By The Ladies Finger and Khabar Lahariya
Are Haryana’s new electoral restrictions, upheld by the Supreme Court, the beginning of the end for rural women’s enfranchisement in India? Will other states follow in applying absurdly elitist restrictions on election candidates? And when such candidates don’t exist, will people be forced to cheat the system in order to fix it?
“Sir, I want a fake Class 8 certificate from Rajasthan. Can you help?”
Vikram Mittal, an advocate based in Haryana’s Hisar, was nonplussed by the query. His questioner was a woman from a Scheduled Caste from a village in Hisar district. She was worried about how, a few day earlier in August, the Haryana government had introduced the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Ordinance – to make ‘formal’ education compulsory for all panchayat poll candidates.
Neighbouring Rajasthan was and remains the only other state in the country to have enforced similar educational qualifications for panchayat elections. It’s led to a widespread fake certificates racket there, and hence the question posed to the unsuspecting lawyer.
“When I asked why she wanted such a fake certificate,” recalls Mittal, “she replied that for the first time ever, the seat of sarpanch in her village was reserved for Scheduled Caste women. But she wasn’t going to be eligible because of this new education clause. She considered these elections in January 2016 to be her one shot at winning.
“I explained to her that we were going to file a petition in the Supreme Court, and we had every hope that she would indeed get a chance to run for public office. And when the SC granted a stay on the amendment on September 17, she was so happy. She felt confident that she had a chance.”
It wasn’t over yet. On December 10, the Supreme Court surprised most watchers by upholding the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act.
This means that all candidates now standing for panchayat elections in Haryana will have to have completed a prescribed level of schooling to be eligible to run for the post of “Panch”. Men contesting from the General category will need to have passed minimum Class 10. Women from the General category and men from the Scheduled Caste category will need to have passed minimum Class 8. And women from the Scheduled Caste category will need to have passed minimum Class 5. (There are other similar conditions for the post of “Sarpanch”.)
According to Mittal, the same woman visited him in his office two days after the startling apex court verdict. She came with her equally dismayed father-in-law
“Aise toh vote ka adhikar bhi cheen lenge [In this way, they’ll snatch away the power to vote as well]” the father-in-law said to the lawyer.
The lawyer’s silence indicated that it was a possibility.
The elder man continued, “Toh phir humein ugrawadi banna padega, aur vaapas lena padega [Then we’ll have to become terrorists and take it back].”
* * *
Haryana’s citizens now need to satisfy five conditions to stand for panchayat elections:
1. Minimum schooling.
2. The possession of a functional toilet in your house.
3. Payment of all pending electricity bills.
4. Payment of all outstanding debt to cooperative banks
5. No criminal cases against them
With the exception of the last one, none of these conditions have been imposed on any other public office in the state – only to the village bodies.
If it can happen in Haryana, can it happen elsewhere?
Unfortunately, it already has. On March 27, 2015 the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Bill was passed – to now run for the post of sarpanch, all candidates are required to have functional toilets and have passed minimum Class 8, except in tribal reserved areas where they’ll need to have passed minimum Class 5. Those running for Zilla Parishad or Panchayat Samiti elections also have to pass minimum Class 10.
So a better question would be: If it could happen in Haryana, can it happen everywhere?
What if tomorrow, the government announced that if you have a diesel car, you can’t stand for elections – because you are a polluter of the country?
Or that if you didn’t pass your college degree with 80 percent average score you are not bright enough to be a politician?
Or that six traffic violations will disqualify you as a trustworthy political candidate?
Or that if your credit card bills are not paid in full you aren’t good enough to stand for elections? Not that you are bankrupt and running from the bank, just that at the specific time when you have to file your nomination papers, your credit card bills are not paid up to the last rupee. So you can’t stand.
Sure, it isn’t as if you want to become an MP or MLA right now. But haven’t you entertained the passing thought that clean, regular people like you, gentle reader, or people you know, should have a chance to run and do a bit of good for this country and for your community?
How would you feel if that option was denied to you altogether?
These electoral regulations dressed up as a greater common good are only the beginning of a very slippery slope. Indians are staring down a rushing precipice of restrictions on their right to public office. At stake is the fundamental civic right: Who in India has the right to ask for their fellow citizens’ votes?
