Haj policy is not discriminatory, Centre tells SC

The Centre was responding to allegations made by the Kerala State Haj Committee that the policy, which allots subsidised seats based on the Muslim count in each State, robs Muslims from smaller States like Kerala an opportunity to make the pilgrimage.

The Centre on Friday defended its new Haj policy, saying it is not discriminatory and the allocation of subsidy for pilgrims is based on the objective criterion of Muslim population in each State.

The Centre was responding to allegations made by the Kerala State Haj Committee that the policy, which allots subsidised seats based on the Muslim count in each State, robs Muslims from smaller States like Kerala an opportunity to make the pilgrimage.

“Bihar has a quota of 12,000 seats, but at least 5,000 seats remain vacant. Kerala has 95,000 applicants who want subsidy, but the quota is only for 6,000 seats. So, only one percent goes. So, this quota based on Muslim population in each State effectively discriminates against persons who are desirous to go for the pilgrimage,” advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the Kerala Haj panel, submitted.

Countering this, Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal argued that the allocation of subsidy quota on the basis of Muslim population of a State has been there from the very beginning and did not start with the current Haj guidelines for 2018-22.

The Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra however made it clear that the court would only intervene in the Haj policy if it is found to be “palpably arbitrary.”

“This is a matter of policy,” Justice D.Y. Chandrachud orally remarked even as the court asked the Centre to file a detailed counter-affidavit by January 13, the next date of hearing.

Mr. Venugopal argued that the Kerala Haj panel’s petition cannot be maintained as all the 21 State Haj Committees across the country are subservient to the Haj Committee of India. The central Haj committee was consulted before the new Haj policy was finalised.

“The State Haj Committees are bound by the policy of the central Haj body. Each and every stakeholder was consulted before the policy was finalised. Now they cannot turn around and say this is not the right way to do Haj,” Mr. Venugopal argued.

When Mr. Bhushan suggested that instead of a Statewise draw of lots for subsidised seats, there should be a common draw at the national level, Justice A.M. Khanwilkar responded that “then Kerala will corner all the seats.”

Mr. Venugopal informed the court that seats which fall vacant in a particular State after draw of lots were anyway equally distributed to other States.

The Haj quota allocated to India is 1.7 lakh pilgrims.

The court issued notice in petitions filed by private parties against the Haj policy. They have challenged the provisions in the new guidelines, which include reduction in the Haj Committee of India’s share of quota to 70% seats while the tour operators’ chunk has been raised from 25% to 30%.

The petition said Haj Committees, being statutory bodies, charge a reasonable amount from the pilgrims and give proper and responsible accommodation and other facilities in Saudi Arabia.

In the case of tour operators, pilgrims are charged double the amount.

TH REPORT