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Curtailing democracy?

The Haryana government’s decision to stick with the minimum educational criteria for people to contest Panchayat elections has raised a serious controversy. Fortunately, the apex court has intervened and forced the state government to defer the polls till it decides on the constitutional validity of the law. The fundamental problem with the Haryana government’s directive, which was recently passed by the state assembly is that it deprives an overwhelming majority to participate in grass-root level polls. The new state law mandates minimum educational qualifications, 10th pass for men, 8th pass for women and 5th pass for Scheduled Castes for candidates in Panchayat polls. 

Suffice to say, this piece of legislation is biased against the rural poor because the lack of access to formal education is a consequence of their socio-economic status. In a country/state where the lack of access to education is widespread, it is baffling to see how a popularly elected government can be so blind to  ground realities. Besides economics, there is an element of gender discrimination involved in the denial of education, especially in a state like Haryana, where rural women are subject to harsh patriarchal diktats. According to a writ petition that challenges the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015, 83.06% of rural women above 20 years of age in the state will be disqualified from contesting panchayat polls, since they do not possess the requisite educational qualification. 

State establishments, across continents, have used mandatory literacy requirements to exclude marginalised groups from the democratic process. In the United States and Europe, educational qualifications have been used in the past to deny women and landless labourers the right to participate in the electoral process. On the question of gender, stories of resistance from past establishments against suffragette movements testify to this very fact. The justification presented by the Haryana government is that such laws are brought in to incentivise education among the vast swathes of its populace. Suffice to say, there are better ways to incentivise literacy among the masses besides denying them the right to participate in elections. In a landmark judgment, the apex court had mandated that the citizen’s right to vote was protected under Article 19 (1) (a), which mandates freedom of speech and expression. 

The right to vote and the right to contest elections are two sides of the same coin, unless the state can prove how a lack of “literacy” plays a demonstrable role in negatively affecting the democratic process. For example, the law that prohibits those convicted of a crime from contesting elections is based on the rationale articulated by Parliament that such elements negatively impact the democratic process. However, the law passed by the Haryana assembly has not demonstrated how a lack of literacy creates negative outcomes for the democratic process.

Funnily enough, the law passed by the Haryana assembly does not stop at minimum educational qualifications alone. Other disqualifications prescribed include non-payment of arrears of agricultural loans, electricity bills and failure to possess a toilet in the candidate’s residential premises. A large section of state works in the agriculture sector. Moreover, it is a well-documented fact that farmers from the state have borne the brunt of the agricultural crisis sweeping across the country. Therefore, they seek cheap loans from rural banks to sustain their livelihood. Moreover, a farmer’s inability to pay loans in this country is usually contingent on factors beyond his/her control, such as erratic monsoons. Such a provision in the state law, therefore, sidelines a large number of farmers from participating in the electoral process. As the petitioners in the apex court have said, “There is no nexus between this classification and the Object of the Act, as the default contemplated could arise for any number of reasons that in no way hinder a candidate’s ability to discharge his duties”. At the core of democracy, there lies a notion that every citizen has a right to participate in the electoral process, be it through voting or contesting elections. Any rule that is brought in by the establishment to curtail these rights must undergo scrutiny at every step.
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