THE CENTRE has said that persons with disabilities have been barred from going for Haj “in view of instances of many such people indulging in begging, which is strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia”.
In an affidavit filed in the Delhi High Court, the Union Ministry of Minority Affairs has said that the “screening” was advised by the Consulate General of India (CGI) in Jeddah in 2012. The case came up for hearing on Wednesday.
Incidentally, Saudi Arabia imposes no such ban, but has, in fact, enhanced facilities for the elderly and for those with disabilities.
The ministry was responding to a notice served by a bench of Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar on a petition challenging the new Haj Policy 2018-2022, which bars persons with disabilities from undertaking the pilgrimage through the Haj Committee of India. The petitioner, Gaurav Kumar Bansal, a Supreme Court advocate, said the policy violates the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act, 2016 as also Articles 14, 21 and 25 pertaining to equality, personal liberty and religious freedom.
The petitioner also pointed out that the policy says that persons who are “lunatic” and “crippled” are barred for going for Haj. Justifying the use of the language, the Centre said: “It is important to understand the clientele which these guidelines target, a large number of whom are not educated and understand only Urdu or Hindi. Given this background, these wordings might have been used for understanding of the common applicant.”
In December 2017, The Indian Express had reported on the backlash from disability rights groups after the ministry retained the clause barring persons with disabilities from undertaking Haj as well as the offensive language in its revised Haj policy 2018-2022. Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi then ordered the offensive lines to be deleted from the ministry’s website, but the ban remained.
The government’s choice of words in its affidavit has come under criticism once again. “It’s not that people with disabilities go all the way for Haj to beg. Someone in the ministry has thoughtlessly worded the affidavit when the RPWD Act clearly states that those with disabilities cannot be discriminated against in any manner,” said Bansal.
Standing Counsel for Union of India and the Ministry of Minority Affairs, Ajay Digpaul, said the affidavit must be read in its entirety. “Our affidavit also states that Haj is to be undertaken by those who are physically fit, since it is a rigorous pilgrimage. Moreover, the government has done a lot for the cause of those with disabilities in its amended RPWD Act which recognises 21 types of disabilities as against the seven earlier,” he said.
The Centre, in its affidavit, said the revised Haj policy, approved in November 2017, simply retained a clause that has existed for 30 years, and the ministry initiated steps to align the Haj Policy guidelines with the RPWD Act after the issue was brought to its notice.
The ban is applicable on all such pilgrims who go through the Haj Committee of India, a statutory body under the Ministry of Minority Affairs. In 2017, of India’s total quota of 1.70 lakh pilgrims, 1.25 lakh went through HCI, while the rest went through private tour operators.
“Even if the Jeddah CGI advised screening in 2012, it is the duty of the Government of India to dispel these myths. It cannot make such a generalisation that most persons with disabilities go to Haj to beg,” said disability rights activist Dr Satendra Singh.