Exclusion from poll process through edu

The SC has delivered a decision that is a deadly blow to the idea of universal adult franchise.

On December 10, people around the world celebrated t he Human Rights Day. Ironically, on the same day, the Supreme Court which ought to act as the guardian of citizens’ human rights, delivered a judgment that disregards the right of the citizens to participate in the democratic process.

During September this year, the Haryana legislature passed the Haryana Panchayat Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015 which among other things, imposed property, debt and education- based restrictions on contesting panchayat elections. Section 175 of the Act disqualifies persons who have not completed matriculation from holding the post of sarpanch or a panch of a Gram Panchayat. It also disqualifies such persons from becoming members of a Panchayat Samiti or Zilla Parishad.

The petitioners argued that these restrictions based on educational qualification are against Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees equality before the law. While Article 14 prohibits discrimination, it allows “reasonable classification” that has a rational nexus with the object sought to be achieved by the law in question. For instance, a law which has the objective to ensure housing to poorest persons in the society can make a “reasonable classification” of the beneficiaries based on their income level.

In the present case, the Supreme Court said the disqualification of persons based on educational qualification is reasonable classification and has nexus with the object sought to be achieved by the Haryana Panchayat Raj Act, 2015 and upheld the law. The court said, “The impugned provision creates two classes of voters – those who are qualified by virtue of their educational accomplishment to contest the elections to the panchayats and those who are not. The proclaimed object of such classification is to ensure that those who seek election to panchayats have some basic education which enables them to more effectively discharge various duties which befall the elected representatives of the panchayats.”

By upholding the Haryana Panchayat Raj Act, the apex court, according to its own estimates, has disqualified a large number of population from contesting for panchayat polls. As per the data from National Population Register 2011, more than 50 per cent of the women rural population in the state is not educated and cannot contest the polls due to this judgment! There goes women empowerment!

To examine if the restriction based on educational qualification violates Article 14, we need to make a comparison with other restrictions. Persons convicted in a court of law are disqualified from contesting elections. There is a strong rationale for not allowing criminals to contest polls. It is wrong to place illiteracy at the same level as criminality and disqualify illiterate persons from contesting polls.

Socio-economic factors
Educational qualification is dependant on socio-economic factors. It was not by choice that they remained illiterate. The poor do not have easy access to education. India recognised the right to free and compulsory education as a fundamental right very recently and it is not enforced effectively. This being the ground reality, it is absurd to have educational qualification as a restriction to contest the elections.

Even this right to education has been diluted by the Supreme Court through cases like Pramati Educational and Cultural Trust versus Union of India (2014) where the court removed all the minority schools from the purview of Right to Education Act. It is unfortunate that the court on the one hand weakens the right to education jurisprudence and on the other, discriminates persons who do not have education.

The Act also disqualifies those who do not have toilets in their homes from contesting the polls. At least a person can build a toilet overnight, but education is not something one can attain instantly. The SC instead of discriminating against people without education, should better focus on strengthening the right to education jurisprudence by plugging the loopholes that has forced a large population to remain illiterate.

The court opined that the right to contest elections is not a fundamental right, but a constitutional right. In theory, a fundamental right is higher than a constitutional right. However, one can infer that the court has treated the right to contest elections as a mere legal right – which is weaker than a constitutional right. Democratic and republican form of government has been held by the very Supreme Court as basic features of the Constitution and is not to be violated. Yet, the democratic right to contest elections has been curtailed based on a reasoning that reflects of class bias. The SC has delivered a decision that is a deadly blow to the idea of universal adult franchise.

The SC in the present case has observed: “It is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad.” I can only contrast this “reasoning” with Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience…”

(The author is a post-graduate from National Law School of India University, Bangalore and a law researcher at University of Mysore)

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