The author compliments the Supreme Court for its sagacity in dealing with a potentially explosive communal issue in a sensible & mature manner whilst rapping the Government hard on its knuckles for perpetrating loot by the system of patronage and granting of favours in the guise of the “Goodwill Hajj Delegation”
It started as a political stunt with an eye on the powerful Muslim vote bank but over the years, the expenditure was ever-increasing and putting an enormous strain on the exchequer. Thanks to the burgeoning population and inflation, the number of pilgrims and cost for the Haj Pilgrimage soared from 21,035 pilgrims and Rs. 10.51 crores in 1994 to 125,000 pilgrims and Rs. 685 crores in 2011. While the air-fare was Rs.54,800, the pilgrims were charged Rs.16,000 and the balance of Rs.38,000 was borne by the State as a “subsidy”. One would have thought that in a secular State pledged to treating all religions equally, singling out one community for preferential treatment would smack of discrimination but surprisingly, in an earlier judgement in Prafull Garodia vs. UOI, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the subsidy.
.. while even Pakistan, the symbol of Islamdom, did not send any “goodwill delegation” to Saudi Arabia even though millions of its citizens went for the Haj pilgrimage, the Indian government spared no expense in sending a platoon of nearly 30 “worthies” to “convey goodwill” to the Government of Saudi Arabia
Anyway, in its verdict in UOI vs. Rafiq Sheik Bhikan, the Supreme Court has effectively reversed the injustice. The Court knew that it was dealing with a potentially explosive situation and used a lot of tact. First, it expressed humility by stating that it had no claim to speak on behalf of all the Muslims of the country and it would be presumptuous for it to try to tell the Muslims what is for them a good or bad religious practice. “Nevertheless, we have no doubt that a very large majority of Muslims applying to the Haj Committee for going to Hajj would not be aware of the economics of their pilgrimage and if all the facts are made known a good many of the pilgrims would not be very comfortable in the knowledge that their Hajj is funded to a substantial extent by the Government” it added in a persuasive tone.
To substantiate its proposition, the Court quoted from verse 97 of the Holy Quran where it is stated that only those only those who can afford the expense should undertake the pilgrim and that no one should beg, borrow or steal for this purpose. Taking subsidy from the Government for this purpose was akin to “begging“, the Court impliedly suggested and, therefore, “un-Islamic“.
The sagacity of the Court was also evident from the fact that while it found that there was “no justification” for the subsidy, it did not direct an immediate stop to the scheme but said that it had to be “progressively reduced” so as to completely eliminate it within a period of 10 years from today.
Also, to appease the sentiments of the Muslim community who may feel unfairly deprived of the subsidy, the Court suggested that “the subsidy money may be more profitably used for upliftment of the community in education and other indices of social development“. Of course, it is another thing that these are very abstract words and may mean nothing in reality.
.. while the Governments were “squeamish” about being seen as “anti-minority”, even the Supreme Court was “pussyfooting” about the issue by giving the 10 year phaseout period. Why do in 10 years what can be done now?” .. By quoting from scripture, the courts are laying minefields in the path of upholding the constitution
The Court took off its “kid gloves” in exposing the loot that went on in the name of the “Goodwill Hajj Delegation“. The Court pointed that while even Pakistan, the symbol of Islamdom, did not send any “goodwill delegation” to Saudi Arabia even though millions of its citizens went for the Haj pilgrimage, the Indian government spared no expense in sending a platoon of nearly 30 “worthies” to “convey goodwill” to the Government of Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, there was not even a fig leaf of criteria or guidelines on the basis of which the worthies were selected for the “Goodwill Delegation” and not surprisingly, some persons were able to go on multiple occasions. The Court fumed that the nomination to the Goodwill Delegation “worked on patronage and granting of favours” and that it was in “complete violation of Article 14 of the Constitution“. It minced no words in stating that the Government’s defense that the purpose was to “convey goodwill” and “oversee arrangements” was “quite unconvincing” and that while the respective Countries had engaged competent professionals to handle the complex task, “intervention by a disparate group of persons going to Saudi Arabia for the first time is bound to create more confusion than being of any help“. The Court was also contemptuous that “a large, unwieldy, amorphous and randomly selected delegation” would serve the purpose of “conveying goodwill“. The Court suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that if the Government was so keen to constitute a “goodwill delegation”, a group of ten Indians from among the very large number of Indian pilgrims who were there at their own expense could be chosen and that these individuals would be “a far more appropriate and representative Indian team than a motley delegation whose members are selected on irrelevant considerations“.
Interestingly, the verdict attracted diverse reactions from the Muslim intelligentsia. While radicals like Jawahirullah of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam vehemently opposed the verdict, calling the subsidy a “right” and not a “concession”, moderates like A. Faizur Rahman of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought welcomed the judgement and suggested that instead of sending a poor Muslim on a pilgrimage, the amount ought to be spent for his children’s education.
Other liberals like Asaduddin Owaisi of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen & Saifuddin Soz also welcomed the ruling saying that the Ulemas had already declared the whole concept of a subsidy for the Haj as “un-islamic“. Both leaders were unanimous in saying that it was a “mystery” as to who were the real beneficiaries of the subsidy in view of the lack of transparency and suggested that the money should be used for educating the minority community. Anwar Pasha, a citizen expressed satisfaction that the directive would end the corruption and commission to middlemen. “Only a very small percentage of pilgrims were benefiting and there was no fairness in the system” he pointed out.
Some Muslim leaders like K.M. Khader Mohideen of the Indian Union Muslim League were sanguine that the 10-year time limit would never come. He equated it with the reservation for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes which, when begun, was only for 10 years but has continued indefinitely thereafter.
The BJP and RSS were critical of the judgement but only in the sense that the 10-year period stipulated by the Court was “too long” and the subsidy ought to have been “stopped forthwith“. “Sponsoring pilgrimage has become a competitive political stunt in India” RSS said and asked how a secular government could pay for the expenditure of a religious ritual of believers of one sect. Not wanting to let go of an opportunity to score points with the Hindu masses, Yogi Adityanath of the BJP quipped that “Like Haj, Kailash Mansarovar Yatra should also be subsidised“. Alternatively, the money saved should be spent on upkeep of pilgrimage centres across the Country, a RSS spokesman added.
Some objective commentators were also critical of the verdict pointing out that while the Governments were “squeamish” about being seen as “anti-minority”, even the Supreme Court was “pussyfooting” about the issue by giving the 10 year phaseout period. “Why do in 10 years what can be done now?” firstpost.com demanded to know. The commentator was also critical of the Court quoting from the Koran to support its verdict warning that “By quoting from scripture, the courts are laying minefields in the path of upholding the constitution“. He asked what the position would have been if the Koran had supported the grant of subsidy. “Consider the embarrassment if a jehadi comes to court saying the Koran tells him to kill kafirs, will the court then uphold his stand? Or will it quote from another verse to defeat him?“, the author asked rhetorically. “It is best if the courts stick to the law and not look for divine support to do what the constitution enjoins them to do“, the author suggested.
So, the million dollar question now is whether this verdict will mark the end of direct and indirect deployment of state funds and state resources in many other purely religious events.
Vellalapatti Swaminathan Iyer