free ride at the tax-payers’ expense. This year, the Centre has budgeted as much as Rs. 6 crores for the delegation’s cost of travel, accommodation, and incidental expenses. The official Haj delegation strains the resources of the Indian Consulate General in Jeddah, whose primary duty during the Haj is to look after the well-being of pilgrims. Instead, they are compelled to tend to the whims of the rich and powerful politicians masquerading as Muslim leaders. It is time to abolish the Haj goodwill delegation. There must be more imaginative ways of accomplishing the original purpose-- countering Pakistani versions of the Kashmir conflict. The delegations are not earning the goodwill of Indian Muslims.