NEW DELHI – India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the government to scrap subsidised travel for tens of thousands of Muslims on the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
“We hold that the policy is best done away with and it should be eliminated over 10 years,” said justice Altamas Kabir, striking down New Delhi’s argument that pilgrims were entitled to the state help once in their lifetime.
The details of the court judgment were not immediately available.
New Delhi provides the subsidy by making cut-price tickets on state-run carrier Air India available to pilgrims.
According to official records, nearly 125,000 Indians took advantage of the scheme last year, and MP Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen Islamic party, said it cost six billion rupees ($120 million).
He said: “This (sum) should be invested in education of Muslim girls because their education standards are very, very low.”
All Muslims who are able to make the journey must go on the hajj to Islam’s holiest site at least once in their lifetime.
The influential but hardline Jamaat-e-Islami Hind forum shrugged off the court decision, arguing the subsidy was a state-sponsored political ploy to appease Muslims, India’s largest religious minority.
“The hajj subsidy is a misnomer,” Hind national secretary Mohammed Salim Engineer told AFP.
“It has been doled out in the name of benefiting India’s Muslim community while the funds have only benefited Air India,” he said of the ailing state airline.
The court also sharply reduced the size of the official goodwill team that India annually sends to Mecca for the hajj, from nine people to two.
The hardline Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) hailed the ruling.
“If India is truly a secular state it must not exhibit partiality towards any particular religious community,” VHP spokesman Prakash Sharma said.
“But why this 10-year time period (for getting rid of the subsidies)? The subsidies should be stopped as soon as possible,” Sharma told AFP.