A controversy has erupted over the credit claimed by Prime Minister Modi for relaxing the rules allowing Muslim women, aged above 45 years, travelling to Hajj without a Mahram or male guardian. In his Mann ki Baat program, PM Modi said that “I was surprised to find that – even after seventy years of our independence, we were the ones who had imposed these restrictions. For decades, injustice was being rendered to Muslim women but there was no discussion on it. Even in many Islamic countries this practice does not exist. But Muslim women in India did not have this right.” He went on to say “Our Ministry of Minority Affairs issued corrective measures and we ameliorated this restriction by phasing out a tradition that had been in practice for the past seventy years.” PM Modi’s words met sharp reaction on social media. It was argued that the country granting the visa, i.e Saudi Arabia, is responsible for any change in rules and any credit goes to them. What is the truth? Is Modi government taking credit for implementing a rule that was changed by the Saudi Arabia government? Let us find out…

A bit of background

The Haj Committee of India (HCOI) is responsible for making the arrangements for pilgrims performing Haj. In 2017, India had a Haj quota of 1.7 lakh pilgrims. Out of these 125,025 lakhs went through HCOI and 45,000 via Private Tour Operators (PTOs).

The government has a Haj Policy framework that is reviewed periodically. While approving the Haj Policy for 2013-17, Supreme Court had stated that “the next five year policy will be similarly framed, keeping in view any problems that might have been encountered in following the previous policy and taking into account any improvements, innovations and technological advances in order to add content and quality to the succeeding policy and to make it perform better than the previous policy.” Accordingly in Feb 2017, The Ministry of Minority Affairs had constituted a Committee to review the existing Haj Policy and to suggest framework for new Haj policy 2018-22.

In its Haj policy for 2018-22, among its many recommendations, the committee also recommended that Ladies above 45 years of age to be allowed in a group of 4 or more to go for Haj without Mahram, or male guardian. The 2013-17 framework had stated that Mahram is required for all female travelers as per Saudi rules.

Requirement for Mahram in Haj Policy 2013-17

Requirement for Mahram in Haj Policy 2018-22

When did the Saudi rules change?

According to an Indian Express article the rules were changed in 2014 and it took India three years to implement them. Retired IAS officer Afzal Amanullah, who had chaired the MoMA committee, told The Indian Express, “When we checked with the Saudi Embassy before finalising the report they told us that there is no bar on women above 45 travelling without mehram, and that visas would be issued to them in a group.” He also said, “India has been arbitrarily disallowing women without mehram — that is when we included it in the report.” After speaking to Rajya Sabha MP Husain Dalwai, who is also a member of the Haj Committee of India and the Saudi Embassy, the paper concluded that the rules changed in 2014.

If the rules indeed changed in 2014, it would have made big news worldwide. Remember, it is not only about pilgrims from India but from all over the world. Alt News could not find any such news in 2014 so decided to dig deeper.

One reference to the Mahram rules can be found in 2012 when a group of Nigerian pilgrims were denied entry into Saudi Arabia. Faced with criticism, a Haj ministry spokesman Hatem Bin Hassan Qadi, was quoted by the official Saudi News Agency as saying, “The rules for the pilgrimage have been in force for several years and must be applied as they stand since nothing new has been introduced.” Note that he said in force for several years, way back in 2012. So we tried to search for earlier documents.

We found regulations dating back to 2001 on Washington DC’s Saudi Embassy website which state the same rule regarding a male companion. A 2005 archived version of hajinformation.com site also states the same rule. The rule has been definitely been in place for at least 16 years. Finding data points in archived articles prior to 2001 is difficult, but it is highly likely that the rule existed even prior to 2001.

When the discrepancy was pointed out by Salaam Gateway to Choudhary Mehboob Ali Kaiser, a Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Haj Committee of India, he admitted that the rule may have originated in India. He is quoted by Salaam Gateway as saying “When they are allowing other women, Europeans or Americans and other nationalities, it will be probably an Indian rule. Many women from rural areas travel for haj. They would not be travelling alone for various other reasons, even without religious regulations.

Can PM Modi claim credit?

All evidence points to the fact that Saudi regulations allowed for travel without Mahram for women over 45 years of age and the Indian Haj Committee regulations were more stringent in applying the Mahram rule across the board.

After the recent controversy, there were many social media posts of people claiming that their female relatives had traveled for Haj many years ago without a Mahram. We are not sure how this was possible and whether there were workarounds for this rule.

A point to be noted is that Mahram for all women was a Haj Committee regulation. Roughly 30% of the pilgrims travel with private tour operators who were reportedly following Saudi visa regulations of insisting on Mahram only for female travelers under the age of 45.

So if Mahram for all women irrespective of age was a self-imposed regulation by Hajj Committee of India and not a Saudi Arabian requirement, the credit claimed by PM Modi is not unwarranted. In Alt News view, credit cannot be denied to him for updating Indian regulations to be in line with those of Saudi. It should have been done years ago but it wasn’t. Some questions remain unanswered. Why did no one raise this issue earlier? Why were there no demands for aligning the Indian regulations to the Saudi requirements?

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