NEW DELHI: In a big gesture for Shia Muslims ahead of the general elections, the Narendra Modi government has decided to launch a direct Air India flight to the holy city of Najaf in Iraq.
Najaf is renowned as the site of the tomb of Caliph 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, who is revered by all Muslims but is considered to be the first Imam of the Shias.
The loss-making airline will operate the flight from Lucknow on Mondays and Thursdays and the inaugural flight will be flagged off by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Thursday.
The five-hour long flight — with a stopover in Delhi — will have an approximate passenger footfall of 300 people, sources said, adding that the scheduled departure and arrival of the flight will be 10.50 am and 5 pm respectively.
Sources in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said the flight is being started keeping in view "minority sentiments" and pending demands from the community. They added that the project got a special push from Singh, who is also BJP’s MP from Lucknow.
The capital city of Uttar Pradesh has a sizeable population of Shias. Roughly, Shias constitute 10-13 percent of the total Muslim population in India and have traditionally been perceived to be warm towards the BJP. The only Muslim minister in Modi's cabinet, Union Minister of Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, is also a Shia. Besides Lucknow, other cities where Shias are in significant numbers Hyderabad, Kochi, Mumbai, Surat and Ahmedabad.
A senior official in MHA said, “Najaf has a lot of significance among Muslims. There is an annual pilgrimage that takes place to the holy city every year. There have been complaints from Indian Muslims regarding poor connectivity to Najaf. The project had been pending for around six months but the government decided to fast-track it considering minority sentiments."