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Begging cloud on Bengal pilgrims

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166 Haj participants missing, diplomat points finger at racket, others blame state laxity

By Zeeshan Jawed

Calcutta: At least 166 Haj pilgrims from Bengal have gone missing in Saudi Arabia this year, with a senior Indian diplomat in Jeddah suggesting in an email that they may have been absorbed into a begging ring in Mecca and Medina.

The Haj Committee of India, which functions under the foreign ministry, has written to the Bengal government criticising it for its laxity in scrutinising the credentials of the Haj pilgrims who had gone to Saudi Arabia this year.

A committee member said this was the first time so many pilgrims had disappeared.


Saudi authorities claim that eight of the missing pilgrims — all physically challenged — were found begging on the streets of Mecca and Medina and put on a flight to Calcutta last month (there is no official confirmation of their arrival here).

Saudi rules bar the physically challenged from travelling for Haj, and also bar anyone from repeating the pilgrimage within a span of five years — yet many pilgrims from Bengal apparently find it easy to dodge both regulations.

The suggestion is of an organised and lucrative racket operating from Murshidabad district, to which most of the missing pilgrims apparently belong, and of some state officials colluding with it.

“It is an organised racket being carried out by some unscrupulous elements from Murshidabad district in West Bengal,” says an email from the consul-general of India in Jeddah, Faiz Ahmed Kidwai, which the Haj Committee of India has forwarded to the state Haj committee.

“This tarnishes the image of the country…. This may be thoroughly investigated and necessary action should be taken by the state government,” adds Kidwai, who says his conclusions are based on what the eight arrested pilgrims told their interrogators in Saudi Arabia.

It’s the responsibility of the state Haj committee, which functions under the state minority affairs department, to check the credentials of all the pilgrims it sends to Saudi Arabia.

Sources in the minority affairs department, headed by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, suggested the scam might be running with the “tacit support” of some officials.

A farmer in Kandi, Murshidabad, freely admitted to The Telegraph that he had sent his wife to beg in Saudi Arabia and make some “good money”.

“I spoke to my wife a few days ago,” Nafraz Sheikh said last week. “She told me she would stay there a few more weeks and return after collecting enough cash to pay off a Rs 40,000 loan that we had taken, and some money for the family as well.”

The Haj Committee of India has forwarded a dossier to the state Haj committee, containing the names of the missing pilgrims as well as the communications from Kidwai.

S. Shakir Hussain, CEO of the Haj Committee of India, has written to the state panel that most of the disappeared pilgrims had been visiting Saudi Arabia every year for the last three or four years. Hussain said these pilgrims had evaded detection because they had “multiple passports”.

Haj committee officials explained a common trick that some people use to obtain “multiple” passports: they file FIRs at local police stations saying they have lost their passports and thus get fresh ones that do not show past travels.

“If the state Haj committee had done its job properly, it would surely have detected that so many pilgrims had been travelling successively for the last few years to Saudi Arabia,” a member of the Haj Committee of India said.

Haj Committee of India officials cited how Saudi Arabian Haj guidelines clearly state that “people who are crippled, handicapped, lunatic or otherwise physically incapacitated or (are) suffering from amputation of legs are not entitled to submit their applications for Haj”.

This too is where the state Haj committee has been “lax”, a Haj Committee of India official said.
“Calcutta is the only embarkation point for West Bengal, where officials of the government and the state Haj committee are present to assist the pilgrims. But all the eight arrested pilgrims who were deported are physically challenged. How come so many people managed to give them the slip?” asked Fuad Halim, member of the Haj Committee of India.

Afroz Begum, nominated member of the Haj Committee of India and co-ordinator for Calcutta, said: “Earlier, very few people would go missing. They would be traced and sent back. But this time the number is very high.”

State Haj committee officials said that more than 10,000 pilgrims had gone to Saudi Arabia this year.

A farmer in Kandi, Gaisul Sheikh, said that for the past one month, he had received no news of his wife Abedan Bibi, who had gone for Haj in October. “She should have been back by now,” Gaisul said.

His neighbour Razmat Sheikh too has no information about his wife Tauzira Bibi, who had left for the pilgrimage in October and had last spoken to Razmat in mid-November.

[Additional Reporting by Alamgir Hossain in Murshidabad]

(Courtesy: The Telegraph, Kolkata)
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