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Rajan bats for greater tolerance

Quick resort to bans will chill all debate, RBI governor says at IIT-Delhi convocation

Arup Roychoudhury  |  New Delhi 

Raghuram Rajan
Raghuram Rajan

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In a rare speech that was silent on the economy or the financial world, Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan chose a convocation at his alma mater, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, to speak his mind on the need for greater tolerance and respect for varied views.

Excessive political correctness, he said, stifled progress. He called for an improved environment for tolerance and mutual respect, adding protection of the right to question and challenge was essential for India to grow.

The RBI governor’s views assume significance in the backdrop of a growing debate over intolerance creeping into Indian society at large. Though Rajan didn’t mention any political groupings, his statement comes only a day after global ratings agency Moody’s research arm, Moody’s Analytics, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to keep the extreme elements within his party in check or risk losing credibility in India and abroad.

On whether ideas or behaviour that hurt an intellectual position or a group should be banned, Rajan said: “Possibly, but a quick resort to bans will chill all debate, as everyone will be anguished by ideas they dislike. It is far better to improve the environment for ideas.” It was by encouraging the challenge of innovative rebels that society developed. India always protected debate and the right to have different views, he said.

The first essential, Rajan said, was to foster competition in the marketplace for ideas. This meant encouraging challenge to all authority and tradition, even while acknowledging the only way to dismiss any view was through empirical tests. “What this rules out is anyone imposing a particular view or ideology because of their power,” Rajan said in his speech, titled ‘Tolerance and Respect for Economic Progress’.

“Sexual harassment, whether physical or verbal, has no place in society. At the same time, groups should not be looking for slights any and everywhere, so that too much is seen as offensive; the theory of confirmation bias in psychology suggests once one starts looking for insults, one can find them everywhere, even in the most innocuous statements,” he said.

Tolerance, he added, could take offence out of a debate and instil respect. “If I go berserk every time a particular button is pressed, rebels are tempted to press the button, while mischief-makers indeed do so… But if I do not react predictably and, instead, ask button pressers to explain their concerns, rebels are forced to do the hard work of marshalling arguments. So, rebels do not press the button frivolously, while mischief makers who abound in every group are left without an easy trigger,” Rajan said.

The convocation, held in a large amphitheatre at the institute, was jam-packed, even as new graduates, resplendent in their orange graduation gowns, posed for selfies with proud parents.

Rajan recalled his college days (he graduated in electrical engineering in 1985) and admitted he wasn’t a good actor. “Everyone did something ranging from photography to publishing. Of course, we all aspire to join dramatics where we get to spend long hours with members of the opposite sex. Unfortunately, I was not good at acting. So, I had to look elsewhere for self-actualisation. But there were enough places to look,” Rajan said.

He added IIT-Delhi “replaced our naivety with a more confident maturity. We came in as smart boys and girls and left as wiser young men and women”. He concluded by exhorting the students to uphold India’s traditions of debate in an environment of respect and tolerance. The deafening applause that followed was a clear signal to which way the wind was blowing.

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First Published: Sat, October 31 2015. 23:05 IST