Student protests offer hope, says Raghuram Rajan

Student protests offer hope, says Raghuram Rajan

Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan. (Reuters Photo)

By Jeanette Rodrigues

Raghuram Rajan, former head of the Reserve Bank of India and an outspoken critic of several of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic and social policies, said student-led protests in the country show that the ideals of the secular nation are still valued by the youth.

"It is they, who never marched to win freedom, but today march to preserve it, who give us hope," Rajan wrote in a post on LinkedIn, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the republic following independence from British rule. Rajan is currently a professor at the Chicago Booth School of Business.

During his time at India’s central bank, while Rajan raised the country’s profile by speaking out regularly against the unconventional monetary policy in the US and elsewhere, it was his forays on social ills that made him a political threat to Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. Rajan lambasted "venal politicians" in speeches and called for religious tolerance at a time when Modi faced criticism for his silence after a Muslim man was murdered for allegedly eating beef.

Tensions have escalated in India after masked assailants, allegedly affiliated with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, attacked hostels in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi on Sunday night with rods and batons, injuring dozens of students and some professors. The BJP’s student union has blamed leftist students’ unions for the attack.

The attack worsened weeks of tensions between the Modi government and students, who have taken to the streets to protest India’s plans to implement a religion-based citizenship law and a citizens’ registry, which protesters say violates the country’s secular constitution and discriminates against Muslims. Modi’s closest ally Union Home Minister Amit Shah, vowed he wouldn’t back down and the act came into force Friday.

"When young people of diverse faiths march together, Hindus and Muslims arm-in-arm behind our national flag, rejecting artificial divides stoked by political leaders for their own gain, they show that the spirit of our constitution still burns brightly," Rajan wrote. "One has to be truly cynical to not be moved."

The son of a former Indian intelligence-wing officer, Rajan was a member of his university’s student union and helped protect vulnerable youth when religious riots broke out in New Delhi in 1984, his mother told the Indian Express newspaper in 2016.

Rajan left India’s central bank in 2016 after just one term, amid heavy criticism from segments of the government for offering opinions on matters unrelated to monetary policy.

He has also on several occasions spoken out against rising majoritarianism in other countries. Rajan was among economists that advised the opposition Congress party on its manifesto for elections held last year. Modi’s campaign was fueled by a combination of Hindu nationalism, economic populism and air strikes against arch-rival Pakistan. The new citizenship laws were among Modi’s campaign promises; Modi won the vote with a massive majority.

In his latest post, Rajan said the public bears responsibility in a democracy. "After all, it was the citizenry that put our leaders into office and acquiesced in their divisive manifesto, which they have taken as their marching orders," he said.

"Some of us were hopeful that they would focus on the economic agenda. Some of us agreed with their speeches, which scratched and inflamed our own prejudices. Some of us were indifferent, thinking politics was someone else’s problem. And some of us feared the consequences of being critical, as critics were ruthlessly made examples of."

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