Prime Minister Degree Row: What did the framers think?

Last month, the Gujarat High Court set aside an order of the Central Information Commission which directed the Gujarat University to provide information on Prime Minister (‘PM’) Narendra Modi’s degree in Political Science which he pursued at the University. The Aam Aadmi Party has criticised this order and used it to start a ‘degree dikhao/show your degree’ campaign wherein it is asking the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party government to disclose the Prime Minister’s educational degrees. Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal has gone ahead and questioned whether an uneducated PM should lead the country. In a political rally, Kejriwal remarked, “I listened to Narendra Modi’s speech where he said he went to a village school only and could not do further studies. But I want to ask you today, shouldn’t the Prime Minister of a great nation like India be educated?… An educated PM would not have gone for dangerous decisions like the demonetisation and three anti-farmer laws.

The Constitution of India places no educational qualifications on a candidate seeking to be elected as a  Member of Parliament and in effect, the Prime Minister. Article 84 of the Constitution only requires that the individual must be a citizen of India, at least 30 years old for Rajya Sabha and 25 years old for Lok Sabha, and must possess any other qualification that the Parliament may prescribe by law. In contrast, there are many other countries that prescribe minimum educational qualification on their representatives. For instance, the Constitution of Gambia requires that the Head of State must have completed senior secondary school education (Section 62). Nigeria is currently in the process of passing an amendment to the Constitution that will raise the academic qualifications of elected public offices to a university degree or its equivalent. The Bill’s sponsor Adewunmi Onanuga argues, that if every professional occupation requires an educational qualification, why shouldn’t a similar requirement be placed on politicians who shape a country’s policy. He argues, “If a managing director who holds an equally strategic position in a company within this country cannot be employed without a university degree or its equivalent, why should the above political offices be held by people without a university degree or its equivalent?”.

Prima facie the argument is sound and makes me wonder why the makers of our Constitution failed to prescribe similar educational qualifications for the Members of Parliament. Shouldn’t we look at legislators who make the laws as professionals who must have minimum educational qualifications which ensures that they understand and critically engage with the laws being debated in Parliament? To find an answer to this question I went back to the Constituent Assembly debates. The Assembly had voices from both sides i.e., some arguing in favour of educational qualifications while the others stressing on the poor literacy rate in India and the supremacy of practical knowledge over theoretical knowledge to argue against any qualifications. I summarise the key voices in the Assembly in this post, hoping it will give some perspective on this ongoing debate.

1. Need for Qualifications: Understanding the Debates and Demand of a Decent System

Prof. K.T. Shah one of the most active members of the Assembly had moved an amendment which stated that anyone seeking an election to the positions of the President, Governor, Cabinet Minister or a Judge, must be able to read and write in English or the national language (which was to be Hindi). Here he was not advocating for educational qualification but literary qualification. According to him, the elected persons must be able to follow the proceedings of the Assembly and contribute to the debates intelligently. Introducing the amendment Shah had remarked, “I at least do not think that any Member of this House is intended merely to raise his hands. I do believe that every member intelligently and carefully follows all that is said: and, as such, it would be a loss to the House if anything said in this House is not, for mere lack of following the language or understanding the idiom in which some idea is expressed, it should be lost upon any section of the House.”

Although Shah’s amendment did not pass, Dr. Ambedkar in principle agreed with the spirit of the amendment. Ambedkar felt that it was desirable to have educational qualifications especially for Ministers, however, he believed that the principle did not require explicit incorporation in the Constitution. He believed that it would be impossible to imagine that a Prime Minister would choose a Minister who did not understand the language of the administration. Ambedkar remarked, “I again find it impossible to think that a Prime Minister would be so stupid as to appoint a Minister who did not understand the official language of the country or of the Administration, and while therefore it is no doubt a very desirable thing to bear in mind that persons who would hold a portfolio in the Government should have proper educational qualification, I think it is rather unnecessary to incorporate this principle in the Constitution itself.”

