For victims, the pitfalls on the road to Mecca can lead to bankruptcy and shattered dreams. In a few cases, even rich & educated Muslims have fallen for these scams.
Zahoor Ahmed reached the Mumbai airport from a small Rajasthan town with a glint in his eyes. He wasn’t seeking Bollywood stardust. His hajj dream was about to come true after a long struggle. With 39 other pilgrims, Zahoor stood eagerly before the grand airport — but the wait turned excruciatingly long and anxious before he got a major shock. The travel agent, who was expected to hand them their visa and e-tickets, never arrived.
Zahoor called him several times from outside the terminal. The Indore-based hajj agent Al Malik Haj Umrah Tour and Travels allegedly swindled all the pilgrims’ money — totalling more than Rs 1 crore.
What’s worse, 14 of the 39 people stranded at the airport were Zahoor’s relatives. He had planned the pilgrimage, convinced them about the logistics, taken their money, and given it to Malik. Dozens of calls later that day, 9 September 2022, he finally got through to the agent on his phone.
“Malik told me that he did not have our money, and we would not get tickets to go to hajj,” Zahoor recalls. His shock gave way to desperation and desolation. How would he return the money to all the friends and family members? “I started thinking about suicide, but later, I felt that nothing would happen by hiding my face,” he says.
Hajj frauds in India are trapping many unsuspecting and uneducated Muslim families, especially from rural areas and small towns. These are people who piece their life’s savings together or borrow from friends to go on the pilgrimage but lose their money in scams. Some even file police complaints, but most suffer heavy debts that last for years. As the new hajj season’s first flight from India is set to take off on 21 May, fears about fake agents are surfacing again. Saudi Arabia allotted a huge hajj quota of 1,75,025 to India this year, up from 79,237 last year.
“My biggest concern in all my responsibilities are these frauds related to hajj,” says Kausar Jahan, the newly appointed chairperson of the Delhi State Haj Committee. “There are many people who say that they are hajj agents. But the reality is that it [the pilgrimage] does not happen at all.”
She says she regularly receives fraud complaints and forwards them to the Ministry of Minority Affairs; she doesn’t have the power to do more. “It does not come under our [the committee’s] jurisdiction,” she adds. The ministry did not respond to queries on the number of cases reported in 2017, 2018, 2022, and 2023. The story will be updated as and when a response is received.
After being scammed, Zahoor returned to his hometown Bara, Rajasthan, a doomed man. He had to repay all his relatives more than Rs 70 lakh, he says. Zahoor had no option but to sell his ancestral land. Word spread, and his own small tour and travel business crashed. He now sells onions on hand-pushed carts.
Knocking on the doors of law
Zahoor had been planning to go on hajj for years. In 2019, he collected Rs 42 lakh from 14 relatives to undertake the pilgrimage the following year and gave the money to Abdul Malik, whom he had met through an acquaintance. Malik claimed to be the owner of Indore’s Al Malik Haj Umrah Tour and Travels. But Zahoor’s plans got delayed by two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Come 2022, Malik started demanding more money, citing rising costs. Zahoor dipped into his savings and also collected additional funds from his relatives and handed it over to Malik. The total came to around Rs 77 lakh, Zahoor says.
No matter how hard he tried, he could neither repay the full amount nor regain the trust of his family relatives.
But Zahoor was determined that his story does not get buried under the heap of annual hajj fraud statistics. He decided to knock on the doors of law.
In November 2022, he traveled to Indore and filed a complaint at the Chandan Nagar police station. Malik was subsequently arrested.
“Malik used to take money from people for umrah and hajj. Seven FIRs have been registered in this matter,” says a senior police who doesn’t want to be named. Not all the people who were cheated by Malik approached the police. “Some settled the matter with him directly. But Ahmed’s case is under investigation because he filed a complaint.”
Fake agents, forgery, false promises
Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, a duty every Muslim must perform at least once in their lifetime. And hajj fraud is ubiquitous across India. Complaints are not registered with state haj committees but under the Union Ministry of Minority Affairs and Haj Committee of India.
