Haj Subsidy Ban and Secular Character of Constitution

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For long, the Indian state has practiced the unconstitutional sin of opting for Haj subsidy to continue. For long, India has suffered from the undue burden of religious subsidy to a particular community. For long, people have voiced opinions on the politics of favoritism and appeasement. To prevent these voices from going unheard, the Supreme Court finally heard the agonizing soul of India against state generosity for Muslim pilgrims and ruled that it should be phased out in 10 years.

Ban on Haj Subsidy

The nation witnessed the glory of constitutional pride on 16th January 2017 when Union minister for minority affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, announced that Haj subsidy had been withdrawn as part of a policy to ’empower minorities without appeasement’.

The decision to ban Haj subsidy was celebrated as a rite of piousness by the Central Government of India to implement constitutional obligations. All people, irrespective of their religious affiliation, welcomed the move. Surprisingly, even leaders from the minority community supported it. It was indeed a moment of pride when the nation united over the matter. However, such harmony was only short-lived as debates and arguments were soon to follow.

The Resulting Communal Debate

Shortly after the ban, the discussions turned argumentative and confrontational. Many raised questions. “Why only Haj? End subsidies for all pilgrims”, remarked Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, a renowned and consulting editor of The Economic Times. Both electronic and print media began to discuss and dispute the reasoning behind the withdrawal of Haj subsidy.

The questions that arise are- Why has Haj subsidy ban sparked off debate along communal lines? What has pricked the conscience of media so as to argue in favor of ending subsidies for all pilgrims?

A Secular Constitution and Politicization of Subsidies

Politicians may have a different course of opinions over the definition of ‘appeasement’. Leaders may have a different parameter to dilute facts to suit their electoral goals. But the Constitution of India is concrete and crystal-clear. It states that ‘secularism’ is the foundation of patriotic beliefs. It is the bedrock of our nationalistic spirit. The Preamble to the Constitution states: “WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizen’s JUSTICE, LIBERTY, EQUALITY, and FRATERNITY.”

Undeniably, secularism is implicit in the entire soul of constitutional framework. The guarantee of equality in Article 14; the promise of non-discrimination in Articles 15 and 16; protection from religious taxes and religious instruction in state-funded institutions set in Articles 27 and 28; the permission of educational institutions of choice to linguistic and religious minorities in Articles 29 and 30; the promise of equal ballots devoid of sectional preferences in Article 325…and so on testify India’s commitment to secular values.

Regrettably, no party in the country can claim to have sacredly followed constitutional obligations in the true sense of their character and spirit. Politics of opportunism has been the norm rather than an exception.  Whether it is by the central or state government, disregard of the secular ethos of the Constitution has been a constant practice.

The religious subsidies provided by political parties as well as states are too many to be listed. The Congress government started Mere Buzurg Mere Teerth scheme in 2014 while BJP government in Gujarat had already subsidized Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims in 2001. Pilgrim subsidies in Karnataka, Assam, and Rajasthan do exist in one form or the other. Tamil Nadu, ruled by neither Congress nor BJP, has subsidies for Hindu pilgrims to Mansarovar and Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, and so on.

Such subsidies would have been struck down as a violation 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.

The problem is that in India there is no principle adherence to separation of the state and religion. The Constituent Assembly (Legislative) had passed an explicit resolution on the separation of religion from politics as far back as April 3, 1948, but no successive governments made sincere efforts to attain that pious objective.

In a secular state, religion is expected to be a purely personal and private matter that is not supposed to have anything to do with the governance of the country. The Supreme Court had observed in the Bommai case that if religion is not separated from politics, the religion of the ruling party tends to become the state religion. This seems to be transforming into reality.

Had the State reflected constitutional obligations into practice by according equal treatment to all religions, the voice for ending all religious subsidies would not have been raised. Had the true meaning of secularism as reflected in the Constitution of India not been misread to serve the political purpose, the accusation of ‘minority/majority appeasement’ would not have existed.

India’s constitution gloriously serves the country’s diverse and plural society to solidify cohesiveness of national purpose. Unfortunately, at times, bias by the State hurts the dignity of constitutional spirit and character. This needs to be remedied with a realization by political parties of the value of constitutional obligation and public trust that’s bestowed on them.

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