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Haj handover plan

New Delhi, Feb. 19: A government proposal to ease pressure on India’s stretched foreign office by asking the minority affairs ministry to handle 1.5 lakh Haj pilgrims every year has divided both the Muslim community and the Manmohan Singh administration ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

A group of ministers (GoM) headed by finance minister P Chidambaram is evaluating suggestions to hand over the management of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Medina and Mina from the external affairs ministry to the minority affairs ministry.

The plan, which foreign minister Salman Khurshid had first mooted in 2009 when he was minister for minority affairs, is aimed at freeing up India’s scarce diplomatic resources --- New Delhi has fewer foreign service officers than tiny Singapore --- from essentially managerial work.

It is also aimed at improving co-ordination between the religious requirements of pilgrims --- which the minorities ministry is best equipped to handle --- and the management of the pilgrimage to tackle the demands of travellers on what for many is a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

But both the Muslim community and India’s diplomatic corps are divided on the merits of the proposal, with sections arguing that the foreign ministry remains best equipped to handle the pilgrimage.

“Haj affairs should remain under the external affairs ministry as it involves issuing passports and visa to pilgrims and they are best suited for the job,” said Zafarul Islam, Khan, president of All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, an umbrella organisation of seven Muslim organisations.

Within the external affairs ministry too, several officials are arguing that the Haj workload for diplomats is unlikely to significantly reduce even if the management of the pilgrimage is transferred to another ministry.

“A major part of the headache with the Haj over the past two years has been diplomatic in nature,” a senior official said, referring to Saudi Arabia’s decision last year to slash the number of pilgrims allowed form each country --- a move that India lobbied against to minimise the cut on Indian visitors.

“What we achieved was because of diplomacy --- and negotiating the conditions of living for our pilgrims in Saudi Arabia will every year require diplomatic intervention.”

But other Muslim organisations and the minister for minority affairs, K. Rahman Khan, are arguing equally forcefully for the handover of the Haj management by the foreign office.

Khan has also proposed an alternative to the model of government subsidies that currently finances the Haj for close to 80 per cent of pilgrims each year. The Supreme Court had in 2012 ordered the government to phase out Haj subsidies in 10 years.

The GoM, which also includes Khurshid, Khan and health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, is studying this alternative funding model based on the Malaysian concept of Tabung Haji, where Muslims invest a small amount in a common kitty that they can withdraw from when they plan a pilgrimage.

“This concept will help prospective Haj pilgrims to save money for their trip,” Khan said.

A section of the diplomatic establishment too is keen to shed management of the Haj, a task that involves political pulls and pressures to accommodate pilgrims every year.

The foreign office has a full-fledged Haj and Gulf division, headed by a joint secretary. For the cell, and for the Indian mission in Riyadh, the Haj season means an effective stop on all other diplomacy, as officials have to focus on the needs of pilgrims and the thousands of complaints that flood the government every year.

“That kind of diversion away from core diplomacy can have its consequences,” an official said.

Saudi Arabia is India’s single largest crude oil supplier and New Delhi is desperately trying to convince the kingdom to invest more here. Over 2.8 million Indians are also working in Saudi Arabia and that nation’s increasingly protectionist labour policies have left many of them vulnerable.

By giving up Haj management, Indian diplomats will be better equipped to handle these challenges, supporters of the proposal are arguing.