Criticising the Guidelines for Haj (2018-22), issued by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, disability rights activists have said that it not only discriminates against persons with disabilities by making them ineligible for Haj, but also refers to them as “crippled” and “lunatic.” The ministry’s guidelines state that “persons whose legs are amputated, who are crippled, handicapped, lunatic or otherwise physically/ mentally incapacitated” cannot apply for Haj.
In a letter to Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, disability rights activists have said the guidelines not only “blatantly discriminate against persons with disabilities” but are also “in violation of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWDA), 2016, which has equality and non-discrimination as its guiding principle.”
They have also pointed out that Saudi Arabia does not ban those with disabilities from undertaking the Haj and has, over the years, made the pilgrimage more accessible. Pointing out that the more politically correct term “persons with disabilities” has replaced words like “handicapped” and “physically/ mentally incapacitated”, Muralidharan, secretary of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD), said terms such as “lunatic” and “crippled” are “abusive in nature.”
“We have sent letters to Naqvi asking him to drop these discriminatory provisions, and have also discussed the matter with some Members of Parliament in the hope that they will raise it on the floor of the House during the ongoing winter session,” he said. Ministry officials did not respond to questions on the guidelines and whether they would be reviewed.
The 2018-22 guidelines were issued following an October 2017 report submitted by a ministry-appointed committee to review the Haj Policy 2013-17. While the report suggested a few changes to the guidelines, it retained the clauses and the language of the clauses that barred persons with disabilities from applying for Haj.
The matter came into focus when Faisal Nawaz, a 34-year-old social worker from Delhi, sought to apply for the Haj this month. Nawaz is often dependent on a wheelchair and oxygen cylinder due to scoliosis (an abnormal curvature of the spine that also causes contracture of the rib cage area) and polio. “Last year, while applying for Haj for my father, a senior citizen, he wanted me to accompany him. That’s when I realised that the rules prohibit persons with disabilities from applying to the Haj committee of India, which covers 40 to 50 per cent of the expenses. I was hopeful this year, since a separate committee was set up to review the overall guidelines,” he said.
Faisal, who was hospitalised until recently due to a recurrent chest infection, missed the application deadline of December 22 by the time he recovered. He, however, found out that the revised guidelines had left the “derogatory” clauses untouched. Dr Satendra Singh, who recently became the first Indian to win the prestigious Henry Viscardi Achievement Award for his work as a disability rights activist, said, “The language used and the eligibility criteria are in violation of the RPWD Act 2016, Mental Healthcare Act, and fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. It also denies persons with disabilities their right to pray.”
Singh as well as the NPRD were among those at the forefront of protests when the union government replaced the word “viklang jan” (persons with disabilities) with “divyang jan” (persons with extraordinary abilities) for the department that comes under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. The decision was taken in June 2016, six months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann Ki Baat address where he called for the use of the word “divyang”, saying persons with disabilities have “extra power” and “divyata” (divinity). Disability rights groups rejected the term as “condescending” and “patronising”, but the government retained the nomenclature.