* * *
“I planned to run for elections for a third time,” says Kamlesh on the phone from Kaimari village in Hisar, Haryana. In 2004 she ran for and lost the post of sarpanch, and in 2009 she ran for block samiti elections and was defeated again. “I was defeated the second time by only 11 votes,” says the 45-year-old Dalit woman, who adds that her family has supported her work for the community.
Kamlesh does not have educational degrees but considers herself educated. She can read and write and does some accounting work too. She says she began her education around 1995 when Janwadi Mahila Samiti (JMS) members would come to teach 20-25 young women in the village. They used to study for two to three hours informally. “Who knew that later the government would demand certificates?” she says.
She sounds proud when she talks of how she has made a difference to her village by focusing on development issues such as schools, rations and MNREGA. She talks about working for years for the better treatment of labourers in her community, for the rightful sharing of graveyards. Her tone only shifts to dejection and indignation when she turns to the question at hand – yes, it is true, she won’t be able to contest elections anymore.
There are villages in Haryana where there will now be not even a single eligible panchayat candidate under the new conditions. There’s going to be a further twist of the knife in villages like Neemkheda, which famously elected India’s first all-women gram panchayat a decade ago. Today, its panchayat still comprises seven women and three men – all 10 members are now disqualified to run for office again. “I didn’t eat for three days when I heard about the SC verdict. Tell me what my fault is,” Ashubi Khan, who has been sarpanch since 2005, told the media. “We need seven eligible women. If the panchayat fills up with men again, it’ll be very sad. Shall we let that happen or import women from Bihar and Rajasthan?” Khan has argued lucidly against the SC judgement in several interviews: “My illiteracy is not my fault, but a reflection of the State’s failure to fulfil its responsibilities. Did our village even have a school five decades ago? So why are we being punished?… [And] are the educated not corrupt? How [do] you prove they are more honest than uneducated people like us? … Also, if leadership is about encouraging education, laying pucca roads, reducing social evils, then haven’t I proved myself and my leadership skills? If the government and courts think we are not fit to fight elections then let them also take away our right to vote.”
It’s worrying that Rajasthan should have been the first state to introduce a minimum education qualification for panchayat candidates. Only 66.1 percent of Rajasthan is literate, which means that 66.1 percent of people over the age of 7, according to Census enumerators, were said to have completed some level of schooling. The only states with lower rates than that are Arunachal Pradesh and Bihar. Data with the Office of the Registrar General also shows that Rajasthan had the largest literacy gender gap in 2011.
For women from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities, the numbers are starker. Census data shows that in Rajasthan, only 8.13 percent women from Scheduled Caste communities and 4.86 percent women from Scheduled Tribe communities are over 20 and have passed Class 5 (21 is the cut-off age to stand for panchayat elections, but Census data is available only for ages 20-24).
In Haryana, only 14 percent of rural women from Scheduled Castes are over 20 and have primary education (there is no data on women from Scheduled Tribes.)
No neat data exists to tell us how the Supreme Court’s ruling might affect panchayat elections in Haryana. But there is one crucial clue from Rajasthan.
In the Rajasthani panchayat elections held this year, as ground reports show, several posts were left vacant, and many candidates were elected unopposed.
Where seats are reserved for candidates according to gender, caste or both, the absence of a suitably qualified candidate from that category means that that seat must remain empty. Bhanupriya Rao, who runs Gender in Politics, a project that tracks Indian women’s representation and political participation at all levels of governance, points out that data with the Rajasthan Election Commission shows that in 2010, before the ordinance, there were 35 sarpanches elected unopposed in the state.
In the 2015 panchayat elections, 260 (2.63 percent of total elected sarpanches) were elected unopposed.
In Rajasthan in 2015, 43 percent of panchayat members were elected unopposed – a staggering number, even though corresponding data for 2010 is unavailable. Nearly half of the people who won panchayat seats hadn’t “contested” at all. They were put on a shiny escalator to victory.
Now, it’s good to note that the only other developing country that currently has such minimum education requirements for elected representatives at all levels is Indonesia. It’s also useful to remember that as of 2011, Indonesia had an adult literacy rate of 93 percent.
Brazil too once had literacy tests for voters – at a time when 80 percent of the country was illiterate. In the 1980s, these laws were vehemently struck down.
