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Quota without tears

New Delhi, May 22: The quota row today hit the government’s image where it should hurt, with two members quitting the National Knowledge Commission, set up by the Prime Minister to promote excellence in education and knowledge creation.

Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta and sociologist Andre Beteille said they were disillusioned with the government’s policies, which they saw as a betrayal of the principles on which the commission was founded.

Both sent their quit letters to Singh attacking the other backward classes quota proposal. Sources said the resignations would be accepted.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indicated tonight that the government would not dilute its commitment to reserve seats for the backward classes, though he sought to strike a balance by saying that “no deserving student (will be) denied an opportunity to secure education”.

“We will pay special attention to the needs of socially backward classes'”, he told a meeting on the second anniversary of his government.

The reservation package ' which will introduce OBC quotas in phases, propose increase of seats in the general category and moot the setting up of more institutes ' could be enforced through an ordinance as the Parliament session is ending tomorrow.

Once Manmohan returns from Srinagar later this week, the cabinet is expected to take up the package drawn up by a group of ministers.

In his quit letter, Beteille wrote to Manmohan, who had handpicked the commission’s eight members: “I have always made a distinction between numerical quota and affirmative action. What is happening now is dangerous.”

Mehta’s letter said, “The government has revealed that it cares about tokenism more than social justice. We are not doing enough to genuinely empower marginalised groups but are offering condescending palliatives like quotas as substitute.”

Both said they were not against affirmative action: they were against using quota as the only vehicle for social justice.

The Prime Minister is known to be unhappy with the quota, a brainchild of human resource development minister Arjun Singh, although political compulsions have made it difficult for him to make any critical comment in public.

Manmohan could well have said what Mehta and Beteille did had he not been the Prime Minister.

Mehta wrote: “As an academic, I find it an appalling spectacle when a group of ministers is empowered to come up with admissions, policies, seat formulas for institutions across the country.”

Beteille said: “Affirmative action to make universities more inclusive should be a natural process. It is always easy to queer the pitch by imposing a numerical quota.”

But he saw no logic in the obsession with merit, either. “Merit is a false issue. It is a red herring. Merit is an important criterion but you can’t sacrifice everything else for the sake of merit.”

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