Sound judgment

Sound judgment

The Supreme Court has made the idea of Haj pilgrimage and the role of the state in it clearer by directing the government to phase out the Haj subsidy in 10 years. It wanted elimination of the subsidy not because it is constitutionally invalid but because it can not be defended from a Quranic point of view. The court had last year upheld the validity of the Haj Pilgrims Act which provides for a subsidy every year for pilgrims. It had held that it did not militate against  the secular nature of the state. It also did not find it discriminatory because governments are used to facilitating the visits of members of other communities to their religious places. Such expenditure is not very large either.

The court’s view that these funds could be better utilised for the educational advancement of the community is sound. Muslims are among the economically and socially backward sections of the population and more purposeful government initiatives can help to improve their situation. The court has noted that according to the Quran, Haj pilgrimage is intended only for those who can bear their expenses for it in terms of travel and residence. Many of the pilgrims who benefit from the subsidy would themselves not be able to accept the idea of government support for their pilgrimage if they were aware of it. The amount involved in Haj subsidy has been increasing each year, touching about Rs 700 crore last year, but this was not the main consideration of the court. Such increasing expenditure could be better utilised for the benefit of the community. In the absence of a clear idea about the correct religious sense of the pilgrimage, the government initiative actually became a mismanaged political project. The court has done well to order an end to the practice of sending large official delegations to accompany the pilgrims. These had become forums to bestow favours and patronage to many people. It has also sought streamlining of the process of selection of pilgrims and a better policy on registration of private tour operators who may have a bigger role now.

The government and many Muslim organisations have welcomed the court’s order. Union minister for minority affairs Salman Khurshid has said that the government would ensure that the phasing out of the subsidy would not inconvenience Haj pilgrims. It is good that the subsidy can no longer be made a divisive political issue.

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