OPINION

Illiberal law, roll it back

Scan Haryana’s statistics on key social indicators, and the picture that emerges is dispiriting. For example, in this State of rich farmers and networked urban centres, 41 per cent of Scheduled Caste men have not cleared class 8; and 68 per cent of SC women have not made it to class 5. Roughly 45 per cent of rural households do not have a toilet, and among SC households that figure rises to 55 per cent. Put together, it is a picture of failure of the government to fulfil the part of the essential contract that binds state and citizens: to provide the rule of law and social services. It was, therefore, an odd call to action by the Haryana government earlier this year when it passed the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act to debar exactly these citizens failed by the state from standing for panchayat elections. In a web of disqualifications, the full exclusionary potential of which is still not precisely calculated, the law debars from contesting men who have not completed matriculation, women who have not cleared class 8 (with the corresponding qualifications for SC men being class 8 and for SC women class 5), people who haven’t paid arrears for specified agricultural loans or electricity bills, and those who do not have a functional toilet at home. The law was challenged in court, and on Thursday the challenge was set aside by the Supreme Court.

It is unlikely that the government will file a review petition, given that the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power in Haryana and at the Centre. However, the case against the law must be made politically, and emphatically so. For one, what the courts have done is to uphold the power of the State legislatures to enact such laws — it follows that civil society must persuade political parties to rethink such qualifications, and to repeal the amendment in Haryana specifically and desist from introducing such legislation in other States. A liberal democracy must of necessity refrain from certifying who may contest elections to represent the people. It is dangerously illiberal to debar citizens from contesting elections when they are able to fulfil their responsibilities as panchs, or legislators, as the case may be. Indeed, curbs on particular categories of people, instead of individuals in breach of particular laws, from contesting elections carries the imprint of authoritarianism, and such restrictions have predictably been popular with military juntas, from Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan (only college graduates could contest) to present-day Myanmar (the bar on those with foreign nationals as spouses or children is obviously targeted at Aung San Suu Kyi). For yet another State in India to join their ranks, even if it is for panchayat elections, is a setback for the world’s largest democracy.