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Mihir S Sharma: The Rajiv Malhotra issue is a cautionary tale for publishers

Mihir S Sharma 

Mihir S Sharma
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Michel Danino's response to this article is at the end.

Rajiv Malhotra, who writes angrily from New Jersey about American attempts to monopolise the conversation about India and Hinduism, is in trouble. True to form - he is, after all, more loudly Indian than anybody else, especially anybody else not in New Jersey - the trouble he is in is that quintessentially desi problem, plagiarism.

The facts are these. Richard Fox Young, who teaches at a seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, released a series of passages on Twitter from Mr Malhotra's books, Breaking India and Indra's Net. In some cases, Mr Malhotra appeared to have lifted whole passages from various academic books without sufficient attribution - particularly from Unifying Hinduism by Andrew J Nicholson, published by Columbia University Press in 2010. This is no coincidence, but it is gently ironic: Indra's Net makes the argument for Hinduism's philosophical unity, precisely the kind of effort that Prof Nicholson examines in Unifying Hinduism. In addition, Prof Young points out how Mr Malhotra sometimes uses plagiarised passages in completely different contexts - an impressively complex feat of intellectual deception.

Mr Malhotra's response, when it came, was instructive. As detailed by Shoaib Daniyal on the web site, Mr Malhotra - who tends not to deviate from his pet passions - denounced Western standards of referencing as unnecessary for Indian scholars. In other words, quotation marks are a despicable Macaualayite imposition on India's ancient civilisation. I wish I was making this up, but I don't have the imagination. This is Mr Malhotra's direct quote: "Sanskrit language has no quotation marks, yet scholars cited others for thousands of years. Western standards not the only way to acknowledge."

In effect, Mr Malhotra has accepted Prof Young's charges of plagiarism, but denied their importance. Good for him. I look forward to a bright future - 25 years on, as Amit Shah assures us - when we will never need to use quotation marks at all. Think of the time saved on tiny phone keyboards! If only the iPhone could make copying and pasting a bit easier for us desis, we could really conquer academia.

(I should make one thing clear parenthetically: I have closely followed Mr Malhotra's writing for 15 years, and deeply admire much about him. His energy, for one. Thanks largely to that he has, like Subramanian Swamy, built up an online following that thinks he is a once-in-a-lifetime genius, doing god's work in a difficult and inhospitable environment.)

But Professor Young's accusations create a somewhat difficult predicament for Mr Malhotra's publishers, Harper Collins. I assume Mr Malhotra sells well - his are the kind of books loved by engineers who possess an inchoate anger and disdain for the humanities. Somebody within Harper Collins will be saying: look, we're a business. We are not an academic publisher. So we must not be held to the standards of peer review and referencing that such publisher must perforce follow. We really have one major constraint: profitability. Can we shut down Mr Malhotra, who makes money for us, because of academic nit-picking about plagiarism? (Not to mention the fact that, were Harper Collins to let Mr Malhotra go, he would unquestionably send his millions of devoted fans on jihad against his unfortunate ex-publishers.)

And we reach, thus, a deeper question. To what degree can we trust "serious" works of non-fiction from non-academic presses? To be frank, few publishing houses, here or abroad, can afford the kind of reviewing and editing that comes up to the standard of, say, the average academic journal. Academic presses come somewhere in between. I think they would at least ensure that referencing and footnoting was clear and accurate. Recently one of our finest public intellectuals told me that, in the end, he was unclear what advantages an academic publisher would have for non-fiction over a trade publisher. I think I now have an answer to that question. Mr Malhotra would have found it more difficult to get away with this apparent intellectual dishonesty in an academic publisher.

