Home/ Politics / Policy/  Raghuram Rajan defends speech, says India fringe groups should calm down

Mumbai: Central bank governor Raghuram Rajan defended his speech calling for multi-ethnic, multi-religious India to embrace open public debate after it sparked a political fight during voting for a key state election.

Speaking at his office in Mumbai, Rajan said he gave the 31 October speech to new graduates so they would understand the importance of cultivating an environment of free speech. He also emphasized that India’s democracy is its greatest strength and said everyone across the political spectrum should “calm down a bit in order to foster healthy debate."

“It wasn’t a speech about ‘here and now,’" Rajan said in the interview. “It was more about where is the dialogue going and how are we going to maximize the advantage we already have. For that we need to keep this an open society and we need to resist all attempts at closing it down."

While Rajan didn’t reference any specific incidents in the speech, it provoked a response from both Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and his opponents campaigning for an election in the state of Bihar. Modi had faced criticism for waiting more than a week to condemn the murder of a man over rumors that he killed a cow, an animal sacred in Hinduism.

The final phase of voting in Bihar takes place on Thursday, with results counted on 8 November. A win for Modi’s party would increase its ability to pass stalled legislation through the opposition-controlled upper house of parliament.

Let ideas fight

India has seen religious tensions rise over the past year. A debate over forced religious conversions brought parliament to a halt last December, preventing the passage of key bills such as a goods-and-services tax. Last month, lawmakers from Modi’s party assaulted a lawmaker in Jammu & Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, for saying that he held a beef-eating party to demonstrate religious freedom.

“You cannot have a debate by screaming at one another," said Rajan, who was appointed under a Congress party-led government and whose term expires next year. “Let the ideas fight each other but let’s not prevent each other from saying what we think."

The main opposition Congress party rallied on Tuesday night in front of the president’s office in New Delhi in a bid to portray the government as intolerant of minority voices.

‘Enacting drama’

“People are being lynched and being killed and the prime minister is silent, doesn’t believe it is necessary for him to say a word," Rahul Gandhi, a leading Congress party member, told reporters. “The governor of the Reserve Bank has said it, the president has said it."

In Bihar earlier this week, Modi said the Congress party was “enacting drama" and had no right to lecture him on tolerance because it presided over anti-Sikh riots in 1984 that left about 3,000 people dead. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has called the outcry a “manufactured rebellion."

In an interview this week in New Delhi, Jaitley said he couldn’t comment on whether Rajan would get an extension to his term. Rajan also declined to answer when asked if he wanted one.

Rajan said India would be “crazy to lose" the biggest advantage it has over countries at a similar stage of development. He called the speech “an exhortation to support a fundamental future underpinning for growth."

“It’s very important, that both fringes, extreme left and extreme right, don’t say I’m going to shut you off if you don’t say what I want to hear," Rajan said. “It has to be a genuine debate. You have to preserve that environment. Thankfully, the mainstream is well and truly supportive of this." Bloomberg

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Updated: 04 Nov 2015, 03:54 PM IST
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