Legal scholar Alok Prasanna Kumar points out that using education as a means to exclude select sections of the population from electoral rights (particularly African-Americans) has been a distinct pattern in the US. The American right to vote is established both by the constitution and by state laws, which has led to many different kinds of exclusions being raised, passed and then struck down. For decades, black voters in several American states were kept out through the literacy tests that required them to read and write in English through subjective ‘live’ demonstrations to government officials. It was only in the 1960s that conditions like poll taxes and tests were dropped and new, inclusive voting rights laws passed.
In US elections where voter turnout is nothing like India, new voting restrictions (such as photo ID requirements) in the last decade have once again hit poor and minority voters in several states. But such laws have again been struck down by the courts as having “discriminatory effects”.
* * *
Why Can’t the Uneducated Have the Right to Represent Themselves?
On December 20 a group of angry women gathered in Mahua, Uttar Pradesh to be sworn in as new panchayat pradhans. They had just won the latest elections held the previous month, but they had other things on their mind.
Following the oath-taking, three pradhans – Shailkumari (Barsada Bujurg panchayat) Shyamkali (Baheri) and Pyari (Nauhai) – participated in a formal discussion organised by Khabar Lahariya. They were dressed festively and were quite cheerful about their first public discussion.
A brief scuffle ensued when Pyari’s husband – continuously reminding anyone who would listen that he was the literate one in the family and indignant that his wife was being interviewed instead – claimed, “Woh kya batayegi? Mujhse baat kar lijiye! (What can she tell you? You should speak to me!)” He had to be physically moved out of the frame of the video camera twice by the reporters.
Neither Pyari nor Shyamkali have ever been to school. Shailkumari, who’s been elected pradhan for the second time, has passed Class 5. She heard about the Haryana ruling and has been simmering with rage since. She hit the ground running by saying, “Unpadh ke liye koi kaam hi nahi hai? (Is there nothing at all that an uneducated person can do?)”
Shailkumari was the only one who sat down for the discussion without asking anyone for permission. She has strong views and is dismissive of the insinuation that she, practically non-literate, has a lesser ability than literate candidates to govern and do public work.
So what about the Supreme Court judgment that stated: “It is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad”?
The pradhans made the reasonable point that educational qualifications in rural schools don’t actually indicate the reality about one’s ‘literacy’, and that anyway literacy does not necessarily determine someone’s judgment.
All these pradhans are also Dalit, and have an understanding of how many formal restrictions and caste-based oppression have kept them out of both educational and political opportunities for centuries. The new Haryana and Rajasthan laws seem to be just more of the same – new iterations of the old caste-based discrimination and disenfranchisement.
They also point out that the government should be making an effort to create greater access to education and greater political opportunities for those who have had less access to education — and not make it worse for such citizens.
In an earlier interview with Khabar Lahariya, Shailkumari had said that she was elected again because she had done actual good work. “I got people’s homes made, toilets in their houses. Roads and sewage. It’s important to be educated, but of course people who haven’t been educated can see what’s going on [around them] – what work is happening, what isn’t. What needs to be done. Even the uneducated should have access to rights, to whatever the State offers. Don’t they have the right to speak, to observe, to say what’s right and wrong, to point out what needs to happen?”
In the body language of the pradhans, both in the assertive, unfussy Shailkumari, or even the more giggly and demure Shyamkali, no one can miss one thing: their having been elected, and sitting where they were and being asked their opinion, was a huge affirmation of their rights and citizenship. The implication that this hard won right, or access to power and political expression could be snatched away by the State whose responsibility it was to open up these spaces – as it has been in their neighboring states – was infuriating and unacceptable.
“Hamare liye sab barabar hain. Aur janta ne humko jitaya hai, to hum bhi sabh padhe-likhe logon ke barabar hain. (For us, everyone is equal. And the public has made us win, so we’re also equal to those who are educated.)”
* * *
What’s the Problem Anyway?
“This whole issue has been fought in an undemocratic way,” claims Jagmati Sangwan, women’s rights activist and general secretary at All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), which took the Haryana case to the Supreme Court. “It was passed as an amendment to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act in Haryana as the last agenda item of the day – passed without debate and signed.”
The very next morning after passing the amendment, the Haryana Election Commission announced that panchayat elections would be held in January 2016, says Vikram Mittal, who helped AIDWA challenge the amendment along with Supreme Court lawyer Kirti Singh.
“It was completely against the democratic process, which is why we appealed to the Supreme Court. They listened to the issues seriously but unfortunately gave this judgment,” says Sangwan. “The deprived sections of our community hope to come into the mainstream, but this judgment only pushes them further into exclusion and marginalization.”
