India's top banker: Intolerance could stifle growth

India's tech industry in 45 seconds
India's tech industry in 45 seconds

The head of India's central bank has made an unusual appeal for tolerance, warning the economy will never reach its potential if debate is stifled.

Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan made the case for tolerance Saturday in a speech at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology.

"India's tradition of debate and an open spirit of enquiry is critical for its economic progress," he said.

Rajan's comments -- a rare public departure from the nuts and bolts of monetary policy -- come amid a heated debate in India over religious tolerance and minority rights.

The central banker did not call out specific officials or political parties, but his comments were interpreted by many observers as a rebuke to Hindu nationalist politicians.

Some officials of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have suggested that Muslims should not eat beef or otherwise offend the religious sensibilities of Hindus, who consider cows to be sacred. BJP leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is at the center of the controversy, having been criticized over his slow response to the murder of a Muslim man accused of eating beef.

The episode has contributed to fears that Modi's government may be allowing party extremists to jeopardize economic reforms and communal harmony.

Salman Rushdie, whose novel "The Satanic Verses" was banned by a Congress Party government in 1998, warned recently that a new degree of "thuggish violence" was creeping into Indian society, encouraged by the "silence of official bodies" and the prime minister's office.

Other writers and intellectuals have returned government awards in protest.

Rajan, the central banker, framed his argument for tolerance in economic terms, drawing a connection between open debate and prosperity.

"Should ideas or behavior that hurt a particular intellectual position or group not be banned?" Rajan asked during the speech. "Possibly, but a quick resort to bans will chill all debate as everyone will be anguished by ideas they dislike."

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