Tuesday, November 23, 2010

NOTHING IS SACRED

In Pakistan, corruption seems to have become a way of life. However, even this jaded country has been appalled at the corruption that has hit hard the sacred act of pilgrimage, with the Hajj scandal unfolding in all its bitter irony. The government’s ministry of religious affairs (RA) is under fire, and rightly so. The 25,000 pilgrims who made it to Saudi Arabia from Pakistan for Hajj this year were not just inconvenienced by the lack of proper arrangements; they were left in a state of disgrace. Accommodation promised by the RA ministry consisted of some five maktabs that would not be located further than two kilometres from the Holy Kaaba. However, the poor Hajis who had paid for the privilege of the government’s Hajj scheme were given accommodation some three to eight kilometres away; in Mina they were not even provided with tents. It is reported that the RA ministry made a hefty amount of money from the Hajis by taking cash for accommodation and facilities that they were not providing. It is shameful for the country that the Saudi government has now felt the need to compensate for the misery suffered by the poor men and women who were carrying out a pious duty. The Saudis are providing 250 riyals per pilgrim for the non-provision of tents and compensation for the money embezzled by Pakistani officials.

The prime minister and president may have ordered probes into this matter that has damaged Pakistan’s image and Pakistan-Saudi relations. However, it is the prime minister’s call for the Foreign Office to handle all Hajj arrangements and organising of the pilgrims’ necessities that is noteworthy as this may serve to rectify in future the ills witnessed this year. There are reports that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Khalid bin Abdul Aziz sent a letter to the Chief Justice asking him to take note of the sham occurring in the name of the government’s Hajj scheme.

After this debacle, the ministry of religious affairs and its officials ought to be kept away from anything to do with this holy rite. As a matter of fact, so badly have they tarnished the country’s reputation that Prime Minister Gilani has given the RA Minister, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, a shut up call after Science and Technology Minister Azam Khan Swati said that without Kazmi’s connivance no corruption would have been possible by other officials. Former Director General Hajj Rao Shakeel was arrested by the FIA when initial reports of the pilgrims’ suffering broke out and his physical remand has just been extended. While the blame game goes on, with Kazmi stubbornly denying any part in the looting of the Hajis and officials pointing fingers at him and each other, the poor pilgrims are now returning after a sorry experience. For many of these ill-fated Hajis, they may never be able to make the pilgrimage again and their loss is irreversible. All those who have made these innocent men and women suffer must be brought to book for the mockery they have made of the religion, the people and their trust.

Whilst many suffered, a lucky few were given enviable privileges. Apparently, Interior Minister Rehman Malik charters a special Hajj flight every year for friends and their family members. Needless to say, these people enjoy the priciest of facilities. However, this year PIA has had to pay a hefty fine of 200,000 riyals to the Saudis because the flight failed to follow the Hajj flight schedule. It does not take a genius to guess that the public exchequer will be funding this abuse of office.

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