The Constitution of India, to my mind, is being violated through a process of deliberate stealth. Our founding fathers, debating at great length in the Constituent Assembly, decided to give India universal adult suffrage. This means that all citizens over the age of 18 can exercise their right to vote. At the same time, they ordained that anyone who is of eligible age could contest elections to Parliament and the state Assemblies. There were some, even at the time of the Constituent Assembly, who were of the view that such rights should be qualified in some form or another. However, in a far-sighted and bold decision, the makers of our Constitution decided otherwise.
But the governments in the states of Rajasthan and Haryana seem to believe that the principles animating our Constitution are flawed. Last year, the Rajasthan government decided that not every citizen of that state can contest the Panchayat Samiti and District Council elections. Through an ordinance, issued by the governor, the government made an amendment to the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, and made it mandatory for candidates wishing to stand for zila parishads and panchayat samitis to be Class 10 pass, while those contesting sarpanch elections must be Class 8 pass. In scheduled areas, the eligibility has been kept at Class 5 pass.
Following the lead taken by Rajasthan, another BJP ruled state, Haryana, has now amended the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994. For the elections coming up in January 2016, it has decreed that a matriculation degree would be essential for general candidates contesting the elections. The minimum qualification for women (general) and scheduled castes has been fixed at Class 8. The proposed amendments were challenged before the Supreme Court, which has upheld their validity. We must, of course, abide by the ruling of the highest court of the land. But with due respect, a question does arise: Can state governments dilute the categorical letter and spirit of the Constitution through separate legislations pertaining to election to local bodies? It is true that they have the power to do so. But should not panchayat elections follow the same principles of eligibility that have been prescribed for elections to our state Assemblies and to Parliament?
There are valid reasons to ask this question. In Rajasthan the literacy rate for women in rural areas is only 45.8 per cent. In tribal areas, the situation is much worse with only 25.22 per cent of women being literate. The new law means that in both these categories the majority of women will be automatically excluded from their fundamental right of being active participants in the democratic process at the grassroot level. This arbitrarily applied exclusion hits men as well. The literacy rate for men in rural Rajasthan is 76.16 per cent. This means that roughly one-fourth of men will also be denied ab initio their right to stand for panchayat elections.
The literacy rates in Haryana are better, but only marginally. According to the 2011 census data, Haryana has a literacy rate of 76.6 per cent. Within this overall figure, women’s literacy rates are much lower at 66.8 per cent. Even in urban areas, where literacy rates can be expected to be higher, only 60.97 per cent women are literate. In other words, in Haryana, the new amendments make one-fourth of all men,and more than one-third of all women ineligible to stand for election to local bodies. Is such an arbitrarily imposed exclusion democratic? People are not illiterate by choice. They are so for the lack of opportunity for which the state itself must take the bulk of the blame. Moreover, the majority of those who are still the victims of illiteracy are from the most marginalised sections of society. Is it the intention of the imperious lawmakers in these states that those at the bottom rung of the ladder must be specifically excluded from their democratic right of representing the people?
The argument given by both the Rajasthan and Haryana governments is that panchayats deal with money transactions, and, therefore, those who are illiterate are not qualified to handle them. This is hardly a credible defence. A Class 8 or Class 10 pass does not overnight possess the qualifications to handle complex financial matters. Panchayats have officials to maintain accounts, and those who are illiterate are certainly not imbeciles. Moreover, our democratic experiment has shown that the capacity to serve effectively as elected representatives is not exclusively undermined by the fact of illiteracy. Of course, ideally, all Indians should not only be literate but at least graduates too. But, the makers of our Constitution realised that given the poverty, lack of equal opportunity and social deprivations in India, exclusionary criteria will work against democratic equity and, in particular, against the poorest and most marginalised sections of society. It was their thinking that it is precisely when such sections are given the opportunity to be fully involved in the democratic process that they will create the pressure to change the system to provide them the opportunities for education and health and other social benefits that are presumed as a right by the more privileged sections.
There is, of course, a final irony to this whole matter. To stand for Parliament, a candidate does not necessarily be able to read. To stand for state Assemblies a candidate does not necessarily have to be able to write. But to stand for local elections, candidates have to have an educational eligibility! There is another reason for indignation. These amendments to the law have been made just before the panchayat elections. Why could they not have been made prospectively, or in a phased manner, to act as a feasible incentive for the people? Democracy cannot become an instrument in the hands of the privileged to exclude large sections of citizens of India who have been given this precious right by no less than the makers of our Constitution. The Supreme Court, in my view, must review its decision, for it is unlikely that the state governments in question will.
Author-diplomat Pavan K. Varma is a Rajya Sabha member
Download the all new Deccan Chronicle app for Android and iOS to stay up-to-date with latest headlines and news stories in politics, entertainment, sports, technology, business and much more from India and around the world....