Human rights lawyer and former Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising, who is representing the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in their challenge to the Rajasthan amendment in the Supreme Court, has also been vocal about her dismay at the court’s ruling in the Haryana case, which came rather unexpectedly. “At the hearing, which was very interactive, the court was presented with statistics on poverty, homelessness, and ownership of toilets,” she says on the phone from Delhi. “The judges were appreciative of the statistics on exclusion. Personally, I was expecting the law to be struck down.”
“Rajasthan does have a much lower literacy rate than Haryana. But considering the judges were already accepting of the fact that over 50 percent of people in Haryana would be excluded [by such a judgement], I do not think the outcome will be different for Rajasthan,” says Jaising. She believes that the new ruling leaves a window open for other states to now impose similar restrictions.
Economist Venkatesh Athreya is the lead writer of a series of reports by the Foundation for Agricultural Studies on education in rural India. “The surveys carried out by FAS looked, among other things, at the levels of education in around 20 villages across six states [including Rajasthan]. One of the most striking aspects we found in nearly all villages we surveyed was that half or more of the women aged 16 years and over had not completed even one year of formal education.”
Athreya believes the Supreme Court’s ruling will “set the clock back by decades”. In the process of keeping women out of panchayat elections, he says, “we’re losing a very important political resource. What the ruling really does is empower Hindu upper-caste land-owning sections of society.”
“The [Supreme Court] judgement is wrong because it directly affects the female candidate – the girl child is the first to be passed up on education,” points out Suman Kohlar of the Singamma Sreenivasan Foundation, which works with women elected representatives in Karnataka.
According to 2014 figures with ASER Centre, an organisation that assesses the outcomes of social sector programmes, only 53.9 percent of children in Class 5 in rural Haryana government schools could read a Class 2 textbook. In Rajasthan, the corresponding figure was 34.4 percent. Perhaps it’s time to focus on our broken school system before trusting in its ability to train our community leaders?
* * *
Is there an Exit Sign?
Is there no way out for the lakhs of people in Haryana and Rajasthan disempowered by the barriers to standing for panchayat elections? Can the Supreme Court’s or the state governments’ decisions ever be reversed?
“Legally there is very little recourse,” says Alok Prasanna Kumar, Senior Resident Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, a Delhi-based legal think tank. “The two avenues are review petitions and curative petitions. Review petitions are in the vast majority shot down. Since 2002, when the curative petition system was put in place no more than two or three have succeeded.”
“There are two other ways in which this ruling can get challenged,” Kumar adds. “One is that a similar law (such as the one in Rajasthan) might come up in front of a completely different SC bench and get challenged. Then it gives openings for the court to revisit this ruling. Otherwise, and this is not an ideal route, if other states take heart from this ruling and come up with more and more exclusionary laws and if the court is then confronted with something so patently absurd that it has no way of ignoring it, then this [Haryana] ruling could get revisited too.”
AIDWA is wasting no time. It’s filing a review petition in court on December 23, and has already launched an online petition to gather public signatures to submit to the Chief Justice of India and the President of India.
Besides legal methods, Haryana could also go the legislative route to remedy the situation. It has a precedent for having revoked its own law, such as the one on its two-child policy, Jaising points out.
She isn’t keeping her fingers crossed, though.
* * *
Just a few days after the SC ruling, the Haryana Advocate General’s office has submitted further suggestions to the State Cabinet for a law that would make Class 12 a cut-off condition to stand for municipal elections. If the Chief Minister approves it, an ordinance to the effect will be promulgated.
“We’re all very wretched about the new Supreme Court ruling,” says Kamlesh, the panchayat poll aspirant from Haryana who was preparing to contest for her panchayat a third time. This is something she repeats several times in an otherwise matter-of-fact conversation. “In the whole zilla and wider area, there are so many women who will not be able to run – all these women who showed so much strength…”
But she has no intention of giving up easily. “Even if these conditions are still there in the next election, we’ll continue to work outside power. We have to do the work,” she says. “We have to speak up for our community.”
Additional inputs from Gender in Politics.
Image credits: Photos of women at a gram sabha by UN Women Asia & the Pacific via Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Photos of Kamlesh and AIDWA meeting courtesy Vikram Mittal. Photo of Shailkumari by Khabar Lahariya.
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that Neemkheda village currently has an all-woman panchayat. It has been corrected.