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Government Must Review Its Haj Policy

Updated: November 19, 2011 4:57 pm

Why is the government being so abhorrently lackadaisical that the Supreme Court itself was constrained to intervene and pass strictures criticising its Haj policy? Till some time back, nobody was caring about it but considering the pertinent fact that the Supreme Court itself has now felt compelled to raise its deepest resentment against the callous manner in which the Centre is handling its Haj policy is more than adequate reason for the Centre to wake up from its deep slumber and review its Haj policy.

There is no reason why the government should not review its Haj policy and come out with a new one by removing all those provisions which came under scathing attack from the Supreme Court. Of course, it would have been much better if the Centre had not given the opportunity to the Supreme Court to castigate it openly on its Haj policy but it is never too late. At least now the government must wake up and plug all the loopholes in its Haj policy for which it came under a blistering attack from the apex court.

The Supreme Court on October 18, 2011, minced no words in coming down heavily on Centre’s Haj policy and termed it “bad practice” and ordered new policy by next year. What ignited the ire of the Supreme Court was the Centre’s ruthless policy of openly politicising the annual Haj pilgrimage by reserving the discretionary power to the government itself to nominate pilgrims under its own quota. This the Supreme Court found completely unacceptable.

What added fuel to the fire was the Centre’s pernicious practice of politicising the annual Haj pilgrimage by permitting official delegations to accompany the pilgrims for which it offered a huge subsidy thus entailing a huge loss on the State’s exchequer. The apex court took strong exception to a high-level official Haj delegation that visits Saudi Arabia every year as state guests with all expenses being paid by the government.

What kind of practice is this? Maybe it has a political use but it surely is a bad religious practice. “It is not really a Haj,’’ said a bench of Justice Aftab Alam and Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai. The Court made the snide remarks while it was dealing with the Centre’s appeal challenging a Bombay High Court judgment that had directed the Union Ministry of External Affairs to allow certain private operators to operate the services of 800 pilgrims out of the 11,000 pilgrims earmarked under the VIP quota subsidised by the government. The apex court Bench had stayed the High Court order on October 10. While further extending the stay, the apex court on October 18 minced no words as stated above in expressing its huge displeasure in which VIPs, particularly government officials brazenly violate all norms and go on the pilgrimage at the cost of the state exchequer.

The Supreme Court bench categorically told Attorney General GE Vahanvati and counsel Harris Beeran, appearing for the Centre that the government must evolve a new policy for Haj next year which would be monitored by the court. “We will oversee the policy. We will keep the matter pending till then,’’ the bench said. Justice Aftab Alam in particular was at pains to point out that in the past the Haj pilgrimage was undertaken by people in their old age at their own cost after discharging all their duties. But now, it added, the government is funding the pilgrimages of even officials and other VIPs which is a bad religious practice.

It would be pertinent to mention here that every year around 1,70,000 pilgrims go for Haj. A lottery system is followed since the number of pilgrims yearning for Haj mounts up to three lakh every year. One lakh and twenty-five thousand pilgrims get selected through the Haj Committee, while 45,000 get through private tour operators. The government quota comprises 11,000 seats, which is divided amongst politically sensitive states like 1,500 for Jammu and Kashmir and rest through private tour operators to those states that apply in excess before the Haj Committee. The remaining seats are then dished out to those who apply before the Committee and have recommendations from eminent persons such as Prime Minister, Cabinet Minister or Member of Parliament.

This was exactly what enraged the Supreme Court to slam Centre’s Haj policy and term it a bad religious practice. The bench was also very critical of the treatment meted out to pilgrims by PTOs and lambasted the manner in which the Hajis were being fleeced. It is high time the government made the necessary amendments in its Haj policy as desired by the Supreme Court. It should not just disregard it by looking the other way or forwarding one excuse or the other for not making the necessary changes in its Haj policy.

By Sanjeev Sirohi

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