The pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of Islam. The Koran teaches that each and every follower of the faith who is able to afford it must make the journey to Mecca once in their lifetime.
In India, where some 180 million Muslims make up by far the largest religious minority, the Hindu nationalist-led government announced significant changes to its hajj policy early this year.
"With immediate effect, there will be no (public) subsidies for the hajj," announced the Union Minister of Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi in New Delhi. The step – so said the minister – is aimed at "empowering minorities without appeasement policies".
Use of the term "appeasement" is a sideswipe at the opposition Congress Party, repeatedly accused by Modi's BJP of simply telling the large Muslim minority what it wants to hear and in fact running around after it, in a bid to win votes. The BJP minister's clear message was that the government had had enough of the "implicit pandering" to Muslims.
Shortly before announcing the subsidy withdrawal, Naqvi had visited Mecca and signed the annual agreement over the allocation of the Indian quota. "Last year, Saudi Arabia raised India's hajj quota by 35,000 and this year by a further 5,000 – making it 175,000," the minister from New Delhi was pleased to announce.
Minister Naqvi's explanation for the rise shows that the allocation of pilgrim numbers is not solely based on religion and proportional representation: "The popularity of Prime Minister Modi with the Saudi authorities helped us to secure this increase," he said.
India's central government is responsible for negotiating with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in all matters concerning the hajj. To this end, it maintains a well-staffed embassy in Jeddah.
Administration of the pilgrimages is the remit of the "Haj Committee of India" (HCI). This organisation, founded in 2002, answers to the Minister of Minority Affairs and has offices in all the states of this enormous nation. In line with the Saudi Arabian model, which allocates pilgrims internationally according to quotas, the HCI operates on a national level: The distribution of the Indian national contingent across the country's states is dependent on the size of the Muslim population in each area.
Recourse to the Koran
With its recently-announced withdrawal of hajj subsidies, the Indian government is responding to a 2012 Supreme Court request that the subsidy should be gradually withdrawn over a 10-year period. In their decision, the judges referred not least to the Koran, which only obliges those with the financial means at their disposal to make the pilgrimage. The Supreme Court order that funds saved by the travel subsidy cut should be channelled into education programmes for the socially-disadvantaged Muslim minority is a ground-breaking approach.
Interestingly, reactions to the announcement of the withdrawal of the state hajj subsidy were rather restrained. While the HCI issued a statement calling for implementation of the order to be deferred by one year, thereby waiting until sea routes to Jeddah have been reinstated – a plan that the Saudi authorities have in the meantime approved – representatives of the minority called on the government to make good on its pledge to channel saved funds into education programmes for marginalised Muslim communities.
Cheated in the name of the hajj subsidy?
Criticism is not aimed at the revocation of the subsidy, but at the special status allocated by the Indian government in the pilgrimage programme to the state carrier Air India, a status that the minority believes drives prices up. "There should be an open bidding process for the air tickets," Maulana Khalid Farangi Mahal is quoted as saying in The Times of India. "I'm certain that most airlines will reduce their prices," Mahal continues.
Allem Faizee follows the same train of thought in the online portal ummid.com, where he talks about the "hajj subsidy myth": "The hajj subsidy was never used for the benefit of the pilgrims. The airlines demanded higher ticket prices, the funds for the hajj subsidy served to help the financially-ailing Air India," says the journalist.
Indeed, the flight booking process has little to do with competition. Until further notice, most of the pilgrims from India have no other option but to book their flight to Saudi Arabia with Air India and Saudi Airlines at over-inflated prices.
In a bid to take the wind out of the sails of increasing criticism from the minority, in late February the Indian government announced it would reduce air ticket prices. This decision, says Minister Naqvi, will put an end to the "political and economic exploitation" of the pilgrims.
The new rates that the minister supplied for various embarkation points are indeed less than last year's prices. But it didn't take long for minority group representatives to issue a response, claiming that the prices on offer were considerably higher than in previous years. For example, General Secretary of the "All India Muslim Personal Law Board" (AIMPLB) Maulana Wali Rahmani complained that the Muslims had been cheated in the name of the (hajj) subsidy. The minority representative described the government's communication as "window dressing" and "misleading".
Subsidy withdrawal only for Muslims
The debate surrounding India′s hajj policy throws the tense relationship between the ruling BJP and the country′s Muslim minority into stark relief. The government clearly did not clear these amendments in advance with key organisations and decision-makers within the minority group – let alone involve them in the decision-making process.
The most telling aspect of the Hindu-nationalist government's stance is that the abolition of pilgrim subsidies only affects grants for Muslim pilgrimages. Whereas Narendra Modi's government has gone ahead with the cancellation of the hajj subsidy, public grants for pilgrimages made by the Hindu majority remain in place.
These subsidies are "too numerous to be listed," writes Swaminathan Aiyar in a comment piece. The liberal columnist comes to the conclusion that "a secular state that dispenses with hajj subsidies must of course also prohibit subsidies for pilgrimages of all other religions."
This is – as already stated – a liberal position. A position that falls upon deaf ears within the party of the Indian Prime Minister.
© Qantara.de 2018
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Dr. Ronald Meinardus is head of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation's regional office for southern Asia in New Delhi