I have mixed feelings about the abolition of haj subsidy, which was only waiting to happen. In itself, I welcome the measure. But I am also concerned about what it portends.
I am fiercely and firmly against the deification, even sacralisation, of territory. Territory-based identity formation has been a plague spot for extreme cruelty and torrential bloodshed in history. One way or another, all wars and conflicts have had a reference.
This problem gets perversely worse when God is dragged into it. To say that God owns pieces of real estate, whether in the Middle East, or India, or any other part of the world, is the height not only of absurdity but also of "religious atheism". It mocks God by degrading him/her as a glorious prisoner of the local and the temporal.
Land and language - two factors of emotive importance in religion - are mere accidents. God, if he/she, is God, cannot be anchored in the accidental. Even human beings are not so enfettered. We are free to migrate; acquire new land and language as we please. God alone is a prisoner in these respects.
To assume that one has to go to a certain location on the globe to have a date with God, who is omnipresent, is the choicest superstition imaginable. For this reason I have resolutely refused to visit the Holy Land. No spirituality which does not empower me, through my life of service and witness, to sanctify where I live and work is, I believe, worth my bother.
Suppose I want to buy a rare plant that grows only in Mongolia. It makes sense that I go there, and not to Mogadishu, where the plant in question is unheard of. But do I have to go to Mongolia to love my neighbour, to practise justice and compassion, or to stand by truth, which is the essence of godliness? Do I have to rush to Manhattan to see the stars or to undertake jihad (holy war) against my sins or stupidities?
[By the way, the only war that can be deemed holy is the war I wage against myself - my personal infirmities and aberrations. No war that involves spilling the blood of another human being can be holy. It is deadly pollution.]
The idea that God stays as a tenant of a religious system in a man-designated location is the emperor of superstitions. I have always been uneasy about a secular state subsidising religious superstitions. The Union of India is mandated by our enlightened Constitution to spread a scientific culture. This is blatantly incompatible with subsidising superstitious customs and practices.
In 2000, when the millennial anniversary of Christianity was being celebrated all over the world, an idea was mooted that the government -both at the Centre and in Delhi - provide a one-time subsidy to Christians, who wish to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I was a member of the Delhi Minorities Commission at that time and I was consulted on the matter. I opposed it tooth and nail, incurring the displeasure of the activists in my community.
The idea struck me as a state-sponsored insult to Jesus of Nazareth, who said, "The foxes have their holes, the birds in the air have their nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay down his head." Where do I go to visit a man, who did not own a square inch of land; and from whom what little he had by way of clothes was snatched and, he himself, "cast out" of the city, crucified and, finally, put away in a borrowed tomb? To me, if Jesus is not in my heart, in the warp and woof of my life, he is nowhere. He has not lived. He is a piece of fiction. If Jesus is, indeed in my heart, why would I go here and there looking for him?
Now, on to what worries me. An action cannot be, must not be, understood in isolation from its context and intent. No one needs to be especially urged that the intent of the government in this instance is not to dissociate itself from religion-rooted superstition. Otherwise, what will Yogi Adityanath do with his subsidies for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, budgeted at Rs 2,500 crore per year? Or the huge investment of money and effort the state makes in facilitating kavadiyas? The intent in haj subsidy abolition appears to fit into the ambit of Hindutva ideology. Haj is an identity-marker. Land (Mecca-Medina) is the eyesore. The recognition that the state impliedly confers on a community through the subsidy is anathema.
This has not happened like a bolt from the blue. The visit of the Israeli PM has provided the riling context for it. The abolition of the subsidy is perfectly consonant with the de-minoritisation of public life, as in UP. The "amount" of the subsidy (Rs 700 crore) is a non-issue. Quantitatively it is peanuts. But its symbolism offends.
May be, I should use a historical analogy to illustrate what this implies and portends. This analogy, like all analogies, should not be read literally, or its superfluous details turned into unintended suggestions. When the Roman Empire was taking shape, emancipated slaves enjoyed considerable freedom and acceptance. But they were not entitled to holding public offices, joining the legal profession or the army. Going by the logic of history, it will be a pleasant surprise if the current tension in the judiciary settles down any time soon.
The idea that the amount saved through the abolition of haj subsidy will be used to educate Muslim children is at once a bait to the public and a barb to the community. I wonder how many are convinced that the only way the government can boost the educational profile of Indian Muslims is by re-routing haj subsidy. One need does not have to be met - except in times of famine and starvation - at the expense of another. An attitude of uncharity lurks behind assumptions to the contrary.
The barb to the community points to its educational backwardness. How come a community that prides itself on a glorious tradition of scholarship and cultural achievements ranks so low in their educational status? Someone has to answer for it. Especially those who use the fold as political fodder. It is when the community leadership fails that the state needs to step in. And it should be welcome when it does.
The issue, in the end, is not haj. Haj is only the pretext. As per the Hindutva vision of India, those who have their punya bhoomis (Oh, the land!) outside India are not eligible to be citizens. The present issue pertains to the idea of citizenship, not to economy.
I can only hope that the Muslim community sees this development in the right perspective. They should welcome that a tumour of superstition has been excised. It makes good sense that one gives up gracefully what is indefensible. I wish my Muslim brothers and sisters had voluntarily renounced triple talaq, rather than continue a practise that slurs their image and stature in the public sphere.