The Supreme Court today struck down the government's policy of giving subsidies to Haj pilgrims and directed that it be progressively "eliminated" within a period of 10 years.
"We hold that this policy is best done away with," a two-judge bench said.
The bench also directed the government to reduce to two the number of its representatives in the Prime Minister's goodwill delegation. Earlier, 30 people used to go with the delegation with the government bearing the cost.
The court also said that it will look into the functioning of Haj Committee of India and its process for selecting people for the pilgrimage.
The court was hearing an appeal filed by the Centre challenging a Bombay High Court judgement which had directed the Ministry of External Affairs to allow certain private operators to handle 800 of the 11,000 pilgrims earmarked under the VIP quota subsidised by the government.
The bench had expanded the purview of the plea and decided to look into the legality of the government's policy on granting subsidies to Haj pilgrims.
Several Muslim organisations have announced to back the Centre's proposed move to abolish the subsidy on Haj, provided more facilities are given to pilgrims. A senior member of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, Niyaz Farooqi, said that pilgrims do not get the benefits of the Haj subsidy provided by the Centre. "The subsidy in only beneficial to a particular airline, therefore its withdrawal will make no difference."
The government should shift focus on providing better accommodation and food facility to the pilgrims, he said adding, "Despite the subsidy, pilgrims have to pay extra for the trip."
During the hearing in the case, the Centre had defended the policy of giving subsidies to the Haj pilgrims and had said it had framed guidelines so that people get subsidies only once in their lifetime.
In an affidavit, the Centre had told the court that it has decided to restrict Haj pilgrimage at government subsidy to Muslims only as a "once in a lifetime" affair as against the existing policy of "once in five years".
It had said the new guidelines have been framed to ensure that priority is given to those applicants who have never performed Haj.
The government, however, had refrained from disclosing the amount of subsidy being incurred by it for 2012, saying, "The exact figure in respect of the travel subsidy to the pilgrims going through Haj Committee of India for 2012 will be known after the Hajis completed their Haj journey and return to India."