Narendra Modi government's move to withdraw Haj subsidy is in itself hardly a revolutionary step.
However, taken as part of a continuous process to end politics of appeasement in favour of Muslim empowerment, it is an important marker for reform.
It may be argued that the government did little more than implement a Supreme Court order while paying heed to voices rising from among the community and other interest groups such as private tour operators. That is true. However, by withdrawing the subsidy four years ahead of the Supreme Court deadline and pledging to contribute the savings towards education of Muslim girls, the Modi government has signalled the right intent.
The government spent Rs 250 crore last year towards airfare subsidies for Haj pilgrims (that is essentially the money that is being withdrawn) so the notional saving amounts to Rs 700 crore. The figure, however, is not important.
The step puts the focus back in the area where governments need to work " education and development of Muslims in India for their real upliftment " rather than feeding their sense of entitlement. The move is also a symbolic blow to the politics of appeasement which ran so deep in India that a subsidy which did little to benefit Muslims and, in fact, served to restrict their options during the journey to Mecca was long sold as "financial aid".
The subsidy was also, as the apex court ruled while justifying the phase out in 2012, against the teachings of Quran. The fact that the Supreme Court had to cite the Holy Book to rule against the practice instead of just pointing at the Constitution should tell us how broken our "secularism" is. In fact, a 2011 ruling by the Supreme Court (Prafull Goradia vs Union Of India presided over by two judge-Bench of Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra) upheld the subsidy as not violative of the Constitution.
In this respect, Modi government's decision could be interpreted as a push towards restoration of secular values though such an assumption won't quite work when the State continues to wield financial and administrative control over thousands of Hindu temples against the spirit of Article 26 of the Constitution (more of this later). Prima facie, it seems counter-intuitive to suggest that withdrawal of financial aid will help bring down the cost of the Hajis' journey to Mecca. Yet it isn't hard to understand. The Saudi Arabia and Indian governments are reportedly thrashing out the logistics of letting Hajis take the sea route to Mecca, which should, to a large extent, rationalise prices. The government will continue taking care of medical expenses.
Additionally, as Union Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, quoting 2017 rates, said at a news conference on Tuesday according to a report in The Times of India, the "choice of embarkation port gives pilgrims the option of cheaper travel. A pilgrim from Gaya would pay Rs 1,20,000 but if he or she travels from Kolkata, the cost would be Rs 70,000. Similarly, it would cost Rs 1,10,000 from Srinagar but the cost would come down to Rs 60,000 from Delhi. The cost would be Rs 1 lakh from Indore and Rs 58,000 from Mumbai, respectively."
Now that the Modi government has withdrawn the subsidy, Congress claims that it was beneficial only for the airlines, not the Hajis. "It is the airlines that were benefiting¦ the normal fare from any part of the country to Jeddah is far less than the airlines are charging. The actual beneficiaries are the airlines¦ so let them not say that the government was pleasing anybody," Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said.
The Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha didn't care to explain why the Congress failed to end the subsidy during its tenure if it only benefitted the airlines.
The second line of criticism has come from so-called liberals who have joined issue with Islamists (not for the first time) to posit that this move is indicative not of 'secularism' but 'majority appeasement'. They draw equivalence with Hindu pilgrimage to claim that unless Modi government withdraws all aids to Hindu religious events or yatras, this will be seen as yet another attempt to 'target Muslims' and 'appease the base.'
All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi, for instance, cited examples of temple renovations in Gujarat and Rajasthan, and funds allocation for Mahakumbh to argue that Centre's move against subsidy is 'discriminatory'. This is a false equivalence because when it comes to government control over religious institutions, state governments through "their respective Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Acts", as Swarajyamag points out, "have assumed management and financial control of over a hundred thousand Hindu temples" unlike minority religious institutions which enjoy protection under Article 26.
This blatantly discriminatory practice ensures that there is no level-playing field, and therefore drawing an equivalence between Haj subsidy and aid for Hindu religious events or temple renovations is wrong. If government treats temples as source of public funds, then they are also responsible for upkeep and upholding of religious events. This, however, puts paid to all claims of "secularism".
As R Jagannathan argued in The Times of India in August, "In the five major southern states over 1,00,000 temples are being run directly or indirectly by governments, making a mockery of the idea of the secular State where separation of religious from temporal activity ought to have been a central principle of governance."
The liberal argument is little more than a distraction that takes away from the thrust of the move, which is undeniably in the right direction. In conjunction with Modi government's steps to relax Mehram rules (Muslim women can travel for Haj without male guardian: PM Modi), bringing the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill to criminalise the practice of triple talaq, the move towards effecting foundational changes in the lives of Muslim population is evident. It is about time, too.