Sunday, August 27, 2006 (Lucknow):
Mecca and Medina are worshipped by Muslim devotees as their highest pilgrimage.
Along with millions of world pilgrims, more than a lakh devotees from India come here every year. Many of them have saved money for years to pay a visit.
The government's travel subsidy of Rs 12,000 for each pilgrim made the Haj journey possible and easier for many. But not any longer.
The Allahabad high court has ordered the government to stop the subsidy. The court says it is unconstitutional, since it favours one religious community over another.
"The Sikhs visit the Nankana sahib. Hindus pay visits to Kedarnath, Badrinath and Mansarovar. They are not given any benefits.
"Why should the Muslim community alone get benefits? It distorts the secular nature of the Constitution," said BN Shukla, Shiv Sena leader.
But Muslim leaders protesting the court's orders say the government's subsidy is not a special privilege.
The reason is that the government arranges travel for Haj pilgrims on the state carrier, Air India. Through this, the government earns revenue, so a subsidised ticket is justified.
"Most Muslims in India are financially incapable of visiting the Haj, so if the government is subsidising their travel, we do not see why any one should object to that?" said Khalid Rasheed, member, All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
The government says it's not minority politics as the court has said, since taxpayers' money is also used for religious events like the Kumbh Mela and pilgrimages to temples.
"The government provides funding for Kumbh Mela. The Ramayana mela in Ayodhya also receives assistance. It's not appropriate to say such things," said Ambika Chaudhery, UP revenue minister.
The move has upset Haj pilgrims and with the Haj pilgrimage just a few months away, there's unrest in the government as well.
The issue can be used for swaying voters this way or the other. Clearly, the controversy will not settle easily.