The government and opposition are busy celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, holding a special constitutional debate in their attempt to appropriate his legacy. But the recent verdict by the Supreme Court, upholding the law passed by the Haryana State Government, which mandates that a minimum educational qualification is required for contesting the panchayat elections, can be seen as the most unworthy gift one can think of giving him.
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As per the amendment to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act by the State legislature Assembly in 2015, it is required that all general candidates must have passed Class X examination, while women and Dalit candidates need to have cleared Class VIII. Dalit women candidates must have cleared Class V to be eligible to contest the elections. After much delay, the verdict was finally announced by the Supreme Court, and it upheld the law. The justification offered by the SC bench was as follows –
“The proclaimed object of such classification is to ensure that those who seek election to panchayats have some basic education, which enables them to more effectively discharge various duties which befall the elected representatives. The object sought to be achieved cannot be said to be irrational or illegal or unconnected with the scheme and purpose of the Act or provisions of Part IX of the Constitution,” the bench said.
Further, it stated that – “It is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, prescription of an educational qualification is not irrelevant for better administration of the panchayats.” (Part IX relates to the three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions and was added to the Constitution by the 73rd Amendment in 1993)
India was marred by a similar debate when the constitution was being drafted – should we have universal adult suffrage? Should everyone be given the right to vote?
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The case in point is very similar to what was happening about 60 years ago. In both cases, it was the discrimination against one and favour towards the other, which stood as the moot point. Education was the dividing line. It was Ambedkar who laid to rest the argument of illiteracy by saying –
“My feeling is that every man is intelligent enough to understand exactly what he wants. Literacy has not much bearing on this point; a man may be illiterate, none the less he may be very intelligent.”
It is these words of Ambedkar that we should pay heed to. It’s not education, but knowledge, which is the defining component. Education is a very ambiguous term – I might be a research scholar, but I won’t necessarily have the knowledge of how a tube well works or what are the issues that Dalits face in villages. On the other hand, a Dalit who has no education but is living in a village, has the knowledge of both. So who do you think is better equipped to solve village level problems — a person with a PhD, or the person who has gained hands-on knowledge by being a part of the community all his life? If education was so important, I am sure that a lot of scientists and inventors would not have been college dropouts.
By adding education as a criterion for contesting elections, the SC as well as the government have added a layer of discrimination. The entire idea of upliftment of the weak stands defeated. As per statistics, the current amended law will leave 68 per cent of the Scheduled Caste women and 41 per cent of the Scheduled Caste men in Haryana ineligible to contest panchayat elections. The government is just adding insult to injury by first not being proactive in providing these people with the desired level of education, and then making discriminating laws.
For a man who fought against discrimination his entire life, only to give it up and convert to another religion, there cannot be a worse gift than this on his 125th birth anniversary. In the true spirit of democracy, a government should be for the people, by the people and of the people. If we have to commemorate B.R. Ambedkar, we must fight against such discriminating laws.
India needs inclusiveness, not neo-discrimination.
– Sajal Manchanda
The views expressed in this article are personal and do not in any way represent the views of any organization.