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The court also said that the state government can bar people from contesting civic body elections if they lack “basic norms of hygiene” by not having a functional toilet at home.
Haryana had earlier made education till Class 10, a toilet at home and no criminal conviction or pending electricity bills, mandatory requirements for contesting elections. The educational qualifications were relaxed till Class 8 for Dalits and Class 5 for Dalit women.
In neighbouring Rajasthan, the Bharatiya Janata Party government had imposed similar restrictions. The state requires candidates to have studied till Class 10 for zila parishad and panchayat elections, Class 8 for sarpanch elections and till Class 5 for Scheduled Areas. Candidates affected with leprosy are barred from contesting these elections altogether.
While the Supreme Court’s judgement on December 10 held that it is reasonable to put some restrictions on people’s right to vote and elect their preferred candidates, there are fears that these conditions may further disempower many disadvantaged communities.
“The judgment effectively disenfranchises – and it recognises this – 68% of Scheduled Caste women, 41% of Scheduled Caste men, and over 50% women from all categories from contesting an election in the state of Haryana,” observed Indira Jaising, the former additional solicitor general, inThe Wire. “Perhaps the public messaging on the Swachh Bharat campaign has entered so deep into the consciousness of the Court that it has became its most prominent ambassador.”
Ever since Rajasthan enacted a law to this effect last year, many experts including noted civil rights activist Aruna Roy have argued that such a move by the states will “punish” those already discriminated against, by not allowing them a chance to contest elections and influence decision-making.
“If one looks at statistics of the currently elected representatives at the panchayat samiti and zila parishad levels, one will see that more than 50% of the current zila parishad members and more than 70% of current panchayat samiti members would be disqualified as per the current Class 10 pass requirement,” Roy told the Times of India. “None of these people can stand for re-election. These alarming levels of discrimination go up higher within reserved categories.”
Roy’s observation is not way off the mark. State legislative assemblies and even Parliament are filled with members lacking basic education. Hence, if such a filter based on minimum education qualification were to be introduced at higher levels of government, a large number of members would be staring at disqualification and being barred from re-election.
In Haryana, five non-matriculate candidates were elected as legislators last year. While one of them is illiterate, the remaining four have studied up to Class 8 or 9 at school.
Meanwhile, Rajasthan has a whopping 28 such legislators who have not studied beyond Class 8. Hence, a minimum education criteria would automatically disqualify 33 MLAs in these two states alone.
The situation is only slightly better in Parliament, where 25% of Lok Sabha members are not graduates. Of these members, 21 could face disqualification as they have studied only till Class 8 or less. Incidentally, three of these uneducated Lok Sabha members are from Rajasthan.