Days after an agent deserted a group of Kashmiri pilgrims midway, the valley saw the disturbed visuals of hajis sharing poor accommodation and food.
Bashir Bhat couldn’t believe his eyes when a shocking image appeared on his smartphone screen some days back. He relooked at it carefully, before screaming in agony: “Yeha cha Ammi” (This is our mother).
Bhat’s septuagenarian mother was seen amongst a group of Kashmiri women pilgrims fed on a cement floor in Makkah. The visual surfaced amid a viral video showing Kashmiri pilgrims fighting for food in a crammed quarter.
In the name of sacred sojourn, many say, Kashmiris pilgrims were being pushed to the wall.
“My concern was how my mother landed in such a harrowing situation after happily leaving home for the spiritual journey,” Bhat says. “It was unfathomable moment for all of us. Nobody was telling us anything.”
But while Bhat was trying to seek explanations from agents, Asma was getting fretful in Makkah.
The homemaker had dreamt about the holy trip all her life. It was not until her spouse lately bought her tickets that she embarked on the sacred journey from the Srinagar international airport. Before boarding another plane for Jeddah, she had to spend a night in Delhi.
After landing in Indian capital, Asma sensed some strangeness in the air. Her group was having some grim exchange about their journey ahead. “They said we’ve to wait here for some more time,” she heard from a fellow pilgrim. “I don’t know why they’re doing this. It doesn’t make any sense.”
When the time for the Jeddah-bound flight eventually came, the pilgrims got busy validating documents for immigration. At this point, Asma grew paranoid about the pilgrimage, as ‘the agent had not paid another agent the full amount’.
The group consisted of 14 pilgrims. Each one of them had paid Rs 1.25 lakh for the sanctified trip. However, with each passing minute, things started getting bad. It worsened more when the group missed their flight to Jeddah.
The owner of the travel company was with the group himself and he too was unable to comprehend what was going on.
After getting stuck at Delhi airport for two days and three nights, the group was finally able to board a specially arranged flight. That, according to Asma, was possible only after some physical altercations between the company owner and the group members.
The owner later revealed that he had to sell his wife’s jewelry to compensate for the extra hotel charges and flight tickets.
Then on January 28, a Kashmiri chef based in Madina shared a video on his Facebook page. The video featured a Kashmiri Umrah group “fooled by their travel agent”.
It showed people of different ages dining in what appeared to be a very unhygienic room with no proper arrangements.
Before coming to the rescue of the pilgrims of his homeland, Chef Anayat Rehman had been asking the agents from Kashmir and Saudi Arabia to provide the group the promised and documented accommodation. “They were reluctant to do so,” he says. “It prompted me to go there and film the entire scenario to put pressure on them.”
Anayat has been witnessing these types of scams for quite some time now. Agents rob Kashmiri people of their hard-earned money, the chef claims. “They promise them hotels next to the Prophet’s mosque. They never honour their word.”
After the video went viral on social media, the group was shifted to another hotel with better facilities. The chef recalls contacting the Hajj and Umrah Association, but their response was very arrogant, he says. “One agent even told me: Wane katih anne be mahal khan (Do I need to book them a king’s palace)!”
Finding themselves at the center of the scam and storm, many tour operators in Kashmir blame the Saudi government for the mess and mismanagement.
“There have been some accommodation issues in Madinah where the government has increased the rates,” a tour operator said. “A circular was issued by the Saudi government to renovate all the major hotels resulting in cancellation of bookings. The hunt for other hotels took time causing inconvenience to the pilgrims. Otherwise, why would someone degrade his company’s name?”
The rates may be high this time, a pilgrim says, but “we’ve seen many incidents where innocent pilgrims were charged for one hotel and were allocated another hotel.
Chef Anayat holds travel agents responsible for this unholy treatment and blames them for “duping people with their money”.
Meanwhile, Asma terms her recent Umrah journey as a traumatizing experience. “I really got scared and could see my world falling apart,” she recalls. “One night, our luggage was thrown out in the compound in Delhi and we weren’t even provided dinner, as our agent was late in paying the amount.”
These distressing details are now giving Bashir Bhat sleepless nights. He couldn’t take the trials his mother passed in the name of pilgrimage. “These agents and touts need to set things right,” he says. “They can’t play with our sentiments like that.”