Mumbai: India’s tradition of debate and open spirit of enquiry is critical for its economic progress, argued Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan while delivering the convocation address at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi — his alma mater.

Choosing not to speak on the economy, interest rates and banking, as he normally would, Rajan instead spoke to 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. While not speaking in any current context, Rajan argued that a “resort to bans will chill all debate" and added excessive political correctness can stifle progress as much as excessive licence.

“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," said Rajan at the convocation held on Saturday. 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?

His response, “ 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."

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.

“Excessive political correctness stifles progress as much as excessive license and disrespect," said Rajan.

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."

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