Taking a leaf out of India’s book, Saudi Arabia has restricted the Haj undertaken by pilgrims through private tour operators to only once in five years.

On January 18, 2013, the Ministry of External Affairs directed the Haj Committee of India (HCOI) to restrict the number of pilgrimage for an applicant going through it to “once in a life time” as against the earlier norm of “once in five years.”

“This will ensure that a Haj pilgrim will benefit from Government of India subsidy only once in his/her lifetime. It will also ensure that priority is given to those who have never performed Haj. This is a major change introduced by the Government of India. Accordingly, only pilgrims who have never performed Haj earlier through the Haj Committee of India will be allowed to apply for Haj 2013,” a press release posted on the HCOI website explained the Ministry’s direction.

Now, a circular issued by Saudi Arabia, also posted on the HCOI website, adopts a similar policy, introducing a five-year restriction for private pilgrims worldwide.

Accompanying the circular is a March 12, 2013 cover note by the Consulate-General of India (CGI) in Jeddah, which briefly explains the contents of a letter from the South Asian Moassassa, Makkah. The CGI informs the government that “it has been conveyed that for Haj 2013, no person who has already performed Haj during the last five years will be granted visa to perform Haj.”

Those exempted from this rule are only employees of private tour operators “accompanying the group to provide service to Hajis” and “those who desire to perform Haj as Mahrim to one of his first-degree relatives who has not performed Haj during the last five years.” This five-year restriction may affect the business of tour companies who cater for nearly 45,000 private pilgrims of the total 1.7 lakh Haj seats allotted to India by the Saudi government.

The circular instructs select private tour operators to get an undertaking by pilgrims to abide by this “new stipulation” and not conclude contracts for Haj with those who performed the pilgrimage during the last five years.

“India was the first government to introduce this policy of Haj only every five years for those travelling through the HCOI. This was modified again to make it an once-in-a-lifetime affair. We however placed no restraint on private pilgrims. Now, the Saudi government, in a way, is emulating India by introducing this five-year restriction on private pilgrims too,” Haris Beeran, Supreme Court panel counsel for the Ministry told The Hindu on Monday, speaking from New Delhi on the phone.

He interpreted Saudi Arabia’s decision as one intended to create “more opportunity for those who have not performed Haj before.”

The Supreme Court is hearing a special leave petition (the Union of India versus Rafique Shaikh Bhikan), filed in 2011, on the role of private tour operators in the pilgrimage. In January this year, the Ministry submitted a draft Private Tour Operators Policy for Haj 2013 to a Bench, led by Justice Aftab Alam.

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