By Aamir Raza Husain
June 16, 2012
The government's contentious Haj subsidy is both unnecessary and a sop that's not really meant to help the Muslim community. Such political tokenism has always been a pitiful substitute for real, and much needed, change, says Aamir Raza Husain.
Recently, the Supreme Court asked the government to taper off the Haj subsidy over the next 10 years. Ironically, most Muslims want to do away with the subsidy too. But few actually know the complete sordid story. In reality, there is no Haj subsidy. There is an Air India bailout package, which masquerades as a Haj subsidy. This is an annual and direct ministry-to-ministry transfer of money between the finance and civil aviation ministries. Some arithmetic is in order. The normal cost of a ticket to Saudi Arabia is about Rs 35, 000. During Haj, Air India charges about Rs 60, 000 for the same journey. The subsidy only goes to bridge this gap. However, if the government were to allow private airlines to ferry these pilgrims, the cost of a ticket could come down to maybe less than Rs 20, 000. In such a scenario the government would save Rs 650 crores, individual Hajis would spend less, and the objectionable subsidy would go. A win-win situation for everyone, clearly, except, of course, Air India.
But there's more. The sordid exploitation by Air India of the Haji is another story altogether. Airlines and agents usually offer one free seat on 15 tickets booked, but the Air India- Saudi Airlines conglomerate charges full fare for all 1, 63, 000 Haj passengers without any rebate or discount. In case of one or two 'no-shows' (assuming 280 passengers on the aircraft used) occur, the airline still charges the Haj committee full-fare for the full load, which includes all unoccupied seats. Moreover, return flights are invariably 8 to 16 hours late. The poor passengers are made to languish on makeshift airport floors with no information forthcoming. Air India does not provide water bottles, a cup of tea, or even a dry biscuit. Rude staff treats passengers like second-class citizens of a poor nation. The litany of complaints is, in fact, endless. No service to an annual block of 1, 63,000 assured, 'non-demanding', overcharged passengers - Air India should be so proud.
But this subsidy is typical of the exploitation of India's Muslim minority by the government of the day. The subsidy idea is, of course, a real winner devised by some brilliant finance ministry mandarin: disguise an annual Air India bailout as a Haj subsidy, and exploit Muslim sensitivities for electoral gains.
For over 60 years now, Muslims have been offered useless sops that are then hyped through the media. This often ends up offending many in the majority community, without benefiting the minorities at all. Consider a few glaring examples of such tokenism.
Road signs are painted in Urdu in many states, while it has been made the third language and offered in schools. But there are usually no teachers to be found. Worse is the case with reservations. OBCs get many reservations, but for the same castes amongst Muslims, proposals for similar reservation inevitably become huge electoral issues.
Amongst the Scheduled Castes, if you are a Muslim or a Christian of a particular caste, you will not get reservation; but if you convert to Hinduism, in the same caste, you start getting reservation. If, as a Scheduled Caste Hindu who is getting reservation, you convert to Islam, you will immediately stop getting all the benefits that came with that reserved status, even though you actually 'remain' in the same caste.
Today, radical Islamic terrorism is mostly the refuge of the Wahhabi scoundrel, but all Muslims are wont to get tarred and feathered by the police and other government agencies. All this while the government turns a blind eye to the growing influx of radical Saudi preachers and Saudi rials - which are used to convert the poor uneducated liberal Sunni into a rabid Wahhabi. Our intelligence agencies have repeatedly voiced concern over the dodgy sources of overseas funding for many social, political and religious organisations, which they want regulated. By not doing this, we are directly jeopardising national security; yet we don't. But the government, under American pressure, has not even discussed radicalism or terrorism with Saudi Arabia.
Today, the most obvious crying need for Muslims is education. In Delhi, where a large Muslim population resides, English medium schools have barely 3 per cent of students who are Muslims. Only 0. 8 per cent are girls. This year, nursery admissions in Delhi's top 200 English medium schools saw only half a percent of Muslim students admitted.
Muslims are often to be found living in hovels and ghettos with narrow lanes where there are few toilets, no sanitation, little drinking water and insufficient electricity. These areas where the community ekes out a miserable existence are also places three wheelers don't go, corporation cleaners avoid and where even pizza delivery boys refuse to venture.
To stretch the point, the recent assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh and municipal election results in Maharashtra and Delhi are quite indicative of the general frustration of Muslims with the Congress party and its infamous 'goat bank' politics. The modern Indian Muslim today is happy to pay for his Haj without subsidies; he wants education not reservation; he wants delivery not promises; and he wants equality with dignity, and honour with respect. After six long decades, he is finally waking up to the reality of noxious electoral exploitation. This must end.
Aamir Raza Husain is a noted Delhi-based theatre director