With the Modi government under attack by intellectuals for its perceived social intolerance, Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan today said India's tradition of debate and open spirit of enquiry is critical for its economic progress.
Delivering the convocation address at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi - his alma mater – Rajan chose not to speak on the economy, interest rates or banking, and instead spoke of the need to foster an environment in which ideas can flourish.
A crucial part of this is the ability to debate and challenge, said Rajan. A ''resort to bans will chill all debate'' and excessive political correctness can stifle progress as much as excessive licence, he added.
''The first essential is to foster competition in the market place for ideas. This means encouraging challenge to all authority and tradition, even while acknowledging that the only way of dismissing any view is through empirical tests,'' Rajan said at the convocation. The speech was made available on the RBI website.
''What this rules out is anyone imposing a particular view or ideology because of their power. Instead, all ideas should be scrutinized critically, no matter whether they originate domestically or abroad, whether they have matured over thousands of years or a few minutes, whether they come from an untutored student or a world-famous professor,'' he added.
Rajan argued that protection of the right to question and challenge and the right to behave differently, as long as it does not hurt others seriously, is essential. Fortunately, India has always protected debate and the right to have different views, he said.
Rajan went on to speak of group sentiment and asked whether ideas and behaviour that hurt a particular intellectual position or group should be banned.
''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 through tolerance and mutual respect,'' he said.
Rajan said that there should be a very high bar for prohibiting an act simply because it offends someone but does not actually harm anyone otherwise. Any ban, or any vigilante acts to enforce it, may offend as much or more than the offence itself.
The RBI governor also called for tolerance in the face of provocation saying that one should not be so insecure about one's ideas that they cannot be subject to challenge.
''Tolerance can take the offense out of debate, and indeed 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,'' he said.
''Tolerance and respect then lead to a good equilibrium where they reinforce each other,'' Rajan said.