The Supreme Court on Monday expressed strong reservations about prescribing minimum educational qualification as a pre-requisite for contesting polls. The issue relates to a new law in Haryana that mandates minimum educational qualification for those contesting panchayat polls. Even as the Attorney General termed it as a “progressive step” which Parliament should also follow, the court said the measure would result in barring half of India’s population from fighting elections.
Acting on a PIL, a bench led by Justice J Chelameswar had last week stayed implementation of the law, bringing the electoral process in the state to a standstill. This had compelled the state government to seek a recall of the stay order. The Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015 requires that general candidates must have passed Class X exams, while women and Dalit candidates need to have cleared Class VIII and Class V, respectively.
Arguing for the Haryana government, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said: “What is wrong with prescribing for minimum educational criteria? This is a progressive step. Parliament should also take a lead from this.”
Citing difficulties arising out of Panchayat officials putting their thumb impressions on documents, Rohatgi added: “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 thumb impressions and later dispute such impressions or say we don’t know what we signed?”
The bench, however, asked Rohatgi: “Do you realise what percentage of our population is illiterate?…Will the condition of literacy not violate Article 14 (right to equality) by making it a pre-requisite for candidates to contest polls? Virtually 50 per cent of the population will be disqualified straightaway from contesting elections.”
The court also pointed out that the criterion of minimum educational qualification was a notch up from merely being able to be read and write to be called as literate. “Whatever may be the election, it is a very serious question. We have serious doubts over educational qualification being made an eligibility criterion. Moreover, if we allow the election to go on, candidates will later file election petitions, raising constitutionality of this law. And no other court but only we can decide the question of constitutionality,” it maintained.
Later, Rohatgi sought time to seek instructions from Haryana government about its willingness to drop educational qualification as eligibility criterion so that the court could then allow it to conduct the polls. The case will be heard next on Tuesday.