The ruling by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court that the Central government phase out the Haj subsidy (currently about `600 crore per annum) in 10 years has drawn bouquets and brickbats alike.
The Haj subsidy is being handed out since 1954 and around 1 lakh people avail it every year to travel to Mecca to fulfil the requirement laid out by Islam. India is the only country to offer this subsidy.
The flights carrying the pilgrims to Jeddah are usually chartered ones because they return empty, and naturally the fare is two to three times higher than the usual flight charges in the same route. The subsidy was introduced to allow the pilgrims some cushion in this regard.
Some Islamic scholars are of the opinion that Sharia prohibits a pilgrim from availing aid in any form to travel to the Holy Land. “A Haj is undertaken only if you have the money, are in good health, and have performed all your duties towards your family. Going on a Haj with money you borrowed from someone is absolutely prohibited,” says Shahi Imam of Delh’s Fatehpuri Masjid Mukarram Ahmed.
While some agree, others beg to differ. According to them, the withdrawal of the subsidy will take away from the poor faithful the only opportunity to undertake the pilgrimage.
The subsidies are not just confined to Haj alone, the Centre plays an active role in facilitating Amarnath and Kailas Manasarovar yatras. Hundreds of crores of rupees are spent indirectly in maintaining infrastructure and providing security to the pilgrims. There are a few states that subsidise Christian pilgrimages to Israel and Palestine.
Subsidies for various communities and their religious activities are nothing more than a time-tested tactic of vote bank politics. The political leadership wants to be seen as the ‘providers’ who will cater to the spiritual and material interests of the masses.
When humanity was taking baby steps towards political organisations, the tribal chieftains and kings came up with their ‘divine origin’ theory where the ruler was the representative of god on earth and his authority was unquestionable. Over the millennia, the spheres spiritual and temporal became separated (at least in the democracies) but the ability to swing public support through favouring religious affairs never lost its popularity among ruling classes.
The preamble of our Constitution clearly states the India is a secular state. The addition of ‘secularism was made 26 years after the Constitution came into effect, through the 42nd Amendment in 1976. The government must not favour or discriminate against any religion. So the government policy of subsidising religious activities is in contravention of the constitutional provisions.
Instead of following the pattern of separating religion and state, we have been following a policy of appeasement of communities. Governments of all hues have shied away from taking bold decisions on social reform for fear of backlash from one vote bank or the other. The absence of a Uniform Civil Code allows each community to force their primitive justice system on their members.
Most of the times, it is the judiciary that has thrown the light of rational wisdom into the labyrinths where the stranglehold of religious leadership keep the faithful in medieval darkness. Pressure from religious hawks kept the LGBT community under state-sponsored persecution under the draconian Section 377 of the IPC. Even under sharp criticism from courts, the government took several years to acknowledge that consensual sex between adults belonging to the same sex is not illegal.
The more the state dabbles in religious affairs, the more problems it will create. There will always be discontent and charges of bias. We have plenty of material problems such as poverty, unemployment, social evils, illiteracy, inadequate housing and infrastructure, social justice and corruption that need all the attention and resources of the government. Religion is each citizen’s personal matter and its pursuit should be left to them. It’s not fair to ask the people to foot bills of those in search of salvation.
The writer works for Postnoon.
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My interests lie in current affairs, social issues and political analysis. A strong believer of independent thinking and healthy scepticism.