The Congress government in Karnataka has touched a raw nerve by deciding to give honorariums to pesh-imams (chief imams) and muezzins (who call people for the congregational prayer). While the government claims that it is following a Supreme Court directive, the move has raised concern and confusion in the community. Some Muslim scholars and activists have decried the move as “internal meddling” and “against the principles of Islam”.
Interestingly, the idea of giving honorariums to pesh-imams and muezzins serving mosques that fall under the state wakf board was mooted when the BS Yeddyurappa-led BJP regime was in power. However, the scheme did not take off due to budgetary constraints. But, the Siddaramaiah government has now allocated Rs 47 crore, helping the scheme to take off.
In a public announcement, Qamarul Islam, the minister for minority affairs, Haj and wakf, informed that the government intends to give a monthly honorarium of Rs 3,100 to pesh-imams and Rs 2,500 to muezzins after the completion of every three months. The minister added that the scheme would be applicable to those wakf institutions whose income is less than 1 lakh per annum. He also informed that the wakf board would obtain the attendance certificate from respective institutions of serving imams, scrutinise them as per rules and send the proposal to the government for the sanction of the honorarium. “The honorarium then would be released to their respective accounts via online banking,” he added.
But Muslims have strongly opposed what they consider interference in their religious affairs. A section of Muslim activists and scholars, who had earlier opposed the BJP government’s move to implement the scheme, are dismayed that the Congress regime has gone ahead with the scheme despite their opposition. They are adamant that the state should have no role in the registration of madrasas, the formation of a Madrasa Board or defining the role of a priest.
Community leaders worry that once the imams start getting salaries from the government, they will be subordinated by the state as they will be accountable to the government as public servants. They believe that such a move will hinder their entitlement for free speech against the ruling party or lackeys of the party who would ultimately have a final say on who should be entitled for the salary and who should not; leaving the priestly class at the mercy of local corporators or MLAs. Some even worry that this move would give the right-wing groups an issue to rally against the minorities in the name of appeasement politics.
“Once they take the money, they will be working under the government or at least feel obliged to the government,” says Masood Abdul Khader, convener of the Karnataka Muslim Muttahida Mahaz, an umbrella organisation of Muslim bodies. “Imams are forbidden to take money from the government.”
Echoing similar sentiments, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind state president Atharulla Sharief says, “For centuries, the Muslim community has been managing mosques and madrasas on its own. This practice should continue. Keeping in view the dignity of the imams and muezzins, such financial aid is undesirable.”
However, Sharief says that if the state government is insistent on providing aid, it should follow the Tamil Nadu model where retired imams and muezzins get pensions from the wakf board. It is estimated that chief imams and muezzins serving nearly 7,000 mosques are eligible under the scheme. “These mosques fall under the category of the prescribed income limit (under Rs 1 lakh per annum),” says Karnataka Wakf Board CEO Mir Anis Ahmed.
Even though the scheme was announced three weeks ago, the wakf board is yet to receive applications from districts other than Bengaluru. But Ahmed has an explanation. “The scheme insists that the mode of payment is through online banking. Most of them are finding it difficult to open a bank account. Once it is done, I am sure the applications will come,” he says.
Ahmed also rubbishes the fears of the state gaining control over these imams. “They have some apprehensions that once money is given by the government, local managements will lose their grip and the state will interfere in their administration,” he says. “I need not give answers to such hypothetical situations. We are acting purely based on the recent SC directive.”