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Bill for OBCs, balm for the rest

New Delhi, May 29: After weeks of tossing the reservation issue between quota protesters and its champions, a clarity of sorts has emerged on the position taken by the UPA government and the Congress.

They have decided that since they cannot backtrack on their policy of 27 per cent quota for the Other Backward Classes, it is best to voice their stand from every possible forum, though not necessarily as “aggressively” as Arjun Singh, pass the implementing bill in the monsoon session of Parliament and try and work out a package of “palliatives” for the upper castes.

But the passage of the bill may not go hand in hand with the offer of softeners for general category students. The next Parliament session will be over by August, when the law for reservation will most probably be in place (although it will come into force from the academic year beginning in 2007).

But the oversight committee headed by Veerappa Moily, tasked in essence to provide the sweeteners, will give its report by the end of August. The recommendations will then be discussed and debated and, sources said, it will be “a while” before they are accepted and implemented.

“We will not, I repeat, we will not recant on the quota issue. That is settled and the perceived silence of the Prime Minister and the Congress president must not be mistaken for ambivalence or confusion. Both are supportive of this policy,” said a Congress general secretary.

Asked if the issue had got identified with Arjun, the human resource development minister, his reply was: “Yes, to a large extent. We have to try and dispel this impression too.”

Rita Bahuguna Joshi, who heads the Congress’s women’s wing, was pulled up by party leaders for allegedly opposing “caste-based” reservation in public.

According to Congress sources, the Prime Minister has picked Moily to head the oversight committee because he belongs to a backward caste of Karnataka and is credited with “successfully Mandalising” his state when he was chief minister.

Moily had included backward-caste Muslims in the reservation ambit without a communal backlash. “It’s a good choice because in north India, where caste reprisals are the strongest, very few know Moily is from a backward caste,” a source said.

Moily is expected to emphasise the “inclusive” aspects of reservation and not project it as OBC-centric. “My committee will serve more of a sociological point than a political one,” he said.

“We are building a knowledge society with the kind of infrastructure and intake (of students) that should enable the IITs to be on a par with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Consider the figures. MIT produces 4,000 engineering graduates per year which is just a thousand less than what our IITs together do,” said the former Karnataka chief minister who also heads the Administrative Reforms Commission.

Moily cited the southern states, where reservation for backward classes, Dalits and tribals has been operational for decades, to illustrate that “merit” is not caste- or class-exclusive.

“The question is what is the difference in the pass percentages of the OBCs and the others. In Karnataka, it is 1 or 2 per cent. And among the OBCs, the Dalits and tribals, it is another 1 per cent. If Bangalore is lauded as India’s Silicon Valley, it is because of the availability of technical human power made possible by the reservation policy,” he said.

Moily went on to say that various forms of affirmative action had existed in the US since John F. Kennedy’s time, apartheid-stung South Africa had an equality of opportunity law and Australia had put in place legislation to include various race and ethnic groups. “So why should India look backwards'” asked Moily.

He described his committee’s task as the “most scientific and objective approach to quality education and knowledge-building” India has seen since Independence.

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