February 25, 2021
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Why Are Illiterates Unfit For Indian Democracy?

Why Are Illiterates Unfit For Indian Democracy?
File-P. Lashkari
Why Are Illiterates Unfit For Indian Democracy?

In December 2015, The Supreme Court upheld a controversial law passed by Haryana that list criteria for disqualifying people from holding local panchayat office (and not, thankfully, from voting).

The most controversial exemption was that men and women running for office should be educated – that is, they should have at least attended middle school. The problem is that this would disqualify half of Haryana's rural voters. It would basically debar swathes of the poor, women and under-privileged from running for these local body elections.

Critics have argued that the basis for the exemption – that such model citizens would serve those bodies better – is actually against the very fundamentals of Indian democracy. A similar law has been passed in another BJP-ruled state, Rajasthan. Late last year, Outlook did a cover story on this burning issue titled 'The New Untouchables'. Our reporter found widespread anger against the move across Haryana. 

Now, in a sharp piece in the New York Times titled 'India's Move Against The Poor', academic and columnist Mukul Kesavan has joined the growing outrage against a move that 'constrains liberty, corrodes equality and mocks fraternity'. He attacks it on three fronts. One, the fact that it is not true to the ideals of India's founding fathers. 

It is also a deviation from the Indian republic's original idea of itself. Immediately after independence in 1947, the constituent assembly debated whether educational requirements should apply to either voters or political representatives. It decided against both options, prizing universal suffrage and political inclusiveness over any other consideration. Given that back then India's literacy rate hovered around 12 percent, this was a heroic bet on mass democracy. And it paid off: India has had more than six decades of stable, elected governance. So why, then, would the Haryana legislature try to fix something that wasn't broken?

The other issue is one of consistency and equality.

Under the new law, a citizen in Haryana must meet a much higher educational requirement to run for the lowest tier of local government than to contest elections for the state legislature or even the national Parliament. The second problem is that the law, in effect, punishes the poorer half of Haryana's population for the failure of both state and national authorities to provide free education to all Indians.

What next? Kesavan echoes the view of many right-thinking Indians that this issue should be re-examined by the Supreme Court.

The inconsistencies in this decision should be reason enough for the case to be re-examined by a larger bench of the Supreme Court. Another reason is the decision's possible seismic aftereffects: It opens the door to other attempts to qualify Indians' right to contest elections.

Now that is a truly scary thought for Indian democracy.

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