PUDR expresses deep concern over the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015. On Human Rights Day, 10th December 2015, the apex court upheld five disqualifications laid down in the Act to particularly exclude those who are without specified educational qualifications, without a functional toilet in their homes, in debt, had arrears of electricity bills and had criminal charges framed against them, from contesting the elections to the Panchyati Raj. By this measure, Panchayati Raj – an institution designed for providing the much needed mechanism of self-rule at the local levels—stands eroded in spirit and substance. By excluding the uneducated, the indebted and those without a toilet, the judgment not only takes away the right of those thus disqualified, but also the right of every other citizen to elect a representative of their choice. This is so, because the Haryana Act as well as the apex court judgment disqualifies the candidature of more than 50 per cent of the rural population, vastly comprised of women and dalits. In our society, where economic and educational deprivation, more often than not, overlap with caste and gender based discrimination, the judgment upholds a Hindutva elitist morality at the cost of constitutional morality. By placing poverty and illiteracy on par with criminal charges as reason for disqualification, the judgment shows a real contempt of people.
The burden of argument in the judgment is to establish, that the right to stand in election is a political right but not a fundamental right, and therefore, not entitled to the same protection as a fundamental right. A second aspect is one of legislative competence. The Representation of the People Act outlaying criteria regarding contesting elections renders qualifications like education, economic status, etc, redundant. However, the panchayat elections are not covered under this Act and the Haryana state legislature has deviously used the loophole in the law to devise disqualifications, since the constitution allows it to do so. But neither the distinction between political and fundamental rights nor the issue of legislative competence justifies the validation of hierarchy of classes of people based on elitist considerations of eligibility rights. By creating two classes of citizens, one which can vote but not govern and the other which can do both, the judgment reduces franchise to a mere statutory privilege which can be subject to whims of those who hold political power. Thus, the judgement makes the right to represent a privilege for those who have historically played the role of feudal leaders by dint of their caste- and sex-derived educational status and economic power.
A similar move made earlier by the Rajasthan government, to amend the law by introducing functional toilets and Class VIII pass mandatory for the post of sarpanch and Class V pass as minimum for the post of Zila Parishad, had equally shown disregard for the constitutional values of equality and freedom and demonstrated the cunning and elitist attempt of lawmakers to disenfranchise large masses of the rural poor, women and Dalits. As much as PUDR is frustrated by such attempts of the legislators, it is even more alarmed by our highest court’s dangerous move towards violating the basic principle of equality of citizenship that is the core of a true democracy.We call upon the conscience keepers of our nation to re-examine its own decision, and prevent the avoidable mistake when it is still not too late.
Megha Bahl and Sharmila Purkayastha
16 Dec 2015