A file photo showing Haj pilgrims from Kerala, waiting at Kochi International Airport at Nedumbassery in Kerala. Image Credit: GN Archive

Dubai: Thank you Prime Minister Modi for ending Haj subsidy that never existed.

The Indian government on Tuesday announced ending the subsidy saying the move would help empower Muslims with dignity. Making the announcement, minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said: “We believe in empowerment without appeasement.”

Naqvi did not elaborate what he meant by “appeasement” but for decades, Haj subsidy remained a whip in the hands of right-wing parties to attack political rivals. The dole – nothing more than a sleight of hand by the government – was used by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to embarrass rivals by accusing them of “appeasing” Muslims by subsiding expenses involved in the pilgrimage to Makkah and Madina. It also targeted Muslims for being a recipient of government aid to fulfil their religious obligation. Angered by this attack, several Muslims have been demanding an end to the subsidy. 

However, it is important to understand what was this subsidy and whether Muslims actually benefitted from it. In 2016-17, the government budgeted Rs 4.5 billion subsidy for around 100,000 Muslims who performed Haj last year. Each pilgrim paid around Rs 220,000 (amount varies each year) for airfare, stay in Makkah and Madina and for miscellaneous expenses. This money is paid to government-managed Haj committees which then transfers this money to other agencies. In other words, each Muslim pays for his/her own Haj expenses.

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So, why then government needs to provide a subsidy? A significant chunk of money paid by Muslims goes to India’s government-owned national carrier Air India which enjoys a virtual monopoly on Haj circuit. The airline picks up passengers from around a dozen cities and flies them to Jeddah. The government argues that the actual expenses incurred by Muslims is more than what they pay. This is where the subsidy angle kicks in. The Air India inflates India-Jeddah tickets during the Haj season. This so-called government subsidy is used to pay for tickets that are always higher than the prevailing airfare charged by other airlines. A breakdown would show that an Air India ticket to Jeddah would cost more than a trip to Los Angeles from India.

Essentially, the government takes money from one pocket and puts it back in another. Muslim have always demanded global tenders for Haj flights and for providing accommodation in Makkah and Madina. Now that this “subsidy” has been formally withdrawn, India must invite private players to provide transport and logistics for pilgrims.

However, while Naqvi sought to take a high moral ground by claiming that his party appeases no section of the society, his own government spends billions of rupees on organising Hindu pilgrimages every year.