Patna, Jan. 19: Union civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain is projecting a “neo-secular image” for himself and his party, drawing protests from minority community leaders in the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, especially those in his constituency, Kishanganj.
Hussain will replace National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah as the leader of this year’s Haj delegation to Jeddah. The minister also took his political rivals to the newly-opened Gaya airport.
Hussain will fly the first batch of 140 Haj pilgrims from Gaya to Calcutta in an Airbus 320. The pilgrims from Bihar will then board a Boeing 747 for the flight to their destination.
There will be regular flights from Gaya to Jeddah every day till February 3. The pilgrims are also being provided short-stay facilities in Gaya before boarding the flight.
Earlier, flights carrying Haj pilgrims used to take off only from Calcutta, Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. This year, the embarkation points have been increased to 12 and include Gaya, Lucknow and Nagpur, claims the minister. Besides, a group of over 400 volunteers, including 107 doctors, will assist the pilgrims.
Indian Airlines will transport 7,150 pilgrims during the Haj season, while Air-India will take 28,000 and Saudi Airways will carry 34,840 pilgrims from India. The return journey will begin on March 3.
The Centre will spend Rs 163 crore this year on facilities for pilgrims, compared with the Rs 10.5 crore spent by the previous Congress regime.
“We are not charging anything extra from the pilgrims for the new facilities that the NDA government is providing,” Hussain said today.
“Gaya is the symbol of my brand of secularism. I would like to dare my rivals to go there and challenge me. Gaya, which is already connected to Bangkok and Colombo, will soon be connected to Mumbai as Hindu pilgrims want flights to help them offer pindas in memory of departed relatives,” the minister said.
Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi had congratulated Hussain for the facilities he was providing pilgrims from the state.
However, the aviation minister drew flak from minority leaders like his arch rival Mohammad Taslimuddin, a minister in Rabri Devi’s government who hails from Kishanganj.
Taslimuddin had said Hussain should have started the Haj flight from Patna.
“The pilgrims come here to the state capital and can stay comfortably before flying from Patna airport,” claimed Taslimuddin.
Hussain countered the charge saying: “Even the chief minister would understand that Patna airport’s runway is too small for big airbuses. The work on the extension of the airport is on.”
“Once Patna airport is ready, we can start from here .Why does not the leader first convince the chief minister to give us the additional land quickly, instead of sniping at me'”
Hussain, who had defeated Taslimuddin from Kishanganj, had faced adverse publicity during the Gujarat riots with the former campaigning against the minister in Kishanganj.
Hussain retaliated by organising a massive cultural show at the end of last year to improve his image.