The Supreme Court’s verdict upholding the validity of a Haryana law making it mandatory for a candidate contesting panchayat elections to have certain minimum educational qualification and a functional toilet raises many vital questions on the state of democracy in India.
First, it has created an anomalous situation. One needs to have certain minimum educational qualification to contest panchayat polls but there is no such requirement for a person attempting to be an MP or an MLA.
The Supreme Court upheld the eligibility criteria keeping in view the powers, authority and the responsibilities of Panchayats as also the powers given to them to impose taxes and utilization of funds. “It is necessary that the elected representative must have some educational background to enable him/her to effectively carry out the functions assigned to Panchyats,” a bench of Justice J Chelameswar and Justice AM Sapre said.
My Lords! Doesn’t the same hold true for legislators?
Second, the verdict renders almost half the population, mostly poor and women, in Haryana ineligible to contest panchayat polls. Only 71.42% of the rural population in Hayrana is literate and the female literacy rate is just 66.8%. Most of them are just literates and not matriculates or educated up to class 8 or class five as required under the new law. This goes against the democratic spirit of the Constitution as it inadvertently excludes a large section of society from taking part in the dance of democracy at the grassroots.
“The Constitution itself imposes limitations on the right to contest depending upon the office. It also authorises the prescription of further disqualifications/qualification with respect to the right to contest. No doubt such prescriptions render one or the other or some class or the other of otherwise eligible voters, ineligible to contest,” the SC said.
“If it is constitutionally permissible to debar certain classes of people from seeking to occupy the constitutional offices, numerical dimension of such classes, in our opinion should make no difference for determining whether prescription of such disqualification is constitutionally permissible unless the prescription is of such nature as would frustrate the constitutional scheme by resulting in a situation where holding of elections to these various bodies becomes completely impossible,” it said rejecting the challenge to the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015.
The Haryana law requires every panchayat candidate to have a functional toilet and no unpaid agricultural loan or electricity dues. This may be understandable as those seeking public office should be good citizens first.
The top court may be right in holding that every person who is entitled to vote is not automatically entitled to contest for every office under the Constitution.
But to uphold the validity of a law that excludes the poor from the democratic process may force them to turn to undemocratic means to get their share of power in the system. This can have serious repercussions for the process of democratization and changing power equations in a largely feudal society that India is.
Howsoever pious the ends may be, if the process of achieving those results into exclusion of a large section of country then it must be frowned upon.
Of late, courts have been showing more interest in larger issues bothering the society – be it air pollution, river pollution, criminalization of politics, or even nursery admissions. The judiciary is primarily meant to adjudicate disputes and protect fundamental rights of individuals rather than correcting larger malaise afflicting the system.
Democracy has its own way of evolving and correcting its ills. That process hinges on participation of all sections of the population – educated, literate or Angootha Chhaap (illiterate).