This year, 11,459 pilgrims from the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir - the highest so far – are scheduled to leave for Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj, a fundamental duty of a Muslim. This also includes 132 solo women pilgrims.
According to Safeena Beg, the first woman chairperson of the J&K Hajj committee, all the eligible women who had applied for travelling to Saudi Arabia without a mahram (Male accompanying a woman) have been included in the list of pilgrims without being subjected to a draw of lots.
It may be mentioned that solo women pilgrim above the age of 45 can travel following relaxation in Hajj rules by the government of Saudi Arabia. Likewise, the Indian Haj authorities also changed its rules to enable women to go on pilgrimage alone.
Safeena Beg said the process for the selection of the candidates for the annual pilgrimage was held by processing 14,217 applications through a draw of lots (using random digital selection) by the Haj Committee of India on Friday.
Women and men pilgrims from Kashmir at Hajj House (File)
Ministry of Minority Affairs in consultation with the Central Haj Committee of India and other haj committees of India framed policy and introduced several changes and initiatives for the smoother selection of pilgrims and offering various facilities to them this year.
A total of 457 pilgrims from Ladakh have been provisionally selected for this year’s Haj and would be airlifted from Srinagar airport.
“There has been less interference in the entire process” of selection of Haj pilgrims with the introduction of a draw of lots, Safeena Baig told Awaz-The Voice.
She said that J&K got the highest-ever quota so far, in which a “fool-proof” method had been adopted for selection. She expressed the hope that after fulfilling the requisite formalities, around 1000 out of the 2758 pilgrims on the waiting list, would also be able to perform Haj.
“I am happy that the Union Ministry of Minority Affairs abolished the VIP quota (for the Ministers, MPs, etc) as all the seats are now meant for the public”, Safeena Baig said.
She added that two new categories - those above 70 years of age and women with the age of 45 and above years and without a Mahram, were also introduced for the Haj pilgrims.
There are over 1300 applications of those above 70 years of age, who are being allowed without going through the draw of lots.
She said to help solo women applicants perform the hajj, the committee waived off the rule for at least four women being from one district.
Safeena Baig, who took over as the first-ever elected woman Chairperson of the J&K Haj Committee in June 2022, told Awaz-the voice that many redundant formalities have been discarded in the selection this year.
Following the reforms, each Hajj pilgrim would have to pay Rs 3.70 lakh to Rs 3.80 lakhs, as against Rs 4 lakhs charged earlier.
Also, Rs 300 as the cost of the application form has been abolished and the form is available online. In yet another decision, the limit of carrying cash of Saudi Riyal 2100 (against Indian currency of over Rs 40,000 in exchange from the Banks) has been abolished.
“There is no restriction on carrying the amount in exchange for the pilgrims…they can get it at the Bank counters including one at the Haj House”, Safeena Beig informed.
The authorities of the Hajj Committee have issued a schedule for the provisionally selected candidates for completing the payment and other formalities by April 10.
Safeena Beig said care has been taken not to select the second timers. Besides, special arrangements have been made for women pilgrims.
The Hajj House at Bemina, Srinagar
She said that the J&K Haj Committee would write to the Union Ministry of Minorities on some other issues like allowing an increased number of Khuddams, a single bus service facility for Indian pilgrims from Azizia to Haram, and; Saudi Airlines facility for J&K pilgrims (at Srinagar) on the pattern of pilgrims from other states.
Safeena Baig has been elected in a place where chief minister would sit ex-officio.
On the Hajj House located in Bypass, on Srinagar outskirts, Safeena said, “this is a very good property, for which strangely there are no allocations in the budget”.
She said that her office has approached the UT government for allowing Rs 3 crore project for infrastructure development and beautification of the Haj House.
“The property can also be used for holding conferences, and marriage functions”, for revenue generation while it remains engaged for less than three months to facilitate the annual Haj pilgrimage, Safeena said.
The Haj House spread over 50 kanals (2.5 acres) of land constructed at the cost of Rs 10.50 crores at Bemina Bypass in Srinagar was commissioned in 2007.
The state-of-the-art project became the first of its kind in North India and was regarded as better in all respects than that of Bangalore. Out of 50 kanals of land 30 kanals are open while three different blocks have come up in 20 kanals.