Free speech for plagiarists: Writer Rajiv Malhotra's supporters reveal hypocrisy of bhakts

Controversial writer Rajiv Malhotra has succeeded where others failed. He has reminded the Indian right wing of the virtues of free speech. Courtesy Malhotra, the book-burning cabals and poster-tearing hooligans of India are rallying around the very right whose value they once questioned. Writer-activist Madhu Kishwar is currently spearheading a campaign against, well, another campaign demanding that Malhotra's books be pulped for allegedly plagiarising the work of several western scholars.

MF Husain, Wendy Doniger, Aamir Khan and Rajkumar Hirani would be laughing at the irony.

Rajiv Malhotra. Image courtesy: Twitter

Rajiv Malhotra. Image courtesy: Twitter

Ah, the hypocrisy of right wingers.

The US-based Malhotra, whose foundation, incidentally, funded some of Kishwar's own work, has been under attack from several Indologists who have accused the entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist-turned-author-turned Hindu activist of rehashing the research of others and passing it off as his own.

His critics, led by western scholars Richard Fox and Andrew J Nicholson, have reproduced several instances from Malhotra's books to allege that he either reproduced them verbatim or twisted their original arguments to suit his own ends.

An article in Scroll.in points out, "As for HarperCollins, their 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."

Business Standard columnist Sunil Sethi has labelled Malhotra as history cheater — a trademark neoligism inspired by history sheeter — noting, "Some paragraphs are lifted verbatim; others are crudely paraphrased. Attributions are cursory and incomplete. The concept of quotation marks on occasion eludes him altogether."

Malhotra and his followers have denied the plagiarism charge with a mix of intellectual naivete — "Sanskrit doesn't have quotation marks"; a matter of "adhikara" — a word Malhotra loves to spray liberally in his text; a case of the "adhikari" taking away what is rightfully his; and chest-thumping characteristic of the fan-base Malhotra represents. "Welcome to the battlefield. I give back as hard as I get," he has promised.

Malhotra has also dared his critics to reveal their Indian teachers, and presumably confirm Mark Twain's claim that "there is no such thing as a new idea." From the trajectory of the debate, this round of dirt-digging may not end till all of Indus Valley Civilisation is excavated to trace the root of all Indic wisdom.

Since this fascinating battle is being fought in full public view of partisan supporters of both sides; Malhotra's critics have urged his publisher Harper Collins to be the arbiter and review his work afresh in view of the brouhaha.

The jury is still out. But, in support of their argument, the right-wingers have decided to preach the very virtue of that which they so often have denigrated: the importance of debate and free speech in a democracy. As Sethi reminds us, "In 2014 when Penguin withdrew Wendy Doniger's The Hindus after protracted litigation that it had neither the gumption nor stomach to take on, Mr Malhotra was mighty pleased. He called it 'a moral victory'. His antagonists today are justified in asking why the current edition of his book shouldn't be pulped."

This, however, has not stopped his loyal supporters from invoking that very right in the defense of his alleged plagiarism.

"Intellectual disagreements must be resolved through debate with all parties present and Mr. Malhotra has publicly invited his opponents to debate. We should stop this practice of censorship using power plays. It is against the best interest of the publishing industry and all lovers of truth," Kishwar pleads in an online petition for Malhotra and freedom of speech.

But was Doniger accorded the courtesy of a debate? In her own words: "(Dina Nath) Batra and I are talking past one another, playing two different games with the textual evidence. But he thinks there is only one game, and is determined to keep me off my own field. To debate a book you disagree with is what scholarship is about. To ban or burn a book you regard as blasphemous is what fascist bigotry is about."

To follow the logic of the rightwing bhakts: better a plagiarised version of history that fits our worldview than original work that threatens it. The somersault on intellectual freedom of Malhotra's followers is nothing short of awe-inspiring; though some may argue the real fight here is for freedom to surreptitiously borrow from the intellectual property of others. When fundamental issues like intellectual and moral propriety get obfuscated by "Us vs Them" and "Hindus vs the West" wars -- and worse with freedom of expression -- truth is generally a casualty.

When Doniger's book was pulped, Dinanath Batra said freedom of speech was subject to conditions. "Yes, we have freedom of expression in our constitution, but that means freedom to a certain extent. We should remain under certain boundaries," he opined. Apparently, those boundaries are generous enough to accommodate plagiarism, at least of the rightwing nationalist kind.


Updated Date: Jul 20, 2015 07:17 AM

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