Plagiarism charge: Why Rajiv Malhotra is on the gunsights of western Indologists

An unseemly row has erupted over inadequate attribution of sources in the work of an American-Indian author and Hindu intellectual who has made it his life's work to challenge and confront western academicians who now dominate the narratives around Indic culture and religion, especially Hinduism.

Rajiv Malhotra, a former businessman and author of several books that “reverse the gaze” from east to west, is at the centre of that storm, currently confined largely to blogosphere and internet publications. Malhotra's major works include Being Different, which takes a Indic view of Abrahamic faiths, Breaking India, which deals with subtle western efforts to use Indian fault caste lines to divide Indian from Indian, and Indra's Net, which seeks to combat western criticism that Indian religious philosophers and saints did not use empiricism and observation to inform their worldviews (among other things). I would urge all, both critics and supporters, to read his work before taking sides in the "plagiarism" controversy Malhotra is currently embroiled in.

It would be easy to relate to the controversy purely as an issue of intellectual dishonesty and lack of publishing ethics, and I have no quarrel with those who are not interested in what Malhotra has to say or what he stands for and why he may be targeted. However, this is an extremely naïve view to take. You should then equally believe that the current legal travails of Teesta Setalvad have nothing to do with her blood feud with Narendra Modi and the BJP, or that her sudden essay today in The Indian Express on the National Judicial Appointments Commission - which she has blasted, no doubt warming many judicial hearts - is a mere coincidence, coming up just when the courts are about to decide whether or not she can be questioned in custody for her alleged infringement of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act in her NGOs. She has alleged vendetta, but is this factor relevant when the issue, according to her critics, is wrongdoing by her NGOs?

Rajiv Malhotra. Image courtesy: Twitter

Rajiv Malhotra. Image courtesy: Twitter

So, let's be clear. There are two issues here, one to do with alleged “plagiarism” by Malhotra, and the other with the exertions of the Indian "secular Left” and American Christian Right to demolish Malhotra’s reputation in some way or the other. You can believe the two issues are inter-linked, as I do, but if you choose not to think so, that is your right. But we can, and should, deal with them separately for the sake of clarity.

Let me also state my own biases upfront. I have written often against giving too much importance to intellectual property rights (read here, here, and here), and believe that only extraordinary contribution to ideas, science and technologies ought to be given high protection. The other disclosure I want to make is that I am an admirer of Malhotra's work. So, I am not surprised where the attack on him has come from: the very people who feel threatened by his writings and work – the Christian Right and the Indian pseudo-Left.

Let's first deal with the "plagiarism" issue. According to Richard Fox Young, an associate professor of the history of religions at the Princeton Theological Seminary, Malhotra is guilty of widespread plagiarism, and has been gleefully pointing these out on Twitter and other fora (read what he has had to say in summary here; also read Malhotra's counter here). The important point Young makes is that Malhotra has used many key parts of the work of Andrew J Nicholson from his book Unifying Hinduism.

This attack is partially valid, but not fully so. Reason: the truth is not that Malhotra does not acknowledge Nicholson’s work, but that he does not do it enough. Malhotra himself does not deny he drew from Nicholson’s ideas in this piece. Specifically, he had this to say in an article in News Laundry: “The accusation is that in nine different instances in Indra’s Net, I should have cited a certain book by Andrew Nicholson, which I failed to do. However, the facts are different: I do cite Nicholson’s book about 10 times in the main text with an additional 20 references in the endnotes. Clearly, I am informing the reader that I utilise Nicholson’s ideas with a combination of his words and mine. I do not cite him after every single sentence where I use him, but it is unambiguously clear when reading entire passages of my book that I am discussing his works. Unfortunately, none of those attacking me have bothered to acknowledge this simple fact. Those passing judgment need to figure out why someone wanting to plagiarise a source would bother referencing it about 30 times.”

This statement does not absolve Malhotra or his publishers completely, but it is not an unreasonable defence. In my view, a formal regret and a promise to correct this lapse in future versions of the book will address the criticism.

However, that is not what Malhotra’s critics will be satisfied with. What the people condemning Malhotra are doing – and they all come from a contiguous ideological orientation - is precisely what they accused Dinanath Batra of doing to Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism, where the publishers agreed to pulp it when taken to court. Malhotra’s critics want to pulp his book in the name of non-attribution of sources. Here’s an online petition calling for precisely that. The petition has all of 200-and-odd supporters, when a rival petition to defend intellectual freedom, presumably created by Malhotra’s admirers, has notched up over 8,000 supporters.

However, now we have to come to the main point: when you feel threatened by someone’s ideas, you must first attempt to rebut him; when that doesn’t work, you must trying to demonise him as a “crank” and/or avoid discussing him; or you must try and destroy his credentials by saying his work is not that of a true expert. All three have been tried by Malhotra’s critics – the last with the charge of plagiarism.

Attempts to debunk Malhotra’s views have failed so far. Even though Malhotra is studiously avoided in mainstream Indian media’s “secular” debates, thanks to the same silent tactics of exclusion, he has effectively put American Christian academics and “experts on Hinduism” on the defensive through his books. From Wendy Doniger to Martha Nussbaum to almost every establishment academician in American universities, there has been a closing of ranks to rubbish Malhotra. The Indian “secular Left”, which has already been successful in excluding him from major mainstream media appearances, has now joined the western flight against an Indic scholar, as is apparent from the drumming up of the “plagiarism” debate on the internet (read here and here).

To me it is crystal clear: the Indian “secular Left” and western academicians are feeling threatened by the apparent traction Malhotra is getting among the diaspora and, now, even back home. Hence the attempt to dismiss him as a rabid “Internet Hindutva” icon. The “secular Left” is good at name-calling and labelling when it is losing the argument.

And that is what this is all about ultimately.

Updated Date: Jul 18, 2015 14:44 PM

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