Although Shah and Ambedkar were subtle in their push for educational qualifications, member Brijeshwar Prasad was not. Prasad argued that if professionals like engineers, lawyers or doctors are required to undertake specialised training why shouldn’t the same be applied to legislators who perform a more important role. In his opinion, for a decent system of government educated legislators were a necessity. Prasad remarked, “A doctor, or an engineer or a lawyer has to undergo certain specific periods of specialised training. I consider that the role of the legislator is far more important that either that of a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. But in order to become a legislator, it is considered to be enough if he is a demagogue, a loud tongued orator, a professional political dancer, a man with hundred faces and a confirmed scoundrel. I feel, Sir, that if we want to build up a decent system of government, some educational qualifications for legislators must be considered necessary.

Interestingly, although Dr. Ambedkar did not incorporate educational qualifications for elected legislators, he did introduce an amendment that introduced these requirements for voters of legislative council of a state. Ambedkar introduced an amendment to include an article (currently Article 171) which requires that 1/12th members of the legislative council must be elected by electorates consisting of persons who are graduates of a university in the state and who have been engaged in teaching at educational institutions not lower than secondary school.

2. Poor Literacy in India and Practical Knowledge Trumps Theoretical Education

Shri R.K. Sidhva another vocal member of the Assembly had strong views against the requirement of educational qualifications. Speaking in the context of Cabinet Ministers Sidhva remarked that instead of having expert qualifications legislators should have common-sense and practical knowledge. In his opinion, in politics practical knowledge trumps theoretical knowledge. He observed, “A man with theoretical knowledge fails as we know, in practical politics. In my opinion a man with practical knowledge is far superior to one who possesses only theoretical knowledge. Sir, even assuming that we want a person with theoretical knowledge, I am sure that the party running the elections will take care to see that such a person is given a party ticket.

Another member Mahavir Tyagi highlighted the nation’s poor literacy rate to argue against any qualifications. He argued that majority of India is illiterate, and this shouldn’t be used as a basis to deny them a right in administration of the country. He gave the examples of emperors Ranjit Singh, Shivaji and Akbar who were all illiterate to argue that despite a lack of education, they were excellent administrators. He argued that we must not put too much emphasis on education as it is not the sole criteria that ensures a good administrator. He argued, “I wonder, why should literacy be considered as the supreme achievement of men. Why should it be made as the sole criterion for entrusting the governance of a country to a person, and why Art, Industry mechanics, physique or beauty be not chosen as a better criterion, Ranjit Singh was not literate. Shivaji was not literate. Akbar was not much of a literate. But all of them were administering their states very well. I submit, Sir, that we should not attach too much importance to literacy.”  

A similar argument based on literacy was made by Alladi Krishnaswamy Aiyer as well who argued that education/literacy qualifications would disenfranchise a large number of people including the labouring class and women. In place of qualifications for representatives, Aiyer was arguing against qualifications for voters, however, his argument can be applied to legislators as well. Dr. Ambedkar had made a similar argument in the past as well. In his memorandum to the Simon Commission Ambedkar advocated against the use of literacy tests as a criterion for enfranchisement. He argued that it is a mistake to assume that an illiterate person is an unintelligent person, and that literacy test imports a higher level of intelligence. The context for these remarks was Ambedkar’s belief that upper castes despite being the most educated communities in India did not use their education for services of the lower castes.

Concluding Remarks:

The arguments against educational qualifications have always dominated the debate and arguably resonated with the electors as well. Education is rarely the subject of debate in contemporary political discourse arguably because it doesn’t translate into winnability and votes. The Supreme Court in a recent hearing resonated with this argument as well and remarked, “no one in India votes on the basis of the candidates’ educational qualifications”. The Court’s observations came while hearing a petition challenging the election of a politician on grounds of non-disclosure of correct educational qualification.

[Post Script – Whenever I witness political debates in contemporary India, I always turn to the debates in the constituent assembly to find answers and so far, I have never been disappointed. The Assembly was full of farsighted individuals who debated issues that continue to affect contemporary India.]

The entire Constituent Assembly Debates can be viewed and downloaded from here.

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