Literacy over democracy

Haryana’s law barring the illiterates from contesting panchayat polls can push the marginalised further away from the political mainstream

gyanant

Gyanant Singh | October 7, 2015



Haryana is defending its law that bars illiterates and school dropouts from contesting panchayat elections. While the state government is trumpeting the law as a means to guarantee an ‘educated’ leadership to ensure good governance at the panchayat level, the law raises fears of aggravating the challenges inherent to Indian democracy.

At a time when reservation is still being extended to various disadvantaged groups to make democracy more inclusive and participatory, it may not be wise to prescribe minimum educational qualifications for contesting elections without taking into consideration the inherent dangers of pushing the marginalised away from the political mainstream.

With socio-economic conditions having a direct bearing on the rate of literacy in India, barring illiterates or early school dropouts could segregate a particular class or classes leading to marginalisation of the already marginalised.

Though the objective of the law enacted by Haryana may be laudable, there is a need for a serious debate on the policy as it is likely to adversely affect women and other disadvantaged groups, apart from giving birth to a new class lacking political representation. The sooner the deliberation the better, as Haryana has only adopted the policy first introduced by Rajasthan and other states might soon feel tempted to follow the suit.

While the law may seem progressive when looked at in isolation, it is set to introduce contradictions and anomalies in the democratic process.

In what amounts to giving with one hand and taking with the other, the same groups whose political representation at the panchayat level has been ensured through reservation are likely to suffer most on account of the disqualification spelt out in the law.

Though reservation for certain disadvantaged groups have been there in parliament and state legislatures since the outset, the fact that it was extended – even expanded with women being added in the list of beneficiaries – to the local self-government institutions set up though an amendment to the constitution in 1992 shows that the policy had not outlived its utility. Against this backdrop, barring illiterates, particularly when literacy in India is linked to social and economic backwardness, from contesting elections would only frustrate the very purpose and scheme of reservation in politics.

While the policy of reservation seeks to make democracy more participatory, the new law would deny representation to an identifiable disadvantaged group. This would only give birth to a separate group lacking representation and requiring affirmative action for political empowerment.

True, the state legislature is empowered to lay down qualifications for posts at the panchayat level but literacy in India is as much of a class trait as a personal attribute. Apart from creating a group lacking political representation, the new law is likely to affect the claim to unreserved open seats of women and other disadvantaged groups who would suffer most on account of the disqualification.

Further, the law amounts to legitimising the right of the literates to rule over the illiterates. To bar the illiterates from participating in governance amounts to tampering with the ethos of democracy which does not merely envisage a government of the people and for the people but also by the people themselves.

In fact, the proposal to prescribe minimum educational qualification for contesting elections to parliament and state legislature was also mooted in the constituent assembly but the founding fathers of the constitution decided against tampering with the spirit of democracy irrespective of the dangers posed by illiteracy.

The constitution makers refrained from prescribing any minimum educational qualification for MPs and MLAs (it remains so even now) despite some members seeing illiteracy as a great danger to democracy. KT Shah sought literacy as a qualification for legislators to save democracy after pointing to “this danger of something like over three-fourths of the population, if not more, being illiterate is before us”.

Seeking a minimum educational qualification for legislators, Brajeshwar Prasad painted a scary picture of a legislator saying “it is considered to be enough if he is a demagogue, a loud-tongued orator, a professional political dancer, a man with hundred faces and a confirmed scoundrel.”

The majority, however, supported the views of those with rights-based approach and decided against distinguishing between people on the ground of education.

“I would be treated as disqualified if the matriculation qualification were there. My education is hardly equal to the primary school. I only desire that such of our countrymen as are illiterates like me be not disqualified by these provisions,” Mahavir Tyagi said, opposing the move.

Cautioning against tampering with the right of people in a democracy, Phool Singh representing United Provinces said: “Self-government means a government by the people, and if the people are illiterate, a few leaders have no right to usurp all the power to themselves.”

Singh’s statement made in the constituent assembly while the matter was being debated in August 1949 is relevant even today.

In the last three-tier panchayat elections held in Haryana in 2010, over 67 percent of the total candidates who won the election were illiterates and non-matriculates. According to figures provided to the supreme court by the state government, 20,392 of the 67,827 elected candidates were illiterate and a sizeable 25,334 were non-matriculates. 

With the new law prescribing a minimum educational qualification of class X (matriculate) for general and class VIII and class V for women and dalit candidates, respectively, a large number of illiterates and non-matriculates participating in the election process will have to take the back seat. It goes without saying that their place will be taken by what the state government calls the “educated leadership”. It is this sort of undemocratic usurpation of power that Phool Singh had seen in the “bogey of merit” raised in the constituent assembly.

With the law pending scrutiny before the supreme court, the state government will not just have to justify curbs on the right of people to contest elections but also defend the curbs on the right of voters whose choice would be restricted.

Haryana has argued before the supreme court that the law was aimed at promoting literacy. The state has an overall literacy rate of 75.55 percent, with the rural literacy rate at 71.42 percent.

True, the rate of literacy in the state is low and it is the duty of the state to promote literacy. But to penalise people for being illiterate does not amount to fulfilling its duty but abdicating it. The approach should be to fight illiteracy which is triggered by socio-economic causes and not the illiterates. Can poverty be eradicated by prescribing a minimum bank balance for contesting elections?

As regards the contention that barring the illiterates from holding positions in panchayats would be an incentive for education, illiteracy ironically is no bar to higher political ambitions of being MLAs and MPs.

The SC no doubt had earlier upheld a law enacted by the state to check population growth by barring those with more than two children from contesting panchayat elections. The new law may be having a similar social objective but the two-child law did not bar those who already had more than two-children before the cut-off date.

The latest Haryana law disqualifies those who were qualified and had even won elections before the rule came into play. In this context, it also needs to be debated if the rule of the game can be changed after the game had already begun.

The pendency of the matter before the supreme court should not stall the much-needed debate as the constitutional validity of the law is a separate issue. The central issue is not whether the state has the power to bar illiterates from contesting elections but whether it is in the interest of democracy to do so.

Singh is a Delhi-based lawyer.

(The article appears in the October 1-15, 2015 issue)

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