NEW DELHI: Many may harbour doubts about the NDA government’s stand on the “co-existence of God and Caesar”, but clarity, it seems, is on its way. The government is contemplating to scrap government assistance to all pilgrimage trips irrespective of religion.
According to sources in the government, one should not read much politics into this proposition as the government is merely following a Supreme Court order regarding Haj subsidies in particular and pilgrimage subsidies in general.
The SC in 2012 had directed the Centre to gradually abolish the Haj subsidy over a period of 10 years. The apex court also said the Centre should invest that amount in education and other development measures for the minority community.
The source said the present government agrees with the Supreme Court on this matter. The government is of the view that its role should not be to provide monetary assistance but restricted to helping pilgrims obtain visas for the pilgrimage and with arrangements abroad, the source added.
“Moreover, if the government is doing this for one community, there will be demands from other communities too and it is not going to help the state exchequer,” the source said.
At present, the Union government spends crores of rupees as subsidies for pilgrims visiting various religious shrines. The major pilgrimage destinations receiving assistance from the Centre include the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra and the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. The Haj trip gets the largest chunk of the subsidy.
According to official figures, the government has spent `691 crore as Haj subsidy for 2013-14 and `836 crore in 2012-13. While the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra is currently organised under a bilateral arrangement with the Chinese government, the Indian government pays around `6,000 towards boarding and accommodation of each pilgrim.
All this may come to an end if the Modi government’s idea to scrap subsidies gets translated into reality. As usual with most of the decisions of this government, this one too has its origin in the PMO though other ministries, including the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Minority Affairs (MoMA), are also being kept in the loop.
“Despite the allegations that claim it is otherwise, this government sees state and religion as two separate entities. And the government is thinking about a whole lot of issues involved in its assistance to pilgrims,” said a source in the government.
It may be true but it is obvious that the prime target of this decision would be the Haj subsidy, which was started in 1993 by the then Congress government. Successive governments have continued it, arguing that Muslims are among the poorest members of society needing the assistance as many could not afford the journey otherwise. The other facilities provided by the government to the Haj pilgrims include setting up of hospitals and dispensaries in Saudi Arabia, supply of medicines, deputation of medical, para-medical and administrative staff.
But it is another story that the Haj subsidy has never been able to appease the Muslim community the way the Congress government wanted. “The subsidy has never been to Muslim pilgrims but to the cash-strapped Air India as the pilgrims could travel only through the state carrier. All have been using Muslims to score political points. The community will not be affected even if the subsidy is stopped,” said a member of the Haj Committee of India.
Apart from the SC judgement, a recent controversy involving pilgrimage assistance provided to Catholics by the BJP-led Goa government has also prompted the Modi government to mull over this matter.
The BJP government had covered half the airfare for 500 Goan pilgrims to Sri Lanka to witness the canonisation of Blessed Joseph Vaz, a 17th century Catholic priest of Goan origin, during Pope Francis’ recent visit.
Even among Christian organisations, the opinion was divided as some were of the view that the Catholic Church in India is rich enough to fund these pilgrimages and does not need government’s assistance. The matter was brought to the attention of the Union government by some Christian groups.
“There should be a unified State approach to these matters as religion is quite a sensitive issue in the country,” said the source.
At present, various states, including UP, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, provide assistance to various religious communities, including Hindus and Christians.