Bangalore/Mumbai/Hyderabad: Competitive populism is entering the realm of religion, a trend that critics say is a potentially dangerous political game being played with an eye on electoral gains.
Click here to watch Bangalore sound out about the Karnataka government’s 10 crore subsidy for travel to holy places
State governments in a country that swears by secularism are starting to offer subsidized pilgrimages to citizens, who at election time in the past have been wooed by politicians with promises ranging from offers of rice at Rs2 per kg to free colour television sets.
Karnataka’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is the latest to join the religious bandwagon, proposing to subsidize the travel and stay of pilgrims who visit the temples of Udupi, Dharmasthala and Saudatti in the southern Indian state.
In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the Congress party-led government is subsidizing the cost of travel for Christians visiting Jerusalem, the holy land.
Karnataka minister for housing S.N. Krishnaiah Setty, who also heads a department that oversees Hindu temples and endowments under government control, said last week that the administration intends to set apart Rs10 crore to subsidize pilgrimages for Hindus.
He didn’t say how the money would be spent or the beneficiaries identified. “Modalities are being worked out and will be announced shortly,” Setty said.
To be sure, the concept of subsidized pilgrimages is not new. The Union government spent an estimated Rs700 crore last year on the Haj subsidy for Muslims to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Centre also underwrites a part of the cost of the annual pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet that Hindus believe is the abode of the Hindu god Shiva.
President Pratibha Patil, in her inaugural speech to the new Parliament outlining the policies of the Congress party-led coalition, said the government would strive to strengthen and “reform the management of Haj operations”.
At the heart of the debate is what it means to be a secular state—should the government be involved in all religions equally or in none at all in a country where Hindus comprise about 80% of the population, Muslims around 13% and Christians 3%?
Rama Jois, former chief justice of the Karnataka high court and author of a special report on government presence in temples and temple trusts, says the idea of a secular government subsidizing religious travel is a dangerous one.
“Ideally, the governments should not be opening this door at all,” Jois said. “Although it is not unconstitutional for a secular state to subsidize religious travel for citizens, it must be done equally for all. But then the question is about what is equal.”
“Let’s be clear on one thing,” Jois added. “This, at the end of the day, is a game of votes. And a dangerous one at that.”
In Bangalore, a senior official of the department that oversees Hindu temples and temple trusts said the proposed pilgrimage subsidy shouldn’t be given a communal colour.
A matter of faith: A file photo of Haj pilgrims. State governments are offering subsidies for religious pilgrimages, sparking a debate on whether the state should be involved in all religions equally or in none at all. Amit Dave / Reuters
“If the government provides subsidy for Haj, why not for visits to temples? Also, the move is only to encourage heritage and tourism to historical places and will stimulate the economies of those places, too,” said the official, who didn’t want to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak with the media.
Setty, the minister who made the announcement, had in the past obtained 200,000 litres of water from the Ganga river and distributed it as holy water to temples across Karnataka on Shivratri, a festival devoted to Shiva, which devout Hindus observe with day-long fasting and a night-long vigil.
The minister also controversially issued a circular directing all temples overseen by the state administration to offer daily prayers in the name of chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa. This order was withdrawn after it came under severe criticism.
Andhra Pradesh has set apart Rs2 crore for providing air travel subsidy to Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. It spends Rs6 crore a year towards administrative services of the state’s Haj committee and provides Muslim pilgrims with board, lodging and local transport before they leave for Mecca.
“While the state does not support Muslim pilgrims with any subsidy for their air travel, which is met by the Central government, we are meeting up to 40% of the subsidy for air travel expenses of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem,” said Lingaraj Panigrahi, Andhra Pradesh principal secretary for minorities welfare.
Some 100 Christians have availed of the subsidy since the launch of the scheme in October last year, he added. Andhra Pradesh is contemplating a similar tour subsidy for Hindu pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar, he said.
The selection of Muslim pilgrims for Haj is based on a lottery system while Christian pilgrims are being chosen on a first-come, first-served basis in Andhra Pradesh.
The Union government subsidizes each pilgrim to Kailash Mansarovar with concessions in travel and accommodation and costs. The major part of the concessions for pilgrims comes from state governments, including Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Rakesh Mehta, a Gujarati shopkeeper from Mumbai who went to Kailash Mansarovar three years ago, sees no ethical issue about the state funding such travel.
“This is, after all, one of the most important pilgrimages in a Hindu’s life,” he said. “What is wrong with helping poor Hindus reach Shiva’s abode? Don’t they send Muslim pilgrims to Haj? Then why should Hindus not be helped too?”
Political analyst Sandeep Shastri says taxpayers money could be put to better use.
“Instead of deploying tax revenues to provide affordable healthcare, education and employment opportunities, political parties are indulging in a game of competitive populism,” Shastri said. “This has to end.”
Santosh K. Joy in New Delhi also contributed to this story.