The Rajiv Malhotra debate: Sorry, plagiarism is not the vice of only those we dislike

What is sauce for the goose is never sauce for the gander.

Rajiv Malhotra might have a beef (if you will excuse that word) with Wendy Doniger, but that should not get in the way of us objectively looking at the merits of his arguments about how he feels western academia looks at Hinduism.

By that same token, arguments about plagiarism leveled at Rajiv Malhotra should be treated as just that – allegations of plagiarism. Richard Fox Young is levelling the argument that whole passages in Malhotra’s books have been taken from other books like Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism. It might well be that Young has a personal axe to grind against Malhotra but that cannot change the basic question – did Malhotra plagiarize or not?

Richard Fox Young. Image courtesy: Twitter - @RichardFoxYoung

Richard Fox Young. Image courtesy: Twitter - @RichardFoxYoung

Plagiarism cannot only be the vice of people we dislike.

To rewind for those just waking up to the controversy, Rajiv Malhotra, author of books like Indra’s Net, has been one of the longtime vociferous critics of western academics like Wendy Doniger and the way they have written about Hinduism. Malhotra’s writing struck a chord and resonated with many who might not have heard of Doniger but certainly faced the Temple of Doom Hindus-eating-monkey-brains stereotypes about themselves in American culture.

Did Rajiv Malhotra have a point? Does Wendy Doniger’s scholarship stand scrutiny? That’s a different debate and plenty of ink has already been spilled on it. But the personalities of Malhotra and Doniger, good, bad or prickly, should have nothing to do with the strength of their arguments.

What’s at issue here is the reaction to Richard Fox Young’s recent takedown of Malhotra on grounds of plagiarism or at least insufficient citation. Young presented seven examples of what he described as Malhotra’s “lack of academic integrity”. Malhotra has said he acknowledged his sources in a “global” sense but then takes refuge behind a Sanskrit smokescreen. He tweets “Sanskrit language has no quotation marks yet scholars cited others for 1000s yrs. Western std not only way to acknowledge.”

There goes the goose and the gander again. As Young has gleefully tweeted out, Malhotra has plenty of quotes out there attacking others on plagiarism calling it an “adharma” and complaining that “Europeans started this trend 2 appropriate the knowledge of pandits & publish it as their own.”

Was Richard Fox Young trying to hoist Malhotra on his own petard? Absolutely. Was he taking great glee in doing so? Absolutely. He published his seven sins over days with soap-opera suspense. Don't change the channel. Next stinker coming. If Malhotra has been dubbed by Shoaib Daniyal of Scroll as the “Ayn Rand of Internet Hindutva”, Young proved to be quite the Lalit Modi of tantalising exposés.

That’s what Ashay Naik finds so distasteful in his piece on Fox vs Malhotra for Swarajya. He admits the “technical errors pointed out by Fox appear as both serious and valid” but says the “vindictiveness” is “unsettling like the fatal strike of a beast satisfied that it has played enough with the prey”. His complaint is that this “is a customer who is actually delighted to have found a fault in a product so that he may press the retailer into disengaging with its supplier.”

Again that’s the gander refusing to recognize that it must do unto itself what it does to the goose. Young's hidden or not-so-hidden agenda cannot take away from the merits of his allegations. Now Malhotra's supporters who have a petition on are accusing his critics of "exaggerating a few minor copyediting oversights". Columnist Rupa Subramanya very rightly and colourfully says that “if instances of plagiarism identical in nature exposed by @RichardFoxYoung found in someone RW (Right Wing) dislikes, they would have gone batshit crazy.”

Subramanya basically zeroes in on the problem here. It’s all about “people we like (or dislike)”, not about the facts. Instead of treating is as a plagiarism problem, we instantly focus on the personalities involved and position ourselves in predictable camps. Rajiv Malhotra attacks Richard Fox Young by pointing out the that “the seminary where Fox works” is involved in “(t)raining Christian priests, missionaries”. But does that mean Richard Fox Young is wrong about the plagiarism charge? Others have carped that he is “not at Princeton, but seminary in town of Princeton” and people need to “stop worshipping his academic creds”. People who complain about elite Ivy League universities being biased in favour of the Wendy Donigers of the world are suddenly happy to brandish Richard Fox Young’s lack of asli Princeton pedigree to dismiss his arguments.

As Subramanya correctly says, there’s “glaring irony” in using “credentialist arguments against @RichardFoxYoung when rightly decrying such args against themselves.” It does not even matter if Richard Fox Young is an academic or not. Malhotra is a physicist and computer scientist by training himself. Plagiarism accusations should be judged on their simple merit, whether it comes from the head of the RSS or the Pope.

When we make it about personality it quickly descends from the realm of fact and ideas to a left-wing /right-wing tug-o-war. Mihir Sharma writes in Business Standard that this “incident underlines the true tragedy of Indian social conservative ‘scholarship’: that most of its critics are right” namely the Malhotras of the world are most likely “peddling outlandish work that would easily fail the standards that the existing body of work has to meet.” In short, this is a “gotcha” moment for social conservatives. But plagiarism is an equal opportunity offender. If today Rajiv Malhotra finds himself in the crosshairs, yesterday it was Fareed Zakaria, hit not once but multiple times. Or Aroon Purie writing about Rajnikanth in India Today and blaming a few “lifted” lines on jet lag. Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Ph.D dissertation was found to have some portions that were plagiarized though not enough for the degree to be revoked. Malhotra's supporters could ask if adding those non-Sanskrit quote marks would fix the problem or whether the scholarship itself is at issue. But instead they have been quick to raise the bogey of "mafia pressure tactics that seek to threaten intellectual freedom".

Plagiarism might be deliberate or simple forgetfulness. But when we give it ideological colours, and dismiss the sins of one side as “minor penny-ante stuff” as some of Zakaria’s defenders did, while the plagiarism of others is hung around the neck of their entire school, it lowers the standard to chalta hai for all of us.

A contentious debate about which “wing” is more plagiaristic merely proves that we do not actually take plagiarism seriously as an issue in itself. It is just another weapon to lob at people we dislike. That is why what should be a battle of ideas quickly becomes a cat fight of personalities. When Amartya Sen, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Tavleen Singh get into a debate about elitism and higher education one hopes that it will be a valuable contribution to intellectual debate. But it quickly degenerates into score-settling and sabre-rattling between these eminences. In the latest round in Indian Express Sen is defending his reputation more than he is defending his vision. That’s within Sen’s right but what difference does it make to the rest of us? Sooner or later someone commenting on it will bring up the charge that Sen’s Nobel comes thanks to his marriage to Emma Rothschild. Even Sen’s daughter gets dragged into the fight as when Jagdish Bhagwati said “Having dragged himself into the political maelstrom, Mr Sen now faces predictably gutter politics, as (I am told) lascivious photos of his actress daughter are circulating on the internet.” It does not get more personal and igNobel than that.

As the verbal missiles and invective flies on Twitter, few are reflecting what it means that these charges of plagiarism in a book about Hinduism are coming not from an Indian academic in India but an American historian sitting in “a seminary in Princeton”. Some will choose to see that as clinching proof of the perfidy of the western scholar. But when an American academic in the US gets to brandish his proof that the emperor has no clothes, it also proves that scholars in India have been caught with their pants down.

Updated Date: Jul 16, 2015 07:58 AM

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