At the Delhi State Haj Committee office near Turkman Gate, officials share stories of scammers running fake travel agencies, giving false promises to people desperate for visas, and touting cheap packages for as low as Rs 65,000 per person. On average, a pilgrim pays anywhere between Rs 3 and 3.5 lakh if they choose to apply through the Haj Committee of India, but the rates could be higher if they approach private operators offering five-star services. Earlier this year, the minority affairs ministry, in its new hajj policy, reduced the cost by Rs 50,000.
An officer recounted a case where a con artist had forged hajj forms, which are issued by the national committee, and allegedly managed to get them stamped by a nationalised bank to convince clients that their payments had been accepted. “We suspect that the bank employee was in on the scam,” says a Haj Committee officer who did not want to be named.
Touts and unlicensed operators prey on people’s ignorance and convince them that they register for hajj on a tourist visa. “But hajj cannot be performed on a tourist visa. And people realise this only after they reach Saudi Arabia to find that no facilities have been arranged for them. They remain there until they are deported by the Consulate General of India in Jeddah,” says Jahan.
Another committee official says that Muslims trust agents who promise to get their names in the draw of lots called qurrah, in return for a sum of money.
“These agents promise to return the deposits if their name doesn’t come in the draw. But they never return the money,” another official says. “They don’t know that the selection is made by the computer. They think that the agent can actually get their names on the list. This year, in Delhi alone, out of 4,110 names in the draw, 2,450 Hajis have been selected, of whom 39 are women.
Some also trick unsuspecting Muslims by falsely claiming that they can go on hajj under the government’s VIP quota, which was introduced by the UPA II government in 2012 and reserved around 500 seats only for people in top constitutional posts and the minority affairs ministry. But the Narendra Modi government abolished the quota in January 2023 to end ‘VIP culture’. “Because of this, 500 more [common] people will be able to go for hajj,” says Jahan.
The business of fake hajj pilgrimage agencies thrives in urban Muslim-majority neighbourhoods. Fancy packages are used to entice people, and social media propel these scams across platforms. In bright colours and bold fonts, they promise packages at cheap rates. ‘Haj, Umrah, Ziyarat. Via flight. 15 days package. Cost Rs 66,000 only,’ reads one ad. Another lists hotel stays and extras such as laundry facilities.
Imran Alvi, general secretary of the All India Haj Umrah Tour Organisers Association, has little sympathy for people who fall for the false promises of cheap and convenient packages. They’re paying for their greed, he says.
“The biggest scam is of those who do not have a licence to take hajj bookings. They cheat people in small towns and rural areas,” he adds.
Umrah pilgrims aren’t spared either
In a few cases, even educated and aware Muslims have fallen for these scams.
It’s what happened to Mohammad Ali from Hyderabad, the vice president of the Suleman Nagar Division of Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS). He was a victim of an umrah fraud. Unlike the hajj, umrah is not obligatory for Muslims, but it is still an important pilgrimage to the Grand Mosque or Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.
In November 2022, Ali received a message on a WhatsApp group—an advertisement for a ‘cheap’ package for umrah from Etemad Tour and Travels in Hyderabad. A quick internet search convinced him that it was credible, and he met with Soofi Abdul Qadir and Mohammad Wajid from the travel agency. For Rs 4,28,000 for four people, the package included a 15-day stay in Saudi Arabia, flight tickets, visas, accommodation and food.
Ali signed up with them and 25 December 2022 was set as the departure date. But a few days prior to that, he realised that he had been cheated. According to the FIR based on his complaint to the Hyderabad police, when Ali called up Qadir on 21 December, he was informed that Wajid had run away with the money.
“I have become a victim of this fraud despite being a member of a political party. I am fighting my battle thinking about poor and uneducated Muslims. It is easier for them to get caught in it,” says Ali, who alleged that as many as 165 people have been cheated by Etemad Tour and Travel. However, there is no mention of this in the FIR. Wajid, whose cellphone number was listed in the contact details for Etemad, is absconding. “He had taken bail from the high court and is out on bail now,” Kamatipura Inspector of Police Tejavath Komaraiah says.
Ali got a partial refund of Rs 1.5 lakh on 22 December. Qadir also promised to return the remaining Rs 2.78 lakh, but so far, he has yet to get the entire amount.
