NEW DELHI // An order by India's highest court to eliminate the annual government subsidy for tens of thousands of Haj pilgrims has drawn surprising praise from Muslim leaders.
A two-judge bench of the supreme court directed the government on Tuesday to phase out the 7 billion-rupee-a-year (Dh478 million) subsidy over the next ten years.
Crucially, India's supreme court did not deem the Haj subsidy unconstitutional. Instead, the judgment was based on two factors: that the subsidy went against Islamic principles, and that Muslim pilgrims were no longer benefiting from the subsidy.
The ruling also won support from across the political and ideological spectrum - a rare occurrence in national politics.
In his written opinion, Justice Aftab Alam cited the Quran, noting that the pilgrimage to Mecca was required only of Muslims who could afford it.
Governments, mosques, foundations and individuals across the Muslim world each year supply funding for pilgrims who can not otherwise perform the Haj.
But Mr Alam stated that it went against Islam's tenets for the state to provide such a subsidy for any of the 170,000 Indian Muslims allowed to travel to Mecca during the holy season.
"If all the facts were made known, a good many of the pilgrims would not be very comfortable in the knowledge that their Haj is funded to a substantial extent by the government," Mr Alam wrote. "The Haj subsidy is something best done away with."
The ruling was a response to tussles between private Haj-tour operators and the government, that have worked their way up from lower courts, over how to split the Saudi Arabia-mandated quota of 170,000 pilgrims between them.
Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid mosque, said a decade was far too long for the subsidy to be phased out. "It should be done away with within a year," he told reporters.
Salman Khurshid, minister for minority affairs and a member of the Congress party, which heads the coalition government, expressed no surprise about the court's decision, telling reporters that discussions to "roll back the Haj subsidy" had been under way for four years. The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) welcomed the ruling, too.
India's Haj subsidy started in 1954, as an idea initiated by the then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, with flights between Mumbai and Jeddah. Additional flight legs were added over the years, and since 1984, all Haj traffic has been shared by Air India and Saudia, the national carriers of India and Saudi Arabia.
The monopoly of these airlines has proven the most contentious point of the subsidy because, as Mr Alam pointed out, the government pays 38,800 rupees out of the 54,800 rupees price of the ticket; pilgrims pay the remaining 16,000 rupees.
This amounts, said Asaduddin Owaisi, a member of parliament from the city of Hyderabad, to simply being a subsidy for Air India. Ticket prices would be far lower, he said yesterday, if Air India's monopoly were broken and pilgrims simply bought their own, unsubsidised tickets on other airlines.
The cost, to the government, of the subsidy has spiked in recent years. In 1991, according to government statistics, 21,035 pilgrims went on a subsidised Haj, at a cost of 105.1m rupees.
Last year, those numbers had risen to 125,000 pilgrims and 6.85bn rupees respectively. The total quota for Indian pilgrims, as set by Saudi Arabia, stands at 170,000, so the remaining 45,000 pilgrims go on the Haj through private tour operators.
Pilgrims winning subsidised tickets are chosen by lottery from the candidates who apply to the Haj Committee of India. This year the committee received more than 300,000 applications.
Shakir Hussain, chief executive of the Mumbai-based committee, would not comment on whether he supported or opposed the supreme court directive.
"Whatever the government policy is, we will implement. Our job is to follow orders," Mr Hussain said yesterday. He did add, however, that "we have helped many, many people go on the pilgrimage - people who could not otherwise afford it."
Economics apart, Mr Owaisi said, there are other questions at stake.
"For so long, we Muslims have been telling the government not to interfere in our personal law systems," he said. "So why should we want them to intervene in our performance of the Haj? We shouldn't allow that."
The Haj subsidy has often been at the centre of petitions to separate religion and state.
Last January, the supreme court ruled against Prafull Goradia, a former BJP member of parliament who had challenged the constitutional validity of the subsidy. Mr Goradia argued that, as a Hindu, his taxes were going toward funding Haj pilgrimages.
"Mine was a matter of principle," Mr Goradia said yesterday. "A self-proclaimed secular state should not interfere in any religion at all."
A standard rebuttal to this argument has been that the Indian government also bears expenses for Hindu pilgrimages, such as to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, or Lake Manasarovar in Tibet.
But Mr Goradia responded that India only provides facilities along the way for pilgrims. "The state should just ensure law and order for citizens. Nobody pays for transport to Manasarovar."
Mr Owaisi also observed that there had been "a tectonic shift" in the priorities of India's Muslim community over the last few years.
"Recently, India's planning commission came out with its poverty figures, which said that Muslims have the highest poverty rate in urban areas, of 33 per cent, and that Muslims have the highest levels of illiteracy," he said. "Really, the Haj subsidy amount should be allocated for the purposes of educating India's minorities."
The Muslims in his constituency in Hyderabad, Mr Owaisi said, were more concerned about development and education, and not about the Haj subsidy.
"Removing the subsidy won't be unpopular at all," he said. "What would be unpopular would be to not get schools, or to be harassed by the police. Those are the important issues."