Should there be minimum educational qualifications for contesting elections in India?

By Akash Agarwal, Amity Law School, Noida.

In a recent case, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India stayed the New Haryana Panchayat Law i.e. Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015, which prescribed the minimum educational and other qualifications for the candidates contesting  local body elections in Haryana which were scheduled to be held  on 4th October, 2015. The passing of the Act made a large hue and cry in the state, which ultimately led the people to knock the doors of the Apex Court, by filing a petition.

A few days after  passing of the Bill, a petition was filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court challenging the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act on the ground that the new law would deprive a substantial part of the society from taking part in the grassroot-level elections. On 17th September, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India agreed to consider the matter and finally stayed the Act. A bench headed by  Justice J. Chelameswar and Justice Abhay Manohar Sapre stayed the law and issued a notice to the Haryana Government and the Election Commission of India seeking their response. On 22nd September, the State Government asked the Supreme Court to decide whether educational qualification could be an eligibility criteria for the candidates aspiring to contest rural local body elections. The Hon’ble Apex Court had serious doubts over the constitutional validity of such law and it observed that it would allow the elections to be conducted  only if the Haryana government agreed to drop minimum educational qualification as a criteria to contest elections. To  this the Attorney General of India, Mr. Mukul Rohatgi, defending the law on behalf of the state, informed the Court that it was neither possible nor appropriate to drop the provisions and the government was ready to argue the case in Court and the Court should decide it one way or the other.

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As per the petition, if the law continues to be in force, more than 83% of rural women above the age of 20 years in Haryana and around 67% of women in urban areas would also be disqualified from contesting elections.

This has raised a hot debate all over the country as to whether there should be minimum education qualification for candidates to contest elections.

The amendments in Haryana Panchayat Law prescribed the following qualifications to make a candidate eligible to contest local body elections in Haryana;

  1. For general category, a candidate must be at least class 10th passed;
  2. For SC category, a candidate must be at least class 8th passed;
  3. Women in general category must be at least class 8th passed;
  4. Women in SC category must be at least class 5th passed;
  5. In addition to the above qualifications, the candidate must not have any dues in co-operative banks, electricity bills must be fully paid and must have at least one functional toilet at home.

The Supreme Court, for the time being, stayed the law and the matter is still pending in the court and the final hearing shall be on 7th October, 2015.

The debate over the issue is still going on. With the advent of concept of welfare state, the functions of the state are not only restricted to providing security to its people, maintaining law and order etc., but it has further widened its horizon where  it has to execute several other functions as well. The society is changing day by day at a very high pace  which is evident from the development of technology in every sphere and every activity of life. In such a progressive society, it becomes the need of the hour that the person who has been given such a substantial  duty to maintain the society, must have high calibre and intellect. The most basic skill they must have is to be able to read, write and understand the  day to day affairs of life and must have a due diligence i.e. to be able to figure out the consequences of their acts. Thus,  it becomes essential that the candidates who are contesting elections must have basic educational qualifications.

Over this issue, the Attorney General of India, Mr. Mukul Rohatgi argued before the court that “Panchayats are like mini state governments. Powers of state governments are delegated to them and they ought to take part in economic reforms. How can that be accomplished when officials put their thumb impressions and later dispute such impressions or say we don’t know what we signed?” He also added, “What is wrong with prescribing for a minimum educational criteria? This is a progressive step. Parliament should also take a lead from this.”

Analysing the argument made by the Attorney General of India, it seems that the conditions imposed by the state is reasonable, sound, sufficient and efficient. From 1947 till 2015, one thing that has remained crystal clear, with which only few will have discontent, is that the socio-economic scenario of India and the world has changed drastically and therefore, it becomes the need of the hour to make reforms in the manner a candidate can contest elections in India.

On the other hand there are several inadequacies in the condition so imposed. Even after 68 years of Independence, a large part of the Indian society is either totally illiterate or doesn’t have a proper educational qualification especially in case of Women and the population in rural areas. In a state like Haryana where literacy rate of women is 56.31%, the prerequisite to have a minimum educational qualification will certainly debar a large section of women from contesting elections. The rural literacy rate of the State collectively is also not sufficient. In a state where around half of the population is illiterate, it may be improper to expect from them to have certain basic educational qualifications. This is so because the parameters to measure literacy is altogether different from the parameters to measure basic education qualifications.

By the prevailing Census definition, anyone above the age of seven who can read and write with an understanding, in any language is considered ‘literate’. The giveaway is that, that it is not necessary for a literate person to have received any formal education or to have attained any minimum educational standard.

Therefore, to be literate is totally different from being educated. So apart from Haryana, in other states of India the condition to have an educational qualification to contest elections shall have an effect on a large section of society by restricting them from contesting elections.

Conclusion:

Minimum Education Qualification for candidates to contest elections may be a great move undertaken by the Haryana Government and it may be beneficial for the society as well. But what matters is the will of the people and social acceptance of such a law in the manner that such a law must do more good than harm to the society. The imposition of such a condition must be analysed after considering the social as well as economic situation of the country and the population which shall be impacted by the law. In a country where the government is already struggling with the problem of illiteracy, the pre-requisite to have basic education qualifications to contest elections must be carefully analysed. Now, the matter in sub judice before the Apex Court to have its final say.

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