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Indian Supreme Court Orders End to Hajj Subsidies

Muslim pilgrims moving around the Kaaba, the black cube seen at center, inside the Grand Mosque, during the annual Hajj in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, November 7, 2011.

NEW DELHI - India's Supreme Court has ordered the government to do away with a program that subsidizes Muslims in their most sacred journey. Still, many of the country's Muslims are fine with the decision.

In this week's ruling, India's highest court said the subsidy for the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj "is best done away with." If all the facts were known, the ruling continues, many Muslims "would not be very comfortable that their Hajj is funded to a substantial extent by the government.”

Islam calls upon all of its followers to make a journey to the Saudi Arabian city and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad at least once in their lives, if they can afford it. Indigent Muslims are excused from the duty.

Indian history is punctuated with episodes of tensions between majority Hindus and minority Muslims. Still, many Muslim leaders say they are fine with the court's decision to scrap the Hajj subsidy.

Zafarul Islam Khan, the president of All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat (an umbrella body of Indian Muslim organizations), sees the subsidy as an indirect way for India's government to fund its cash-starved national airline.

"Muslims in general are not in favor of the Hajj subsidy," said Khan. "We consider the subsidy as a subsidy to Air India and not to the Muslim community."

The practice of providing subsidies to Muslims began in 1973, when India's government abolished sea travel as an means of making the Hajj. At that time, the government began making up the difference between sea and air fares.

Khan says the decision was politically motivated from the very start.

"Actually we didn't demand subsidy any day but the government insisted on this just to show to normal and ordinary voters, Muslim voters, that they are doing a favor," said Khan.

An estimated 100,000 Indian Muslim pilgrims a year benefit from subsidized travel. Arman Khalid Hashmi went on the Hajj in 2011, and feels that a journey without government help would still be perfectly consistent with Islam.

"As a Muslim, it should be our money invested in Hajj," said Arman. "So if it is done away, it doesn't matter for us."

For many Indians, the strongest argument for ending the Hajj subsidy is that the country's constitution defines India as a secular republic -- with no special favoritism for any one religious faith group. The Supreme Court says the subsidy should be eliminated within 10 years.

Neha Sethi contributed to this report.