Will ask Saudi Govt to restore India's Haj quota; promises better facilities

If words could heal, Sushma Swaraj would be the perfect palliative for the BJP’s painful relations with Muslims.

In a speech designed to charm, the External Affairs Minister reached out to Muslims during the All India Annual Conference for the Haj on Monday.

It was not just what she said, which was encouraging enough with the Minister promising to request Saudi Arabia to withdraw the 20 per cent cut in India’s quota for the annual pilgrimage. It was the nuance, the tone and the refinement of her language that warmed the cockles of the participants’ hearts.

The Minister, a polyglot who is fluent in Punjabi, Hindi, English, Kannada and even a smattering of Bengali, spoke in chaste Urdu.

“Mein Haj Committee ke saath zaireen ki khidmat kar ke sawaab kama rahi hoon (With the Haj Committee, I am privileged to serve the pilgrims),” said Swaraj to a deeply moved audience.

The Minister apparently herself drafted the speech, calibrated to win over a gathering of religious men, and members of the state and central Haj Committees across India. “I wasn’t prepared for it. But I have to admit that she was brilliant. We have been watching the ascendance of the BJP with trepidation. So, this was a balm for frayed nerves,” said a participant, requesting anonymity.

Her diction, he said, was perfect barring a few glitches that he was more than willing to ignore. “Zam zam (holy water) became Jam Jam. But this can happen to anyone,” he said.

Improving facilities

While she promised to significantly improve facilities for the pilgrims, the Minister acknowledged the shortcomings in arrangements and argued against Air India charging ₹1.54 lakh per pilgrim for travelling from Srinagar against around ₹62,800 for those who depart from other designated airports. She even hinted at the Government developing a complex for providing accommodation to Indian pilgrims in Mecca. “Can we develop some complex in the area in cooperation with the Saudi Government? They can be used for Haj pilgrimage for three months and for the remaining nine months, people going for Umrah and Ziyarat can stay there,” she said.

The icing on the cake was when the Quran was recited. Everyone else just listened but Swaraj covered her head with her sari, a subtle sign of paying respect. By the end of the conference, the Minister had a congregation her own.

(This article was published on June 23, 2014)
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