Niti Aayog’s member Bibek Debroy is a renowned economist who is known for speaking his mind. In an interview to TOI, Debroy reflects on the issue of intolerance and cites examples to show the need for multiple views. Excerpts:
Q: A debate has actually been raging on the issue of intolerance in the country. What has actually been your experience?
A: What is generally not known is that Jagdish Bhagwati was essentially made to leave Delhi School of Economics and had to go abroad because his life was made very uncomfortable. He left DSE because there is a certain prevailing climate of opinion and if you buck that, your life is made uncomfortable.
In the course of the second five-year plan, a committee of economists was set up to examine it. Dr B.R. Shenoy was the only one who opposed it. Do you find Dr Shenoy’s name mentioned in the history of union policymaking? No. He was completely ostracized. He could not get a job in India and he ended up in Ceylon.
The third is a book called ‘Heart of India’, written by Alexander Campbell who was a journalist. A patronizing book for that day and time but it is still banned in India because it says frivolous things about Jawaharlal Nehru, socialism in India, and the Planning Commission. People who say there should not be bans, why don’t they ever mention ‘Heart of India’.
I cited these three examples to drive house the point that intolerance has actually always existed and we will be stupid if we haven’t recognized it.
Q: At a personal level, did you ever experience intolerance in the academic arena?
A: I studied at Presidency College in Kolkata and in a real sense my first job was there at its Centre for Research. Then it was time for me to apply for a proper job, meaning Department of Economics. The head of the department was Dipak Banerjee, who told me you are not going to get a job, just forget it. Remember it was the Left. All the experts are Left-wing. So, I went off to Pune.
Q: How do you view the Rajiv Gandhi Institute, which you once headed, holding this conference on the issue of intolerance?
A: I was there for eight years and during that period we consciously distanced ourselves from the Congress. In 2002, I decided to organize a conference on what India was supposed to be, what its society be like, what the idea of India would certainly be? I invited Seshadri Chari who was the editor of Organiser. Several people from the Left also came.
On the day of the seminar, a paper front-paged a report ‘Congress think tank invites editor of Organiser.” I get a phone call from 10, Janpath. Not Mrs Gandhi. “Madam has actually asked me to speak to you. Please withdraw this invitation to Seshadri Chari.” I said I have issued the invitation and if Madam wants to talk to me, let her talk to me. Ten minutes later the phone rings again. “Will you please ask Seshadri Chari to give in writing what he is going to speak?” I said I am not going to do that. “No, Madam wants to see it.”
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Again the phone rings. “What happens if Seshadri Chari goes ahead and speaks about Godhra?” Meanwhile, all hell broke loose and some noted Congress people dropped out because Seshadri Chari was invited. I held the conference.
In 2004, Loveesh Bhandari and I did a study on economic freedom rating of states. Gujarat was number one. In 2005, municipal elections were being held in Gujarat and a newspaper carried a front page story, ‘Congress think tank ranks Modi’s Gujarat as number one’, and all hell broke loose. I got a note from Mrs Gandhi saying anything that the Rajiv Gandhi Institute publishes henceforth be politically vetted. I said this is not acceptable to me. I resigned.
There was an Arjun Sengupta Commission. Next day, I was thrown out of there. I was on two task forces of Planning Commission, I was thrown out of there. Did anyone complain? I only remember two people. One is Loveesh, he was biased because he was the co-author, and the other was a journalist, Seetha Parthasarathy. All these people who are complaining about different points of view, none of them raised their voices.
The intellectual discourse has actually been captured by a certain kind of people, with certain kinds of views. It is a bit like a monopoly and that monopoly does not like outsiders and that monopoly survives on the basis of networks.
Q: A section of academics has actually raised the issue of growing intolerance. Do you think they have a point or is it because they are politically aligned?
A: If you tell me intolerance is increasing, it is purely anecdotal and is purely a subjective perception, there is no point in arguing with you because you will say it is increasing and I will say there is no evidence of it increasing. The only way I can measure something is that if I have got some quantitative indicator. If I look at any quantitative indictor, communal violence incidents, internet freedom, these are objective indicators, and I don’t think it is increasing. In the intellectual circuit there has actually always been that intolerance. Let’s not pretend otherwise.