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Centre in Haj panel nominee row

New Delhi, Aug. 23: The A.B. Vajpayee government’s decision to retain party nominee Tanvir Ahmad as Central Haj Committee chairman despite getting Presidential assent on a new Haj Act had raised many eyebrows.

Haj 2003 is scheduled in February. The external affairs ministry, which looks after Haj affairs, gave Tanvir another term on the pretext that bylaws relating to the new Act had not been formulated.

Muslim leaders and MPs are unanimous that the ministry has violated the spirit of Supreme Court verdict, directing the Centre to constitute the new Haj committee in the light of new Act.

The Act was prepared after protracted negotiations between the government, community leaders, legal experts and NGOs to streamline and democratise the functioning of the Haj panel.

The Supreme Court was dragged in after a series of corruption charges, including accepting kickbacks for chartering Haj flights and arranging accommodation in Saudi Arabia, were levelled.

Senior external affairs ministry officials handling Haj affairs declined to comment in spite of repeated attempts to get their version.

Former Delhi Haj Committee chairman Anis Durrani wondered why the BJP regime did not wait for bylaws to be enacted before appointing a new chief. “Why was the government in such a tearing hurry' Why has the ministry failed to formulate bylaws after getting presidential approval'” Durrani asked, alleging that there was a “design” to let BJP nominee Tanvir organise Haj 2003.

Under the new Act, the chairperson was to be elected instead of being handpicked by the government of the day. State Haj panels were to be divided into six zones and the electoral college would have been such that the BJP would have found it impossible to push through its nominee.

While retaining Tanvir and other members of the old panel, the government has decided to drop former Union secretary Syed Zahoor Qasim. The man who has replaced Qasim is former Haj committee chief Salamatullah, whose tenure was plagued by controversies and corruption charges.

Tanvir is up in arms against Salamatullah’s return. He said he was not consulted on the former Haj chief making a comeback.

Salamatullah’s return is significant on several counts. The ministry of external affairs had to fight hard to get rid of the former Haj chief who called shots during the regimes of Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. When the BJP government took over, he made an exit and joined the Nationalist Congress Party with Sharad Pawar.

Insiders said Salamatullah’s return and Qasim’s exit had to do with political equations. A survivor, Salamatullah owed his return to minister of state for external affairs, Omar Abdullah and Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah. Qasim was asked to leave because he lacked political patronage.

But some sections are intrigued that Salamatullah could succeed Qasim, who had been inducted into Haj panel as part of quota for Shia community. Salmatullah hails from the Sunni community.

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