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The government on Tuesday withdrew the subsidy for Haj pilgrims, calling it a step taken to empower minority communities “with dignity and without appeasement”.

Announcing this, Union Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said, “Muslims didn’t benefit from it. Development with dignity is what we believe in. The funds spent on the Haj subsidy will be used for educational empowerment of girls and women of the minority community.”

The government used to give discount on airfares on state-owned Air India flights, which has been running in losses.

Naqvi said that this year, even with the subsidy withdrawn, a record 1.75 lakh pilgrims will go for Haj, higher than the 1.25 lakh pilgrims who went for the annual pilgrimage in 2017, said media reports. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia had hiked India’s Haj quota.

Naqvi said that the Saudi Arabian government had agreed to allow people to go on the Haj by ships, which are cheaper than flights. Officials of the two countries would together finalise the arrangement.

The news comes about a week after Saudi Arabia approved India’s plan to allow Haj pilgrims from the country to head to Jeddah by sea. In its proposal for a New Haj Policy for 2018-22, a panel appointed by the Indian government had said in October 2017 that the Saudi Arabian government should be consulted on the matter as travelling by ship was cheaper than air travel.

Indications of the move had come earlier, when the minister had said that the Centre would abolish the subsidy for Haj pilgrims in keeping with a Supreme Court order in 2012. “A constitutional bench of the Supreme Court had, during the Congress regime, directed that the Haj subsidy be done away with. Hence, in the new policy, as per the recommendations of a committee, we have decided to do away with the Haj subsidy gradually,” Naqvi had said.

The Supreme Court’s order in May 2012 asked the government to phase out the subsidy and abolish it by 2022.

Several states subsidise various pilgrimages or religious events. Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand provide money to residents going on the Manasarovar yatra to cover a part of the expenses which amount to about Rs 1.5 lakh each. The Madhya Pradesh government subsidises a range of pilgrimages for senior citizens and their attendants under the Mukhyamantri Tirtha Darshan Yojana, including visits to Ayodhya, Mathura, the birthplace of Sant Kabir and St Thomas Church in Kerala.

Constitution of India, Article 27: Freedom as to payment of taxes for promotion of any particular religion.

No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.

The Ministry of Minority Affairs had asked a panel to review the Haj policy and suggest a framework for a new policy for 2018-22. The committee headed by former secretary Afzal Amanullah had, in its report submitted in October, recommended ending subsidy and allowing older women to travel without male companions.

The government has decided to allow Muslim women above 45 to go on Haj without a male guardian, in a group of at least four. Around 1,300 women from India will make the annual pilgrimage without a “Mehram” (unmarriageable male kin) after Riyadh relaxed norms and allowed a group of at least four women over the age of 45 to go on Haj unchaperoned, said a Times of India report.

A couple of years ago, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi had asked Muslims to give up Haj subsidies and fund scholarships for Muslim girls instead.

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