Disenfranchising the Poor and Marginalized

The BJP Government in Rajasthan has, days before panchayat polls in the State, introduced an ordinance mandating minimum educational qualifications for Panchayat candidates.

According to the ordinance, a candidate should have passed Class 10 to contest the Zila Parishad or Panchayat Samiti polls; be Class 8 pass from any school to contest the Sarpanch elections on general seats and have passed Class 5 from a school to become a Sarpanch in the scheduled seats. The BJP Government has chosen to use the ‘ordinance route’ – bypassing any debate or vote in the Assembly, in spite of the fact that ordinances are meant only for emergency measures. What was the pressing emergency to deprive nearly 80% of the state’s citizens from contesting the panchayat polls?

According to the Census 2011, rural literacy levels in Rajasthan are abysmally low – 61% for men and 45% for women. In the 2010 Rajasthan Panchayat polls, more than 70% of elected Panchayat Samiti members and 77% SC Panchayat Samiti representatives; 55% of Zila Parishad members; 61% of the Scheduled Caste and 63% of Scheduled Tribes representatives fail to meet the criteria specified by the ordinance. With this ordinance, the Rajasthan Government is punishing women, SC/ST persons, and the vast majority of rural Rajasthan for the failure of the State to ensure education for all!

The educational criterion imposed by the Ordinance is Class 5 pass for SC/ST reserved seats. But the fact is that STs have held even unreserved panchayat seats in some parts of the State – and may now be debarred by the Ordinance from doing so. Till now, a large number of the 27 panchayats of Shahabad block and 32 panchayats in Kishanganj block of Baran district have been held by Sahariya adivasis, beyond the seats reserved for STs. Now, the ordinance imposing and educational bar have ensured that very few among the Sahariyas will be able to contest.

The ordinance becomes even more absurd when considered alongside the fact that 23 BJP MLAs and 2 BJP MPs in Rajasthan are below 10th pass, and 20% of the Modi Government’s Cabinet Ministers are below 12th Pass. This means that Sarpanches in rural Rajasthan are required to meet educational criteria that MPs and MLAs, who enact laws for the country and the State, are exempt from.

The BJP Government’s claim that this is a move to curb corruption is shockingly elitist, implying that those deprived of education are likely to be more corrupt. Local self-governance in rural areas is mandated by the 73rd Constitutional amendment that did not stipulate any minimum educational qualifications.

The Supreme Court refused to entertain petitions against the ordinance, saying that the Rajasthan High Court was the correct forum to raise the issue. By failing to at least extend the deadline for filing nominations until the High Court can take up the matter, the Supreme Court has been remiss in its duty to protect Constitutional rights of citizens.

Rural Rajasthan and much of rural India are deprived of education. Levels of literacy and education among the Dalits, adivasis and women are especially low in India. The only criteria that need concern us about Panchayat representatives are their incorruptibility and their commitment to leading people’s struggles for their rights. These criteria, needless to say, cannot be enforced by Governments but can only be pursued and enforced by the rural people, by demanding transparency and accountability from elected representatives.

The silence of the Modi-led Central Government on the Rajasthan ordinance disenfranchising the poorest and weakest of the rural population is yet another danger signal for India’s democracy.

Liberation Archive