The Supreme Court's order that the Haj subsidy be phased out will be welcomed by almost everyone, including the majority of Muslims, because it strikes at the heart of a dysfunctional management system that is run in the interest of politicians and self-styled community leaders and not the average pilgrim. Haj is the fifth pillar of Islam and every Muslim is enjoined to perform the pilgrimage at least once in her or his lifetime provided she or he is physically fit and has the financial means to discharge this obligation. While Indian rulers traditionally took steps to ensure the safety of passage for pilgrims to and from Arabia and built hostels for them in Mecca, none violated the Islamic emphasis on individual capability by providing direct subsidies. The modern Indian state crossed the line for two reasons. First, the management of the pilgrimage was franchised out via an official Haj Committee to ‘community leaders,' most of whom used the power to build their political influence among ordinary Muslims and were only secondarily interested in matters of piety. Second, the politicisation of the process meant no one in the government or the Haj Committee had an incentive to keep costs down and no political party was willing to rationalise the system out of a misplaced fear of offending the wider body of Muslims.

Contrary to public perception, India's hajis are not the main beneficiaries of the Rs.685 crore spent by the government on the pilgrimage last year. The money essentially goes towards subsidising an inflated fare to Jeddah for the 120,000-plus Muslims who go through the Haj Committee each year. Despite the bargaining power it commands, the government invariably ‘negotiates' a fare with Air India and other charter operators that is much higher than that paid by hajis who make the pilgrimage privately. Since Air India is state-owned, the ‘Haj subsidy,' in essence, goes from one pocket of the government to the other. Given the discrepancy in the data on Haj subsidies, it is possible that some of the money spent is going to other — unknown and undeserving — pockets as well. The Supreme Court hinted at the wider malaise by ordering an end to the so-called ‘goodwill' Haj delegation but a complete review of India's Haj management system is what is urgently needed. Even as the subsidy is phased out, the government must, of course, continue to oversee arrangements for the pilgrimage to Mecca, just as it does for the Kumbh Mela and the Amarnath and Kailash Mansarovar yatras. As the Supreme Court itself noted, we should not be “oblivious of the fact that in many other purely religious events there are direct and indirect deployment of state funds and state resources.”

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