When controversies erupt, they can be revelations about society. Ironically, many controversies reveal little about the issue at hand and a lot more about the protagonists. Let me take this forward. The recent debates around the publishing industry, and which are very much in the news are what I would call sociodramas about how intellectual activity is treated under the current regime. The debate around contemporary Tamil writer and poet >Perumal Murugan ’s novel, Madhorubagan , which came under attack from right-wing forces, and which also led to his decision to quit writing, and Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism, >The Hindus: An Alternative History , which led to an uproar and ultimately a virtual ban of her book in India, are examples that have shown up the fragility of Hindu and caste identity. The banning and withdrawal of books in these two cases were done merely to placate angry groups. In Perumal Murugan’s case at least, the publisher fought a courageous battle, but in Doniger’s case, the publisher — and one of great standing — gave up in a cowardly fashion. But these two debates set the stage for something even more comical — the strange case of plagiarism by the “scholar” Rajiv Malhotra.
Challenging an interpretation Rajiv Malhotra fancies himself to be a gadfly. A philanthropist-turned-author, this non-resident Indian who is based in New Jersey, U.S., has been attacking Western texts which ‘denigrate Hindu deities’. Like many diasporic Indians, he is one who feels that Western interpretations of Hinduism are arrogant, colonial and ethnocentric, and has made it almost his mission to challenge and confront Western academicians who dominate ‘the narratives around Indic culture and religion, especially Hinduism’. He has also been called “the philosopher-in-chief of Internet Hindutva”.
The roots of this case are interesting. Malhotra was upset that in the school his children were in, the teacher refused to take a class on Ramakrishna after considering such a topic to be inappropriate. The teacher had formed this opinion based on a psychoanalytic study of Ramakrishna by the academic and writer Jeffrey Kripal. Malhotra was surprised by such an interpretation and set about challenging similar interpretations that were evident over the last two decades, contending in particular that Marxist and psychoanalytic interpretations of Hinduism were outrageous.
“ ‘Ban’ and ‘censorship’ are not the tools of scholarship… In general, the demand for bans have become instant these days. And to see scholars demanding bans is disconcerting. ”
Malhotra’s case is a classic one of a migrant complaining about the dominant white Christian culture having caricatured his ethnic identity in a way that his children were embarrassed to be Indian. He, along with other diasporic Indians, then ventured on a campaign which acquired a life of its own.
An intellectual struggle In many ways, this diasporic drama reminds one about Edward’s Said’s controversial book on Orientalism. But Orientalism was a scholarly book that sought to challenge the paradigmatic basis of Western scholarship dismantling it through a powerful exegesis. Said was a great scholar, a master of Western music, an authority on Joseph Conrad, and an advocate of the Palestinian cause, who understood the politics of knowledge in depth. Malhotra’s response was more cantankerous seeking to combine personal insult with many valid points to such an extent that for many scholars, he became a red flag. They accused him of a calculated viciousness when he dubbed them as being “misfits and deviants in their own culture”.
In this controversy, there are two things one must notice. This is not a debate between the colony and the metropolitan centre. Rather, it is a struggle between Western academe and diasporic people flexing their intellectual and financial muscles. Second, a lot in this war was very different — online portals became the sites of intellectual struggle.
It is clear to his critics in the West, that Malhotra, an effective irritant, was a heckler who showed up the vulnerability of Western scholars. In their battle with him, condemning him as being superficial was not enough to stop his campaigns. So, it went a step further when Richard Fox Young, a professor at a Princeton theological seminary, accused Malhotra of plagiarising the works of Andrew J. Nicholson, especially his Unifying Hinduism . The battle then took a more vicious term. He was charged with plagiarism in two of his books, Breaking India (2011) and Indra’s Net (2014).
One has to emphasise that there are no innocents here. Malhotra’s defenders were conducting a campaign to fight for and defend their pride and culture from what appears to be an example of Western caricature. But scholars like Young are equally determined in pursuing what they want.
Both sides in fact have abandoned the academic norms of scholarship, with blog sites and Twitter being the staging ground for new kinds of intellectual duelling. In all this, it is not only the accusations per se that bother the reader, but also the assumptions and biases which literally create folklore out of the sociology of knowledge.
To the Western scholar, Malhotra is an interloper and a Hindu enthusiast who at best should be a consumer of their work. He should not be a critic. Second, he is an amateur invading the professional world of scholarship when Indology and Orientalism should have been the first to recognise the role of the amateur. But do they realise that even science recognises the creative role of backyard astronomers?
In turn, Malhotra has become a caricature with his defence in which his surreal response has been to claim ridiculously that “Sanskrit has no quotation marks. Yet, scholars cited others for thousands of years”, and that Western standards are not the only norms for acknowledgement. Here, Malhotra is being naive, in fact illiterate. As someone with a science background, he should have realised the creative and normative role of the footnote and quotation marks. The acknowledgement of a source becomes a sign and a symbol of knowledge; as a gift that signals the collective reciprocity of scholarship. He claimed that he had acknowledged Nicholson’s work but conceded that some acknowledgements were more equal than others.
Yet, Fox Young and others are for a bloodletting and have been demanding the withdrawal of Malhotra’s books. This is disconcerting, for ‘ban’ and ‘censorship’ are not the tools of scholarship, anymore than the vicious invectives used by Malhotra’s network. In general, the demand for bans has become instant nowadays. And to see scholars demanding bans is disconcerting. The ritual of critique, the acknowledgement of error, and an apology are more in harmony with the rituals of scholarship. Instead, in this case, both sides have created a melodrama where the rituals of scholarly debate have been abandoned and become the first casualties.
In analysing the attitudes of both sides, they have each shown a piety and arrogance. Each side has displayed an unfairness that is unbelievable. For example, while condemning psychoanalysis, Malhotra has presented a psychological critique of Western scholars as being ‘sex starved misfits’ seeking to escape the Puritanism of Christianity, and focussing on ‘creating bits of Hindu exotica’. Yet, at another level , he is almost positivist in the Western interpretation of data. One wishes that both sides had curbed their anger and arrogance and stuck to scholarship.
The larger import One must also comment on the way the controversy has been consumed. The Indian liberal Left and secular protagonists were delighted by the attacks on Malhotra. They saw in it a vindication of their own battles against Dinanath Batra and other elements who attack Indian academe. But what is worrying in this debate is its larger import — where the current regime seems to treat syllabus reform in a cavalier fashion, and in dismissing Left scholars from academic committees without considering their innovative ideas. There is something sinister about the plans by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party to change syllabi. It might be therapeutic to gloat over little victories but it destroys the very ecology of scholarship that allows for detachment and plurality.
Finally, a majoritarian regime backed by an overconfident diaspora is a threat to dissenting scholarship. Yet, dissent must retain the codes of scholarship and learn to debate openly, seriously and systematically. Also, the syllabus wars being waged in India cannot be won in party offices or through state interventions. In fact, secular scholars must now re-examine, in a more creative manner, the role of religion and religious mentalities. They must see themselves more modestly as trustees of scholarship rather than as custodians of the truth. As that happens, the power of the Malhotras and Batras driven by the RSS envy will fade.
Speaking the truth to power is never easy but that is the logic of scholarship. What we have witnessed in the Malhotra affair, as in the Doniger case, is a feud which seems to never end, with both sides appealing to forces outside the academe. Eventually, one hopes that scholarship will reassert its autonomy because the biggest casualty in the current debate is the demise of the university as an institution that pursues the ritual power of scholarship as craftsmanship.
(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)