This is the correct context in which to view the constant, irritating whine from India's social conservatives that they have been excluded from academia. (A whine that is used to justify all sorts of saffronisation and interference.) There is more to the story than just the unscrupulous Marxists and post-Marxist domination of academic institutions - after all, this domination has not stopped a strong liberal grouping from developing within Indian history, political science and economics. No, this incident underlines the true tragedy of Indian social conservative "scholarship": that most of its critics are right. The authors who write the "path-breaking" studies that "Western-style academia doesn't want you to read" are in fact, most likely, peddling outlandish work that would easily fail the standards that the existing body of work has had to meet. The Shrikant Talageris and the Michel Daninos of the world, like the Rajiv Malhotras, are online heroes rather than respected historians or linguists because their work just doesn't match up. The endless ways in which the "new Hindu right" uncovers ways in which caste and external migrations were invented but the Saraswati was not are not being suppressed because of a giant Western conspiracy; they simply don't meet the academic standards required to conclude that they're not just a bunch of crackpot theories dreamed up by nativist bigots.
Twitter: @mihirssharma

Michel Danino’s response to this article
In his article “The Rajiv Malhotra issue is a cautionary tale for publishers”, Mihir S. Sharma finds it necessary to close with the following statement: “The Shrikant Talageris and the Michael Daninos of the world, like the Rajiv Malhotras, are online heroes rather than respected historians or linguists because their work just doesn't match up. The endless ways in which the "new Hindu right" uncovers ways in which caste and external migrations were invented but the Saraswati was not are not being suppressed because of a giant Western conspiracy; they simply don't meet the academic standards required to conclude that they're not just a bunch of crackpot theories dreamed up by nativist bigots.”

While Mihir Sharma is welcome to his opinions, he has no right to misrepresent, abuse and demonize people whose work he is completely ignorant of. I will not speak for Rajiv Malhotra or Shrikant Talageri, but I protest against his statement concerning me. I am by no means an “online hero”, maintaining neither a website nor a blog nor a Facebook account. My work on ancient India has spread through my books and papers, which have been published by reputed publishers and journals of Indology and archaeology in India and abroad. I have also contributed chapters to over twenty scholarly volumes. I am sure Mihir Sharma has read none of my work; indeed, he cannot even spell my name correctly.

Thus he implies that the Sarasvati River is “invented”, which means he has not read my The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati published by Penguin India in 2010 and warmly reviewed by many national newspapers (including Business Standard: see here and here) as well as Current Science and reputed journals of archaeology such as Man and Environment and Puratattva. Had he read it, he would have known that the vanished Vedic river was identified with the now dry Ghaggar-Hakra of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Cholistan, not by a few “nativist bigots”, but in 1855 by the French geographer Louis Vivien de Saint-Martin. In the next few decades, nearly all European Indologists, from H.H. Wilson and F. Max Müller to M. Monier-Williams, A.A. Macdonell, A.B. Keith or F.E. Pargiter, and more recently L. Renou, A.L. Basham or Jan Gonda, accepted Vivien de Saint-Martin’s thesis. Geologists such as the British R.D. Oldham (1886) joined in, followed by geographers such as the Indian Shamsul Islam Siddiqi (1944) or the German Herbert Wilhelmy (1969). Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, was one among many who, in the 19th century, published maps clearly naming the Sarasvati as a tributary to the Ghaggar. The celebrated British archaeologist and explorer Marc Aurel Stein was the first to discover Harappan sites along the bed of the dry river and published his findings in a 1942 report entitled “A Survey of Ancient Sites along the ‘Lost’ Sarasvati River.” The late British archaeologist Raymond Allchin fully accepted the river’s identification, as did his U.S. colleagues the late Gregory L. Possehl or J.M. Kenoyer, among others. I could line up many more non-“nativist” names. If there was a “Western conspiracy”, to use Sharma’s name, it was to conclude that the Sarasvati had been a very real river — like all others listed in the Rig-Veda — and could be precisely placed on the map. While there are still important geological issues to be resolved, my book has brought together literary, cultural, archaeological and geological evidence in an objective and open-ended manner.

Lastly, while classical India refined and practised the art of debating, Mihir Sharma’s vituperative but crassly ignorant language is fairly typical of a trend to demonize what one does not agree with — a trend that has taken the place of academic debates in much of India’s intellectual life. It does spare one the trouble of having to study, carefully weigh arguments and evidence, and engage other viewpoints in a civilized manner.

Michel Danino
Guest professor, IIT Gandhinagar
Convener, International Forum for India’s Heritage
Member, Indian Council of Historical Research

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First Published: Tue, July 14 2015. 21:42 IST