ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Disenfranchising the Deprived

There seems to be an undercurrent of distrust of democracy in the rulings of the Supreme Court.

The 73rd amendment to the Constitution in 1992 was meant to strengthen grass-roots democracy in India by the nationwide establishment of three tiers of local government or panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). The third tier, the gram panchayat, has members elected by universal adult franchise. The establishment of PRIs under the 73rd amendment was an attempt to deepen Indian democracy and a means to devolve political power to institutions closest to the citizens. The PRIs have had their share of successes and failures but it is undeniable that as a facet of the ongoing experiment of Indian democracy, they have gone some way in empowering the hitherto powerless, especially women in rural areas. However, the recent judgment of the Supreme Court in Rajbala vs State of Haryana, delivered on 10 December, threatens to fundamentally undo the positive effects of the PRIs by allowing state governments to disenfranchise large sections of the populace, especially women, lower castes and other deprived sections of society.

The Supreme Court’s judgment in Rajbala has been delivered in a constitutional challenge to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994 which had been amended in 2015 to disbar those candidates for panchayat elections who are not literate, or who are in arrears of their dues to electricity boards, or on loans taken from state cooperative banks, or do not have a toilet in their residence, among other disqualifications. The amendment in 2015 was challenged by petitioners on the ground that it amounted to a violation of the right to equality under the Constitution as it creates classes among a uniform body of voters, with neither a rational basis for such classification nor any legitimate purpose sought to be achieved by such classification.

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