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Insights into Editorial: Illiberal law, roll it back + MINDMAPS on Current Issues

Insights into Editorial: Illiberal law, roll it back + MINDMAPS on Current Issues

12 December 2015

With the Supreme Court upholding the constitutional validity of the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act 2015—which, among other things, bars illiterate people from contesting Panchayat polls in the state—the stage is set for the passing of similar laws across the country.

  • This Act is quite similar to the one passed by Rajasthan earlier this year.

Why the apex court has upheld this act?

According to the Supreme Court, it is only education that gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad. And hence, according to the court, this law is valid. The Supreme Court also says that under our constitution every person who is entitled to vote is not automatically entitled to contest for every office under the Constitution.

Supreme court’s observations makes sense to gradually ensure that every person contesting an election, from a panchayat candidate right up to one contesting for a Parliament seat, has adequate educational qualifications.

A brief overview of the Haryana Panchayati Raj (amendment) Act, 2015:

The Act bars five new categories of people from contesting elections. This includes:

  • Those on whom charges are framed in criminal cases for offences punishable with imprisonment for not less than 10 years.
  • Those who fail to pay arrears owed by them to either a Primary Agricultural Cooperative Society or District Central Cooperative Bank or District Primary Agricultural Rural Development Bank.
  • Persons who have arrears of electricity bills.
  • Persons who do not possess specified educational qualifications.
  • Those who do not have a functional toilet at their residence.

The law also states that general candidates must have passed the Class X examination while women and Dalit candidates need to clear Class VIII. Dalit women candidates must clear Class V.

Has our forefathers not thought about it?

  • The constituent assembly had witnessed various debates over limiting the right to vote. The Assembly had overruled suggestions to limit the right to vote. The founding fathers of the republic had refused to discriminate against candidates for elected office on the basis of their educational qualification, while leaving it open for state legislatures to legislate on the matter.
  • However, some criteria have been specified for those who can contest elections but those, as well as the provisions under the Representation of People Act, are aimed at protecting the integrity of the electoral process. They do not have the effect of narrowing the idea of political representation.

But, Haryana’s latest law goes against the very spirit of the Indian Constitution.

Haryana’s statistics on key social indicators:

  • In Haryana, 41% of Scheduled Caste men have not cleared class 8 and 68% of SC women have not made it to class 5.
  • Roughly 45% of rural households do not have a toilet, and among SC households that figure rises to 55%.

These figures put together, point towards the failure of the government to fulfil the part of the essential contract that binds state and citizens: to provide the rule of law and social services. It now appears that people in Haryana are being punished for no fault of their own.

Why not make such legislation for MPs and MLAs?

According to some experts if minimum educational qualification is required at the grass root level such legislation should also be there for both MLAs and MPs.

  • As of now, of the 542 MPs in the current Lok Sabha, 521 have studied till Class X. Of the balance 21, nine have cleared Class VIII, six have cleared Class V and five are literate while one is illiterate.
  • Of the 243 MLAs elected in the recent Bihar polls, 221 have cleared Class X.
  • Now that the stage has been set, when the next Lok Sabha polls are held in 2019, India should have set strict educational guidelines for MPs, too.
  • If the argument is that educational qualifications are not necessary for legislators but for panchayat representatives because the latter deal with executive matters, it follows that educational qualifications are even more required for state and Central ministers than for panchayat representatives.
  • If these very high offices do not require minimum educational qualifications, it seems a terrible travesty of justice that persons without the prescribed educational qualifications be barred from election to panchayats, let alone being elected office bearers.

Conclusion:

The apex court ruling puts at rest the question whether the condition of literacy violates the right to equality. What lingers is the troubling reality, as pointed out by the highest court itself during the initial hearing, that half of India’s population will be debarred from contesting polls if the minimum educational qualification is prescribed. The democratic institutions in rural settings suffer from glaring functional glitches, most a result of administrative inadequacies. Pinning hopes on representatives with matriculation certificates (of doubtful merit) at the cost of experienced ones without these, in the absence of attendant reforms, defies logic. A liberal democracy must of necessity refrain from certifying who may contest elections to represent the people. It is dangerously illiberal to debar citizens from contesting elections when they are able to fulfil their responsibilities as panchs, or legislators, as the case may be.

 

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