NEW DELHI: The first batch of pilgrims from Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir left for Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to perform this year’s Hajj.
Special Hajj flights from India started in the last week of May, catering to 175,000 pilgrims.
Among them, 12,000 are departing from the Himalayan region that is part of the larger Kashmir — a Muslim-majority territory between India and Pakistan, both of which claim it in full and rule in part.
The number, nearly double Kashmir’s Hajj contingent in 2022, is the region’s largest-ever group embarking on the spiritual journey that is one of the five pillars of Islam.
“We have the highest quota this year,” Safina Baig, chairperson of the Jammu and Kashmir Haj Committee, told Arab News, as the first group of 630 pilgrims departed from Kashmir’s main airport in Srinagar.
“It was an emotional scene with many feeling overwhelmed by the opportunity to perform Hajj in their lifetime.”
Most of the pilgrims were selected through a draw, except for the elderly and women traveling without a mahram, or male guardian.
“Generally, the selection process happens through a draw, but as a special gesture, we are allowing single women and people above 70 to apply directly without going through the process,” Baig said.
“For women without a mahram, the Indian government has made special arrangements. They will stay separately, and they will have separate helpers for them. We have also sent a lady to take care of them.”
Shamima Akhter, 56, a widow from the southern Pulwama district of Kashmir, is one of the 120 Kashmiri women pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia alone after the Kingdom’s decision last year to lift a rule that required them to be accompanied by a mahram.
“By Allah’s grace, I got the opportunity to travel alone to perform Hajj. This is a good decision to allow single women to travel,” she told Arab News.
She was supported by her three daughters in collecting about $5,000 to pay for her Hajj package, as the cost of the trip was more than $1,000 higher than in other regions of India.
Baig, of the local pilgrimage authority, said she had raised the issue with the Ministry of Minority Affairs and the Haj Committee of India.
“What I understand is that the rise in the total expenses is due to the higher prices of airfare from Kashmir,” she said, hoping that there will be some assistance for the region’s pilgrims.
“Kashmir is a Muslim-majority region, and the government should be more considerate,” Baig added. “I feel that the government should provide some relief to the Kashmiri Hajjis. It sends a good message.”