In March this year, Rajasthan became the first state to insist that candidates for the panchayat polls meet minimum educational qualifications—Class VIII for sarpanches, Class X for the zila parishad and panchayati samiti elections and Class V in tribal reserved areas. Oh, and one more thing, you had to have a functional toilet at home.

Here’s what happened when the elections to the panchayats were held later in the year, says Bhanupriya Rao, a researcher on women and politics who runs the portal Genderinpolitics.org. Two hundred and sixty sarpanches were elected unopposed, compared to 35 in 2010. Among regular panchayat members, 46% were elected unopposed.

The unopposed election of candidates at the most basic grassroots level in such large numbers would be worrying in any democracy. In one that is dominated by men, it is even more so. It was to correct this imbalance that the 73rd Amendment mandated one-third reservation for women in panchayat councils—a decision that has proved to be so successful in the 23 years since it was taken that states like Bihar have increased it to 50%.

In Haryana, as with Rajasthan, chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar made both functioning toilets and functional education—matriculation for all, except for women and Dalit men (Class VII) and Dalit women (Class V)—preconditions for contesting the panchayat polls. There were other criteria: candidates cannot be charged of crimes that carry a sentence of more than 10 years in jail, should not have arrears with agricultural cooperative societies and banks and should have cleared their electricity dues.

The new qualifications have disenfranchised 68% of Dalit women and over 50% of all women from contesting panchayat elections, says advocate Indira Jaising, who challenged the provisions in the Supreme Court.

In a 70-page judgment (bit.ly/1Z6nKjz) upholding the new qualifications, a two-judge bench concedes that under these, “a large number of women (more than 50% of the otherwise eligible women) in general and scheduled caste women in particular would be disqualified". But, they find, a minimum education qualification would enable more effective discharging of various functions that panchayat members are expected to fulfil.

Is education a desirable qualification for politicians and, for that matter, citizens? Absolutely. But if you’re going to insist on minimum education for our netas, then why not begin with a top-down approach, starting from Parliament and the assemblies? If Lalu Prasad’s son (who has passed Class IX) can become a minister in the newly elected Bihar government of Nitish Kumar, then why discriminate against women and the marginalized in villages in Haryana and Rajasthan?

There’s another issue. What sense is there in mandating minimum education in a state with one of the country’s worst sex ratios (877 women for every 1,000 men, well below the national average of 940) and a female literacy rate of 66, just above the national average of 65?

Girls don’t choose to marry early. They don’t choose to drop out because of a lack of infrastructure such as toilets. They don’t choose the general lawlessness due to which their parents pull them out of school and keep them home where they are required to help with household chores, including collecting firewood and water.

For many girls, school is a struggle and they battle unimaginable odds for the right to study—as highlighted in Mint’s recent series on the education of girls (mintne.ws/1QQGwqv). The good news? For the first time in India, more girls than boys are enrolled in primary and secondary school. They are tomorrow’s future candidates and change-makers.

But, today, to penalize an older generation of women and prevent them from seeking a measure of empowerment and change through elections, goes against the grain of natural justice. Women in public life in India at all levels face systemic violence and discrimination. We hear horrific reports of women sarpanches being stripped in states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Dalit women panchayat members are routinely made to sit on the ground while upper caste men from their village are seated on chairs. These are the small, daily humiliations they must endure.

Already, six states disqualify women with more than two children—as if women have autonomy over their own fertility. Yes, having fewer children and having an educated citizenry are concerns for every Indian. But why make the victims of gender imbalance pay the price?

Any attempt to curtail the participation of women in public life must be repelled, and the Supreme Court judgment is a step backward in the struggle for women’s right to be heard and seen in public life. The 1 million women in panchayats and the 80,000 women pradhans have earned their stripes. It’s time to reward, not penalize them.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor at Mint and can be reached at namita.bhandare@gmail.com

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