Roll back sops for all religions

Roll back sops for all religions

The central government has announced that it has withdrawn the subsidy for pilgrims performing the Haj to Macca. Speaking in the context of that...

The central government has announced that it has withdrawn the subsidy for pilgrims performing the Haj to Macca. Speaking in the context of that decision, central minister Naqvi has said that this was done in order to protect the dignity of the members of the Muslim community and empower them without appeasement.

The statement made by the minister naturally gives rise to the doubt whether those that received the said subsidy all these years were lacking in self-respect – as also those belonging to other religions and continuing to receive it. It is being said that the money saved on account of the withdrawal of the subsidy will be utilised for providing other facilities for Muslim girls, such as education and other forms of empowerment.

We all know that there are large numbers of girls belonging to Hindu, Christian, Sikh and other religions who also are in dire need of such empowerment. Will the government, in order to empower them, do away with the subsidy which is currently being extended for religion-related activities?

Coming back to the question of the Haj subsidy, it needs to be noted, at the very beginning, that it is not a concession instituted by Indian political parties in order to ingratiate themselves with the Muslim community. It was as long as 85 years ago, in 1932, that the British first introduced it in the form of a concession given to Haj pilgrims travelling by sea from the ports of Calcutta and Bombay.

And, as the aviation industry grew, the government owned Air India offered discounts since 1973. The Government of Saudi Arabia also began to extend some dispensations from 1984. Gradually, over time, the regime of concessions was extended to cover other related areas such as food, health and lodging at terminals.

The Supreme Court, in 2012, directed the central government to phase out the Haj subsidy, in a sunset arrangement, over a period of ten years. But, the government, however has, instead, wiped it out altogether in the matter of a mere 3 years! It has brought down the amount spent on subsidising air travel from 420 crores in 2016 to 225 crores in 2017. And now the entire subsidy has been given up.

Not that the subsidy meant much to the Muslim community or that it has suffered on account of its withdrawal, as the people going for the Haj are largely from the upper middle-class who constitute a very small percentage of the total population of Muslims.

The dispensation, however, led to many adverse consequences. One of those was the decision of some state governments to extend concessions to other communities. The decision of the Tamil Nadu government to provide a concession for Christians travelling to Jerusalem and the subsidised pilgrimages to Mansarovar and Chardham are examples of such arrangements.

There are, of course, many other instances of government incurring considerable expenditure on the creation of facilities for pilgrims such as those made in the four Kumbhmelas at Haridwar, Ujjain, Nasik and Allahabad, apart from the ‘yatra’ to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet. These arrangements largely pertain to areas such as health, sanitation and security.

Questioning the central government’s move, AIMIM President, Asaduddin Owaisi has said that the measures taken by the BJP led state governments like UP and the Congress government in Karnataka (for the ‘Chardham yatra’) are as much vote-bank politics and intended to appease the Hindu community as the Haj subsidy is alleged to be for Muslims.

He has also said that he, himself, had been advocating withdrawal of the Haj subsidy and spending the money saved on otherwise empowering Muslim girls. Among the many questions he put to the BJP are: whether the latter would work for the removal of Article 290A (pertaining to certain Devaswom funds) of the Constitution; whether the grant of 1 crore by the Haryana government to Dera Sacha Sauda and a similar grant of 100 crore to the Madhya Pradesh government for the ‘Simhastha Mahakumbh’ were not for winning over one community.

Now, the points raised by Owaisi are a bit of a mixed bag. Perhaps, the subsidy given pilgrims to Mansarovar can be compared to that given to The Haj counterparts at the individual level. But it is necessary to examine on what areas governments spend money on events such as the Kumbhmela.

When millions of people congregate at one place, it is actually the responsibility of the government concerned to make appropriate arrangements for their security, and health and sanitation leads et cetera. To that extent it is alright. But to go beyond that, and actually to indulge in expensive advertising inviting persons to visit such events and participate can hardly be justified.

There are rationalists who allege that governments improve transport facilities to pilgrim centres in order to encourage the public to lose themselves in, as Karl Marx called it, the opiate of religion. However, in reality, governments do not tell people to go to one holy place or the other. They only see where people are going and make necessary arrangements for their security and other requirements such as the maintenance of law and order.

As we all know this arrangement has been in existence for a long time. Even in mega events such as the “Pushkarams” of Godavari, Krishna rivers et cetera the facilities created such as the construction of building ghats, laying of roads, putting up temporary toilets, changing rooms et cetera are all common facilities created for the general public.

Therefore, any amount of money that is spent on such activities should not be reckoned towards the propagation of religion by the government concerned. I myself had undertaken several such activities in a very pucca manner during my days in service. Not only these, but activities such as music festivals, drama festivals and other cultural activities, political rallies and conferences, caste-based gatherings et cetera also need government support for ensuring that they are conducted in an orderly manner.

Merely because the government concerned is duty-bound to make bandobust arrangements for such events, we cannot jump to the conclusion that it is taking part in those political, religious or cultural activities.

Unfortunately, in recent times, one has seen the unseemly effort by some governments to encourage the public to participate in religious gatherings and receive the benediction of a particular god or goddess, spending precious public money on such activities. This would most certainly amount to government undertaking religion-related activities.

Whether to go on a pilgrimage or not depends entirely on a person’s ability and interest. No government intervention, interference, encouragement or discouragement is necessary. The government should restrict itself to providing basic facilities for food, shelter, clothing, security and health and sanitation related requirements. It is not the job of the government to cater to the religious requirements of the general public.

One state government has been extending financial assistance to children to send their parents to what is known as “Sravana yatra.” Such matters are the internal affairs of families and no responsibility of the government.

The government has now withdrawn the Haj subsidy in order not to appease Muslims and to protect their dignity. This withdrawal has caused no harm or loss to that community, as those who wish to go will go in any case.

What we are left with is the question whether to protect, similarly, the dignity and self-respect of the Hindu community, the facilities now being provided at public expense will also be withdrawn. Not doing so can perhaps open the doors for allegations of a less than impartial attitude. It is questionable enough that the government should undertake subsidising of religion-based activities such as travel et cetera for any religion. To do it for one, and then to deny it for all others in the name of secularism, is bordering on the absurd.

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