Rajiv Malhotra plagiarism row: It's about cultural intimidation, not freedom of speech

And thus the argument eats itself.

As the Rajiv Malhotra plagiarism debate heats up, it’s becoming a gauntlet thrown to publishers.

It’s no secret there are plenty of those derided as “aadarsh liberals” who are not unhappy about Rajiv Malhotra’s latest tribulations. The argument Malhotra’s army of supporters fling at them is predictable. How dare you try and curb Rajiv Malhotra’s freedom of expression when you were up in arms about Wendy Doniger’s freedom of expression not so long ago?

But the flip side of that same argument – did those petitioning Harper Collins for Malhotra in the name of freedom of expression today do the same to Penguin when the Doinger books were being pulped – is casually brushed aside. Yes, it’s true Batra did not pulp Doniger's books, Penguin chose to withdraw it but only after a four-year legal battle.


Rajiv Malhotra. Image from Twitter,

Freedom of expression is, as usual, the prerogative of your own side. It’s just interior decoration for your own echo chamber. The Change.org petition to defend Rajiv Malhotra’s book begins with George Orwell’s quote “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear”. In reality, in India, liberty mostly means my right to tell people what I want them to hear and don’t you dare impose even volume control on me. The other side can go to Pakistan or join the local RSS shakha.

The petitioners on Change.org (9,000 at last count) ask Malhotra’s publishers “to stand firm against this assault on intellectual freedom”. But let’s not pretend this a victory of intellectual freedom. This is not about liberal values. It’s really a warning – don’t even think about pulling this book or there will be hell to pay.

What’s happening here is not the mirror image of what happened to Wendy Doniger. It’s the same power play at work from the same forces. The same muscle that went after Doniger’s book whose content they vehemently opposed is out there to prop up Malhotra’s book whose content they vehemently support. It’s not about freedom of expression despite that Orwell bow on top. It is, and has always been about ideology. If this had been an argument about plagiarism and a book on World War II would the publishers have been under so much pressure? Would anyone have been rallying the troops to forestall even the possibility of a withdrawal long before the publisher had indicated anything to that effect? Would there be Change.org petitions?

In the statement it issued after deciding not to keep fighting for Doniger’s book, Penguin said that while it has “always believed in every individual’s right to freedom of thought and expression” and “never been shy about testing that commitment in court when appropriate” it was obliged to “respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be.” Penguin, after a four-year battle on behalf of Doniger, decided it was not worth fighting the good fight as long Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code hung over its head.

Dinanath Batra made no bones about his intentions when we went after not just Doniger, but A K Ramanujan’s famous essay on the many Ramayanas. “We want a total change in the system,” said Batra. “We want ‘Indianness’ in the field of education.” His version of “Indianness” of course. While Batra should get credit for doggedly pursuing his mission through the courts, instead of blowing hot air, others on his side were not as ready to play by the law book. Upinder Singh, who was teaching history at Delhi University, during the Ramanujan controversy told Mint about a “very horrifying incident of violence in the history department” and added that “it is very demoralizing for scholars who have to deal with legal notices, lies, brow beating just for doing their work.” In short, the bahubali of cultural intimidation strikes, and having drawn blood, strikes on.

One does not envy Harper Collins in this situation. A plagiarism charge is an embarrassment for any publisher. It is easier to stand up for an author’s point of view, even a controversial one, than it is to admit to plagiarism. But this is no longer about a book. It’s really become part of a much larger tug-o-war. Pulling the book would be seen as giving in to the thirst for revenge from “Wendy’s children”. Keeping the book would be seen as capitulation to the Hindutva brigade rallying around its most ardent ambassador from across the Atlantic. It’s really lose-lose which is tragic because it is no longer about what it should have always been – academic standards.

This is not the first book to be charged with plagiarism, nor would it have been the first one to be withdrawn if those charges were found to be true. Publishers have had to deal with bestselling and eminent authors like historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin and Jonah Lerner’s books coming under the plagiarism scanner and then having to make the hard decision.

Malhotra’s misadventures with quote marks is not that far removed from historian Stephen Ambrose’s defence when he was accused of being a serial plagiarist.

“When I'm using information or description from books by scholars, I always cite the source.
But if I have already named a praised and quoted the author in my book, I don't name him or her again, and sometimes I have failed to put quotation marks around their words. I'm not trying to hide anything.”

Ambrose did not have the quote-unencumbered Sanskrit defence. Nor could he claim a cabal of western academics trying to exert their hegemony by crushing his voice, hijacking his people’s history. The book The Wild Blue was republished by Simon and Schuster with the plagiarism removed. Ambrose according to AP “winced” at the plagiarism charges and said “It has made me more careful and I will quote more.”

But the whole issue was not complicated by turning into the bone of contention in a larger cultural battle as is happening with Malhotra now.

Harper Collins has tried to put an end to the swirling controversy by saying it is reissuing Indra’s Net with all references and attributions rectified in consultation with Rajiv Malhotra.But the waters have rolled a long way by now. Andrew Nicholson, the man Malhotra did not attribute enough has himself jumped into the controversy saying he was even more upset about how his words have been “distorted” in the name of adding value to them.

He writes in Scroll that Harper Collins’ “willingness to rectify future editions of Rajiv Malhotra’s book would be welcome were it not for the fact that there may be nothing left for them to put in a 'corrected' edition: much of the book has been shown up as a patchwork of other people’s work minus attribution.” Malhotra has a rejoinder to Nicholson on Niticentral complaining that “(t)he contradiction is that the west is ultra-protective about its ‘intellectual property’ and your obsession to squeeze more references/citations out of me illustrates this.” Translation? This ping-pong battle will keep going no matter whether Indra’s Net stays on the shelves, is pulped or reissued with corrections.

Malhotra himself has written “As in just about any complex work by scholars, in this book there are some omissions and copyediting errors which are more a result of oversight than mala fide intention. These ought to be rectified.” But it would have been a lot easier if Malhotra had not reflexively sprung the prickly “western hijacking of adhikara” defence to dismiss his own problems. Or he had channeled historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin who, even while insisting her mistakes were “inadvertent” said she was withdrawing her best-selling book because she “could not bear to have this book out there the way it was.”

Then the controversy might have at least remained about the book instead of turning into this clash of civilizations.

Updated Date: Jul 20, 2015 19:58 PM