Tradition of debate, open spirit of enquiry critical for economic progress: Rajan

Our Bureau New Delhi | Updated on January 23, 2018

RBI chief Raghuram Rajan (file photo)

In ​his ​IIT-Delhi convocation address, RBI Governor advocates tolerance and mutual respect to "keep the ideas factory open"

Straying away from the monetary policy, inflation and the economy, Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan on Saturday chose to address the students of IIT Delhi on why “India’s tradition of debate and an open spirit of enquiry is critical for its economic progress” and the need for “tolera​nce and mutual respect".

Addressing the convocation at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, Rajan said: “Actions that physically harm anyone, or show verbal contempt for a particular group so that they damage the group’s participation in the marketplace for ideas, should certainly not be allowed.”

Rajan, who graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from IIT Delhi 30 years ago, also batted for free play of ideas and debates in the society, saying: “Excessive political correctness stifles progress as much as excessive license and disrespect.”

Though Rajan did not cite any example, his speech was seen as adding weight to Moody’s Analytics caution​ing the Narendra Modi government ​on Friday ​that it risked losing credibility if it failed to rein in his party (BJP) members from giving statements that give rise to ethnic tensions in the country.

Recalling his days as a student, ​Rajan said: ”Student politics was vibrant, with plenty of scheming, strategising, and back-stabbing. It was an intellectual pastime, however, without the violence and corruption that plagues student politics elsewhere in our country.”

He said to “keep the ideas factory open”, it was essential to foster competition in the marketplace 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. What this rules out is anyone imposing a particular view or ideology because of their power. Instead, all ideas should be scrutinised 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.”

Rajan quoted Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman’s autobiography in which he wrote that he found the atmosphere at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton “stultifying.”

“Now, as you know, the Institute of Advanced Studies brings together some of the finest scholars in the world to ponder problems in a multi-disciplinary environment. But he found the atmosphere sterile because there were no students to ask him questions, questions that would force him to rethink his beliefs and perhaps discover new theories,” he said, adding that “Ideas start with questioning and alternative viewpoints, sometimes seemingly silly ones… So nothing should be excluded but everything should be subject to debate and constant testing. No one should be allowed to offer unquestioned pronouncements. Without this competition for ideas, we have stagnation.”

The second essential, Rajan said, was “protection, not of specific ideas and traditions, but the right to question and challenge, the right to behave differently so long as it does not hurt others seriously.”

Going into India’s history, Rajan said, fortunately, India had always protected debate and the right to have different views.

”Some have even embedded these views in permanent structures. Raja Raja Chola, in building the magnificent Brihadeeswara Shaivite temple at Thanjavur, also incorporated sculptures of Vishnu as well as the meditating Buddha, thus, admitting to alternative viewpoints. When Shahenshah Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar invited scholars of all manner of persuasion to debate the eternal verities at his court, he was only following older traditions of our Hindu and Buddhist kings, who encouraged and protected the spirit of enquiry.”

Coming out clearly against the culture of bans, the Rajan questioned the trend of giving in to “group sentiment”. “Should ideas or behaviour that hurt a particular intellectual position or group not 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."

Tolerance, he said, was “absolutely necessary for mature debate” and implies “not being so insecure about one’s ideas that one cannot subject them to challenge.”

Published on October 31, 2015

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