Hyderabad’s Yasmeen Begum, 60, too, has yet to get a refund from Etemad. Her bags were packed, and she was ready to leave for Mecca, even promised that she would be provided with a wheelchair to perform umrah. But all her hopes died down when she got the news that the pilgrimage had been cancelled. “My elder sister sold her jewellery, took some money from our brother’s savings, and my mother’s pension. This way, we [had] accumulated the money needed to send my mother and younger sister on umrah. My mother is in shock since the money was lost,” says her daughter Sameena.
Unlike Ali, the family has not received any refund, not even a portion of the total money—Rs 1 lakh—from the agency.
A few days before embarking on umrah, Yasmeen hosted a feast for relatives and neighbours. But when people came to know about the fraud, they started making fun of them.
“It broke us. The accused of this fraud is [now] out of jail [Qadir], he is happy, and we are crying,” Sameena says.
However, Qadir claims that his partner Mohammad Wajid has cheated him as well. After filing the complaint in the Kamatipura police station, Qadit also approached the civil court.
“Wajid has cheated me. I made all the arrangements for people to go on umrah and he ran away with all the money,” says Qadir.
Both men were booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Sections 406 (punishment for criminal breach of trust) and 420 (cheating and thereby dishonestly inducing delivery of property).
Qadir was arrested on 28 December and spent a few days in jail, but is now out on bail. He says he is under immense pressure to do good and return the money to all his customers, and it is stressing him out.
“Victims understand my problems. But Wajid should not have done this with them. It is not right to do such fraud in the name of religion. I have all the proof and I am sure that I will get justice,” he says.
The invisible agent
Apart from the fact that not all victims of hajj or umrah scams approach the police, most people pay in cash. And that is the biggest problem in solving such cases, claim investigating officers.
The accused are usually invisible in such cases, says Inspector Sadiq of the Bengaluru Crime Branch, who has investigated many such cases over the years.
“Most of the fraudsters have sub-agents, and it is difficult to reach the main culprits,” he adds. These middlemen are incentivised to sign on as many customers as they can by getting a cut. “They [main agents] promise 10-20 per cent return every month to sub-agents.”
Apart from social media, they also carry out promotions through the imam or ask local religious influencers to give them money.
Considering the time requirement, litigation, and seriousness of the criminal case, many times, the matter is settled by mediation between the customers and the tour agents.
‘If the party (agent) is more powerful, then it is difficult to get justice. Both the parties come together and mediation is done in or outside the police station. An attempt is made to settle the matter by seating some religious imam or leaders of the community,” says Sadiq.
In Saudi Arabia, hajj and umrah officials have already started issuing warnings against touts and unlicenced agents. Alvi claims that there are fewer Hajj frauds when compared to umrah.
“The licence for hajj is obtained from the minorities ministry. They (private agencies) are thoroughly investigated by the government. They also have to sign an agreement with pilgrims and are monitored by the government,” he says.
The Consulate General of India in Jeddah also prepares a report after meeting hajis who have reached Saudi Arabia. If any complaint or fraud is found during this period, action is initiated.
“At the time of granting the licence, the company’s police inquiry is done. If someone is found cheating (later on), the government blacklists that company and cancels the licence,” says Alvi.
The central government also gives specific quotas to different companies for taking hajj bookings. Unlicenced companies and scammers overbook and defraud people.
There is no such scrutiny for umrah.
“It is open to all agents and tour operators. There is no threat of being blacklisted,” Alvi says. To deal with such cases, he advocates creating a regulatory mechanism for umrah registrations and creating coordination between the central and state governments. “They should be registered, so that they can be filtered and investigated,” he adds.
Licenced hajj operators are also calling for stringent action against unregistered agents who often take on names similar to well-known travel firms.
“It’s because of them that people lose trust in us,” says Ehsan Afaqi, who runs a registered tour and travel agency for hajj in Lucknow. He also offers packages for umrah pilgrimages.
For victims, the pitfalls on the road to Mecca and Medina can lead to bankruptcy, debt, and shattered dreams. Zahoor doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to save enough money again. “I don’t know how I will perform Hajj,” he says dejectedly.
And after all these months, Yasmeen’s bag remains in the corner of her room. She hasn’t touched it since December.
“Whenever she looks at her bag, she tells us not to open it, that she has to go to umrah,” says Sameena.
Source: THE PRINT