This is an exercise that is undertaken with regularity and to little end. So this year once again, the Union ministry for minority affairs has set up a committee of experts to look into the efficacy and viability of the haj subsidy given to pilgrims in the form of discounted fares on Air India among other things. While quick to state that this did not mean that the subsidy would be scrapped, it plans to assess the subject. This is an issue which has long been debated.
In 2012, the Supreme Court had directed the government to do away with the subsidy. This latest assessment may have been prompted by Saudi Arabia raising its haj quota for India from 34,5000 to 170,000 pilgrims. This means an increase in the subsidy which currently is Rs 533 crore. The court is absolutely right. A secular state should not provide subsidies for pilgrimages to any community and no exceptions should be made. There is no doubt that the minorities need a helping hand when it comes to education and healthcare and the money set aside for haj subsidies could well be used for this.
Leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen have opposed the subsidy. First of all, a pilgrimage is something that an individual should finance himself, the Quran itself says that only those who can afford it should go on haj. It is not the State’s business to cater to the spiritual well-being or otherwise of citizens. By that logic, other faiths can also ask for subsidies to visit places of worship. This subsidy has laid successive governments open to the charge of minority appeasement.
The Sachar committee highlighted the deprivation that Muslims suffer in terms of education and other social development indicators. This is where subsidies if at all should go. This will help create a level playing field for them, though that is some way off. All major religions are run by powerful and rich trusts and governing bodies. If needed, they could provide the necessary subsidies to their flock to go on pilgrimages. The State need not get into this at all. There have been demands which amount to competitive appeasement in the form of subsidies for pilgrimages for other faiths. This should be resisted at all cost.
It might not be feasible to end the subsidy abruptly but there has in recent years been a downward trend in the amount of subsidy. Rather than increase it to meet the enhanced quota, the Centre should keep incrementally scaling it down. If this is the outcome of the committee’s deliberations, that would be both progressive and productive.