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Sushma for Haj homes in Mecca

Sushma Swaraj

New Delhi, Aug. 17: External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has asked ministry officials to hunt for permanent residences in Mecca to house Indian pilgrims, a move that has enthused sections of the Muslim community otherwise wary of the new government.

India has since Independence never owned property in Mecca that it could use as a residential complex for the over six lakh Indian pilgrims visiting Islam’s holiest site each year. The Indian pilgrims are forced to rent cramped and often poorly maintained accommodation.

But Sushma has asked her officers to trace four buildings in Mecca — owned by the princely state of Junagadh before Independence — as property that could potentially be refurbished and used as residences for Indian pilgrims, senior government officials have told The Telegraph.

Sushma’s proposal comes at a time controversial comments from more stridently pro-Hindutva sections of the BJP and its ideological fountainhead, the RSS, have triggered unease within the Muslim community.

The plan is in keeping with what appears an effort by the foreign minister to carve out an image for herself as one of the more tolerant faces within the government.

“If this happens, it’s a really good move and will help poor pilgrims,” Zafaryab Jilani, member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, said. “Sushma Swaraj clearly appears someone who will not take anti-Muslim positions, and that is good.”

A total of 136,000 Indian pilgrims will leave for the Haj annual pilgrimage that begins later this month, and over 500,000 others travel to Mecca each year for a journey known as the Umrah — possible any time other than during the Haj month.

Pilgrims travelling for either the Haj or the Umrah stay in hotels and guest houses, sometimes in tents if the numbers of pilgrims from across the world exceed the available accommodation.

Sushma’s plan revolves around wakf property belonging to the former Junagadh state that joined India after a brief tussle between India and Pakistan. Junagadh, according to little-known archival material with the foreign ministry, owned four buildings or rubats in Mecca.

Although Junagadh and all its property legally merged with India, records suggest New Delhi did not stake claim to the rubats in 1947, officials said. These buildings appear to have passed into Saudi Arabia’s control.

“The idea is to locate the rubats and diplomatically examine whether the property they are on can be retaken by India,” said an official who was present at the meeting where Sushma made the proposal.

“The buildings may not even be standing any more but depending on their state, these can either be refurbished or demolished and rebuilt.”

The proposal comes amid a chorus of comments from senior Sangh parivar leaders that have aroused concerns within the Muslim community. Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat and Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar have in recent days suggested that all Indians have “Hindu” roots.

Sushma, though, has been trying to distance herself from any charges of anti-minority bias.

Last month, when some parliamentarians accused the Narendra Modi government of reacting slowly to the plight of Indian nurses who were abducted in Iraq, and questioned whether their religion — Christianity — was a factor behind the delayed response, Sushma replied promptly.

“They are all my children — my sons and daughters — whatever their religion,” Sushma said. “I am waiting for them (to return) like a mother waits for her children.”

Sections within the foreign ministry have also been keen for several months now to shed the Haj portfolio from their already excessive workload — India’s foreign service cadre is smaller than tiny Singapore’s.

Haj preparations are viewed by many diplomats as little more than a cumbersome management exercise with little hard diplomacy involved.

The minority affairs ministry, this section of India’s foreign policy establishment argues, can handle the concerns of pilgrims better.

But Sushma has unambiguously told the ministry that she does not intend to leave control of the Haj and its preparations, officials said.