There seems to be something murky about the question of subsidy being offered by the Government of India towards the air-fare for the Haj pilgrims. In his public announcements, Haj Committee Chairman Mr. Salamatullah claims the subsidy amounts to Rs. 5,000 for each pilgrim. But going by the figures for the total subsidy claimed by the Haj Committee from the Government of India for the Haj 1998 i.e., Rs. 123 crore, it is clear that the amount is somewhere around Rs. 18,777 for each pilgrim. It may be recalled that nearly 66,000 pilgrims performed Haj this year under the auspices of the Central Haj Committee. The gap between the announcement and the demand of subsidy is too yawning to be ignored. Obviously, everything is not hunky-dory in the Committee. The Haj Committee cannot continue its game of fooling the Muslims and the Government for long. It is time it explained its act. There is all the scope to probe if somebody, somewhere is keeping someone in the dark, if not exactly making a cut. There are two aspects to the question. First is the legitimacy of the subsidy demanded as a right by the Committee and the second is the issue of making the Haj less expensive. The two issues should not be confused with each other and need to be dealt separately by the Muslims. Haj subsidy is violative of the spirit of Haj and is expected to come under public scrutiny, for no secular dispensation could continue with such a blatantly partisan largesse for the rich section of Muslims. As for the former, let it be recognised that Haj is an Islamic obligation for those who can afford the costs involved in its performance. That today’s governments undertake to organise the pilgrimage should be no excuse to demand the subsidy. There can be no justification for this kind of largesses. It will be morally inaccurate for Muslims to even demand subsidies for Haj even under an Islamic governance.
But as the facilitator for all such affairs, it will be quite legitimate to explore all avenues for making the travel cheaper and journey comfortable. But the current ongoings within the Haj Committee point to something that fits into no category of rules. The Committee owes an answer to the Muslims and the Government alike as to where the huge amount of money is going. It does not behove an organisation like Haj Committee to maintain so vast a disparity in its professions and practice. The Haj Committee is illegitimately bleeding the Government to subsidise air travel for Muslim Hajis in a country where the subsidies for even rationed food from the Public Distribution System are being withdrawn in a phased manner under the Structural Adjustment Programme. Not alone this. Taking advantage of these sops, rich Muslims are becoming habituated to repeat pilgrimages year after year, something undesirable in Islam itself.
Besides the need to come clean on the large amount of subsidy (Rs. 18,000 against the declared sum of Rs. 5,000), the Haj Committee also needs to explain as to why and how the airfare between Jeddah and various destinations within India is pegged at Rs. 30,000 (only Rs. 12,000 being recovered from the pilgrims.) This is a grossly inflated amount, given the fact that different airlines and tour operators provide the air travel on the route for Rs. 22,000. Understandably, the Committee would explain away the reason that the Haj travel by chartered flights involves two empty flights by the chartered aircraft, first after unloading the passengers at Jeddah and later while flying to Jeddah to collect back the Hajis. But then chartering aircraft itself should have meant substantial decrease in expenses. No air operations are as huge as Haj in India. There is need to look into the chartering arrangements by an independent committee comprising aviation experts. Role of the chartering committee and Air India should be probed in this context. Perhaps, provision could be made to use the empty flights to bring Gulf Indians to the country provided the Saudi authorities permit such passenger operations. Such an arrangement would greatly bring down the cost of chartered operations.
In this connection, the suggestion to constitute a Haj Air Corporation by Mr. Rahman Khan, member of Parliament, is worth considering. Mr. Khan has called for setting up this Corporation with a capital of Rs. 500 crore on the lines of arrangements in Malaysia. Each half of the capital could be raised through shares from Muslims of India and the Government. According to proposals, the capital could be invested in buying aircraft which besides carrying pilgrims during the Haj season, would be leased out for commercial operations during non-Haj season.
But the point at issue currently is to probe the subsidy question which unless tackled immediately, would, in all likelihood, provide a handle to the fascist organisations to extract political mileage.
It is satisfying to note that the pro-uppercaste Women’s Reservation Bill could not be introduced in the Lok Sabha. But for the opposition from the MPs belonging to the Backward Classes and the minorities, the Bill would have been passed with the support of the traditionally privileged classes who were out to undo the progress made by the socially disadvantaged sections in the recent few years.
The national media, dominated as it is by uppercastes, had tried its best to project the bill as one that fulfilled the demands of the gender justice, overlooking the facts that it had sinister designs of scuttling the gains made by the social justice forces. Similarly, it did everything to tar the opponents of the Bill with anti-woman brush. This media attitude is in itself an index that the terms of public discourse are still set by the uppercastes and their henpecked media and the underprivileged sections are made to resort to crude methods to stall such unjust measures like the Women’s bill.
The sudden surfeit of pro-women emotions was incomprehensible. The question of social justice should essentially have an edge over gender justice. Is it not a fact that the women enjoy the fruits of the general educational and social progress of a particular community ? This is true with all the forward communities in India, be they Brahmins, Kayasthras, Lingayats or Marhattas. It is the people from the socially underprivileged classes who have to suffer from economic miseries and social indignities that characterises the entire community. So reservation on the basis of social segmentation has a greater value that the one on gender criterion.
The BJP has proved its communal bona fides once again by opposing the quota for Muslims pleading that the Constitution does not have provision for positive and affirmative action on religious grounds. True, but is it not the same BJP that has surrendered to the Sikh demands for exempting the Sikh women from wearing helmets in Punjab even though the Sikh tenets nowhere demand the same. The party is all likely to appease the community by refusing to induct Udham Singh Nagar in the proposed new state of Uttaranchal.
Targeting Muslims could be politically convenient for the BJP, but ends of justice would not have been met by rejecting the demand for Muslim inclusion in the proposed reservation for seats together with the OBC. Curiously, the demand for sub-reservation was opposed by the entire spectrum of uppercaste-dominated parties, be it the Congress(I) , the Left and the BJP. The very same parties had raised a clamour against the Muslim Women’s Rights (protection on divorce) Bill l986 as a regressive measure and pleaded for their upliftment. Now that the voice for reservation for Muslim women is endorsed by the entire community, these parties see in it a streak of separatism. Should this be taken to mean that these parties have learnt nothing from the experiments of the past when the negation of federalism and trampling of ethnic sensitivities unleashed fissiparous forces and led to unstable alliances and coalitions at the Centre.