Guest Post – II: The History of Educational Qualifications for Democratic Participation in India

(This is a guest post by Udit Bhatia, a DPhil candidate (political theory) at the University of Oxford. Udit is writing his dissertation thesis on the role of education in political exclusion)

(This wraps up our four-part series on the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Ordinance.

Post I: On the constitutionality of the Ordinance from the perspective of Article 19(1)(a)

Post II: A critique of the Rajasthan High Court’s refusal to intervene

Post III: The Ordinance as seen from the prism of Article 14

Post IV: The History of Educational Qualifications for political participation)

The Rajasthan Government’s recent ordinance on Panchayati elections raises once more the question of the relationship between education and political participation. Before I discuss the history of debate on this relationship, it is important to remember that this issue is likely to remain of political significance for years to come, in spite of increased access to education. This is because the generations which shall continue to constitute a large share of our political class for the next few years will be those that did not enjoy the benefits of the kind of educational access available today. Further, as this number shrinks, it is likely that illiterate persons will become even more politically vulnerable. To put things in perspective: one member of the Constituent Assembly suggested that it was unfortunate that the adult suffrage had to be extended to illiterate persons. But he also conceded that the very notion of adult suffrage would be rendered meaningless if it were denied to the illiterate because it was such a large share of the population. There has, hitherto, been some strength in numbers.

The view that education is necessary for the exercise of democratic citizenship played an important role in the colonial government’s postponement of self-government in British India. The Southborough Committee, constituted to offer recommendations on the franchise by the Government of India Act 1919, stated that “education does help in the formation of an electorate which will be potentially more capable of understanding issues submitted to its judgment and hence prima facie better equipped to exercise political power”. Similarly, in offering recommendations for the Government of India Act 1935, the Lothian Commission noted that, in addition to the size of its population, illiteracy constituted one of “the two special problems which confront India in setting on foot a system of responsible government”. Illiteracy prevented access to knowledge, and therefore, an intelligent exercise of the franchise. One finds across the colonial government’s discussion on the franchise, the suggestion that self-government continued to remain the ‘ideal’, but one that had been rendered ‘impracticable’ due to this particular feature of illiteracy, which affected the vast majority of the Empire’s subjects.

In addition to the idea that literacy was a marker of political intelligence, it was also urged that wedding the franchise to one’s educational qualifications would help encourage the expansion of education. This argument figured in deliberations of the Roundtable Conference’s Subcommittee on the Franchise, and later, the Lothian Commission’s Report, both of which favoured an educational qualification for obtaining a vote. The educational qualification was conceived as an enabling one, which allowed educated persons who did not meet the property qualification to nevertheless cast a vote. However, from the perspective of the disenfranchised, one’s lack of education, in addition to property, now prevented them from obtaining the vote.

The Empire’s assumption about the necessity of education for democracy did not go uncontested. For instance, in the deliberations of the Roundtable Conference’s Subcommittee, one finds three distinct lines of critique against the educational qualification. The first emphasized the irrelevance of educational qualification in matters of political judgment. While some urged that illiterate people had a “horse sense” which allowed them to make intelligent political judgment, others criticized the narrow understanding of education as formal instruction on which defences of such proposals rested. The illiterate had ‘practical’ or ‘vocational’ training as labourers or farmers even if they had not obtained formal qualifications. Aruna Roy, in a recent article, has alluded to the politically astute character of some of the unlettered poor she has worked with. She suggests that democratic illiteracy has to do with specialized modes of governance which have no necessary connection with the ability to read and write. Secondly, critics of the literacy qualification highlighted the culpability of the colonial government in failing to ensure wider access to education. It was, according to this critique, unfair for the government to penalize persons for not obtaining educational qualifications, which it had failed to provide. A contemporary version of this argument urges that educational qualifications disadvantage certain sections of the population for whom the state failed to provide equal access to education. A final line of critique against literacy qualification urged that political participation was itself an important means of education about public affairs. This argument drew upon a Mill-ian understanding of politics as an educative process—ironically, Mill had endorsed the disenfranchisement of the illiterate—and suggested that illiterate people had become more politically aware through participation in previous elections, and would continue to do so if given the opportunity.

However, it would be a mistake to believe that the Empire’s assumed connection between capacity for democratic participation and illiteracy vanished at the stroke of the midnight hour. In addition to doubts about the wisdom of universal adult suffrage in the face of illiteracy, suspicion about illiterate persons’ capacity to manage a system of proportional voting as well as the cumulative vote emerged during the Constituent Assembly’s deliberations on the electoral system. Of more recent interest is the Assembly’s discussion on educational qualifications for elections to parliament (Article 84) and legislatures in the states (Article 173). Clause (c) of both provisions requires members to possess “such other qualifications as may be prescribed in that behalf by or under any law made by Parliament”. Professor KT Shah, a prominent educationist, unsuccessfully proposed that literacy ought to be a requirement for legislators in addition to citizenship and attainment of the stipulated age. Mahavir Tyagi, a Kisan leader from the United Provinces, objected that such a qualification would have excluded many like him from the very forum in which he was able to participate and voice objections to proposals such as Shah’s. Speaking on these provisions, BR Ambedkar clarified the ambit of clause (c) by suggesting that it was intended to cover “bankruptcy, unsoundness of mind, residence in a particular constituency and things of that sort”. Opposing the explicit formulation of a literacy qualification, Ambedkar argued that this was a matter best left to the Legislatures. “If the Legislatures at the time of prescribing qualifications feel that literacy qualification is a necessary one, I no doubt think that they will do it”, he stated. Thus, the framers of the Constitution left open the option of limiting membership of legislative bodies to educated individuals.

Even as adult suffrage was introduced in postcolonial India, the political elite’s views on ability for democratic participation and its relationship with education did not constitute a clear break from the colonial government’s perspective. It is in this dishonourable tradition that one must locate the Rajasthan Government’s recent ordinance on educational qualification for elections to Panchayati institutions. Engagement with the past alerts us not merely to question the kind of exclusions such qualifications generate, but also argumentative resources that can be deployed to resist them.

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1 Comment

Filed under Constitutional History, Local Government (Panchayati Raj)

One response to “Guest Post – II: The History of Educational Qualifications for Democratic Participation in India

  1. Pingback: The Educational Disqualifications Case: A Round-Up | Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy

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