Why only Haj? End subsidies for all pilgrims

I welcome the abolition of the government subsidy for Haj pilgrims. The Constitution says the Indian state is secular, and forbids discrimination on religious grounds. So, the state should keep its distance from all religious groups, and not subsidise any.

The Haj subsidy was always a violation of this principle. No wonder the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it should be phased out. The BJP has long called the subsidy a case of “minority appeasement”. The Modi government has now decided to abolish it outright.

However, a secular state that bans Haj subsidies should surely ban subsidies for any pilgrims of any religion. Such a non-discriminatory ban would represent secular non-appeasement.

Instead the Modi government itself last year launched the Punyadham Yatra scheme, subsidising transport and accommodation for pilgrims to Puri, Vrindavan, Ajmer Sharif, Mathura and Vaishno Devi. With what face can Modi abolish one pilgrim subsidy (calling it appeasement), but create others (without calling them appeasement too)?

Modi supporters may point out that the list includes a Muslim destination, Ajmer Sharif. So what? Appeasing multiple religious groups is as wrong as subsidising one. Favouring some destinations over others is also discriminatory.

The Modi government is actually a latecomer to the subsidy bandwagon. Many state governments have been giving pilgrim subsidies for years. Madhya Pradesh, an early leader, launched its pilgrim subsidy in 2012, aimed at senior citizens too poor to pay income tax. One lakh seats were available through lottery for visits to selected Hindu shrines plus Ajmer Sharif and Velankanni Church.

The scheme was marketed as secular because it included non-Hindu destinations. But it still left out several religions and pilgrimage centres. Why should the state be picking and choosing among religions or pilgrimage centres? Such selectivity necessarily entails discrimination in favour of some and against others.

The sad fact is that Ajmer is included in the pilgrim list of several governments not out of secular fervour but to avoid accusations of religious discrimination that might attract court sanctions. Is Ajmer more sacred to Muslims than Mecca? Are Muslim pilgrims to Ajmer more deserving than pilgrims to Mecca? Not in any way. And yet the very politicians that condemn the Haj subsidy as “minority appeasement” are cynical enough to include Ajmer in their own pilgrim subsidy list.

The subsidies provided by other states are too numerous to be listed fully. News reports say UP gives no less than Rs 1 lakh per pilgrim for Kailash Mansarovar. In Uttarakhand, the Congress government started the Mere Buzurg Mere Teerth scheme in 2014, which the subsequent BJP government expanded. Gujarat has subsidised Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims since 2001, and (along with several other states) has also been subsidising the Sindhu Yatra (to see the Indus river in Ladakh). Both Congress and BJP governments have introduced pilgrim subsidies in Karnataka, Assam and Rajasthan. Tamil Nadu, ruled by neither Congress nor BJP, has subsidies for Hindu pilgrims to Mansarovar and Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The BJP government in Odisha subsidises pilgrims to destinations across India.

In sum, all political parties, Congress and non-Congress, are waist-deep in subsidies for pilgrims of several religions. The subsidies are not a specialty of religion-based parties. They are handed out by many parties calling themselves secular, and even by parties (like DMK and AIADMK) claiming to be rationalist. This is cynical vote-bank politics, exactly what the Haj subsidy was for the Congress.

Such subsidies would be struck down as violative of the Constitution in countries like the US or France. The courts in those countries take care to separate the state from religious activity, even though the US has a strong Christian lobby. In India there is no principled adherence to separation of the state and religion. Even those politicians calling themselves secular fundamentalists have been reluctant to condemn the Haj subsidy, or state pilgrim subsidies.

Now, many people wishing to go on pilgrimages may find it difficult to meet the expense. But a “teerth yatra” is supposed to be difficult. Many rationalists and atheists have no pilgrimage centre. A subsidy for religious pilgrims amounts to discrimination against rationalists and atheists, violating Constitutional guarantees of equality of faiths (yes, atheism too is a faith).

All religions have large, formal institutions with ample coffers. Some Indian temples and wakf boards are enormously rich. Why should these religious bodies not be held responsible to subsidise poor pilgrims of their own community? They already get massive tax breaks. Let these be used to help poor pilgrims.

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