Written by Mohib Ahmad
Google the words Haj Subsidy and the top three results are from the rabid right wing Muslim-bashers. All the first 30 results are related to India and that means it is a big issue for Indian and Indians.
Since, the Haj pilgrimage has just concluded, it is the right time to ask this question, are we really getting a Haj subsidy?
First, let us analyze what exactly this so-called Haj subsidy entails. An Indian Muslim, who chooses to go to Haj through government run Haj committees, gets a subsidy of around Rs. 20,000 on their Air India ticket of Rs. 32,000. That is it ! The minimum cost of a Haj package through the Haj committees is around Rs. 92,000, of which Rs. 20,000 is paid by the Indian government to Air India as a subsidy on the Hajis ticket. The total Haj airline ticket subsidy was around Rs. 150 crore for the year 2001 and has been enmarked to Rs. 225 crores for the year 2005. It is interesting to note that the normal ticket to Saudi Arabia costs around Rs. 25,000 but Air India charges Rs. 34,000 from the Hajis. So, effectively the government is giving a subsidy of Rs. 12,000 only !
The Sangh Parivar zealots make is sound like that the Indian government sponspors an Annual-Go-To-Haj trip for anyone who is interested. Why this is such a big issue for them? I don’t think the amount involved (Rs. 225 crores) is the itching factor. They are more piqued at the fact that it allows Muslims to go to Mecca and Medina, their holy cities which are outside India, out there is some land called Arabia. The usual argument of these fanatics is that India and India alone should be the pitrabhuumi (fatherland) and punyabhuumi (holyland) of all Indians and since the holy places of Muslims and Christians are elsewhere, they can never be patriotic enough. This argument would have been plain ridiculous had it not been so malevolent. So, what they are trying to say is that a Hindu born and brought up in USA can not be patriotic enough to USA, if he chooses to visit the Somnath mandir in India as a pilgrim. A Swede, who converts to Hinduism, can not be loyal to Sweden if he scouts Mathura and Varanasi in search of spiritual salvation. The patriotism of all Sikhs who visit Nankana sahab in Pakistan is somehow suspect and all Hindus who undergo the arduous Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage can not be termed Indians anymore because that site is under Chinese dominion. Welcome to Ram Rajya 2.0, as espoused by a few hate mongers. But then, these gentlemen hardly talk or understand a five lettered word, ‘sense’. We would let them go for the time being.
Coming back to the Haj subsidy, Haj is obligatory only on those who are physically and financially capable of performing the journey. So, all the expenses should be incurred by the Hajis himself and the government should not pay any part of that. Fair enough. But is the government actually providing any financial support to the Hajis? I don’t think so. The government is only subsidising their air tickets because the airlines they are travelling with belongs to the government. In other words it is a discount on an overpriced product. There are many companies that provide discounts to their regular users. What we fail to appreciate is that these Hajis are providing atleast 84 crores as revenue to Air India per year, year after year for the pathetic service they receive in return. Is it merely a rumour that the worst Air India carriers are employed by Air India for the Haj travel? Last year, on its way back, one of the Air India plane broke down. It has to be grounded in Sharjah for a full night. The Hajis were told that they would have to spend the entire night in the plane. Customer service anyone? After protests from the passengers, Air India finally relented and issued boarding passes to the passengers. Which traveller in his right mind would prefer travelling with Air India with so many airlines providing world-class service at comptetitive rates, nowadays?
More than 1,20,000 Indians went for Haj in the year 2001. That is a big big number and the that too within a specific time schedule. Out of these, around 50,000 chose to go with private tour operators. Why? Because there are many private tour operators that offer Haj packages for as low as Rs. 68,000, without any government subsidy (yes, the government gives subsidy only on the Air India ticket, not to the Hajis per se). What does that tells us? Let me make a guess, these tour operators are more efficient?
So, the goverment of India, in order to cover for their awful management of Air India, to hold on to a constant (and unquestioning) source of revenue (year, after year) want Indian Muslims to believe that it is doing a lot of favour by doling out some subsidy on an overpriced air ticket. That too for its own vote bank politics. Come on !
The consecutive governments in India have only used symbolism in the name of minority policies. Instead of focusing on the real issues, as to why Indian Muslims are at the bottom of the social rung, why the literacy rate of Muslims is the lowest, what are the reasons that Muslims fail to enrol their kids for school, what can be done to utilise the tremendous skills of business and entrepreneurship, all we are given is a pathetic subsidy on an overpriced airline ticket and that too, mainly for its own good. Symbolism sells, in India, it sells big. The fact that it also gives an issue to perennial Muslim-haters like Togadia, Singhal and Giriraj Kishore, is of no concern to it. Afterall, when these people bark, and occasionally bite, which way the terrified Muslim would turn to? Is it just a co-incidence or a well though strategy, that the BJP led government did not abolish the Haj subisidy in its 6 years of power because that would deprive its core Muslim-bashing constituency one of the favourite issues? Even Muslim leaders such as Syed Shahabuddin (not that Siwan hoodlum, but the ex-diplomat) has been demanding for 20 years that the Indian government should do away with the so-called Haj subsidy. He also claims that no Muslim leader ever asked for it.
The bottomline is this, Indian Muslims should reject the subsidized Air India ticket, if not for anything else then for common sense only. Once the Haj market opens and this forced monopoly of Air India goes, I would not be surprised if other airlines start offering discounts to the Hajis. Afterall, which company wouldn’t want to tap in an yearly market in excess of Rs. 350 crores, and that too, just for the airfare.