Monday, 13 July 2015

The Plagiarism Charge Against Rajiv Malhotra Proves He Hit A Raw Nerve - A Short History

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when the Empire struck back. Rajiv Malhotra, the newly discovered intellectual maven of the Hindu Right, has been accused of plagiarism. If anything, I believe Malhotra is guilty of sloppy attribution, not of plagiarism. His critics are probably trying to get him on a technicality, and I expect the controversy will blow over fairly soon. The more important issues with Malhotra's work relate to its content, and the sooner the world begins to focus on that, the better.

For years now, Malhotra has been attacking the Western academic establishment, indeed the whole of Western civilisation, for its insidious and centuries-long suppression of native cultures. Claiming to speak on behalf of the Indic civilisation, Malhotra has written many books and articles, in the process spawning a movement that is part revolutionary, part native pride, part revisionist and part self-help. There is no doubt his contributions have inspired many educated Indians, especially Hindus.

I have great admiration for Malhotra as a thought leader, although I do not agree with everything he says. He has drawn attention to some fascinating aspects of cultural interaction that I had been unconscious of, but he also strikes me as going overboard with some of his conspiracy theories.

As an example, he makes the brilliant point that mutual respect is preferable to the patronising concept of "tolerance". In the process, he exposes the arrogance inherent in the Abrahamic religions, which makes it impossible for a true adherent of those religions to genuinely respect an adherent of a different faith. The Huffington Post article where he argues this point will remain a classic.

As a second example, he has drawn attention to how contributions of one culture are appropriated by another, a process he calls "digestion". When a tiger eats a deer, it is not a benign meeting of cultures that influence each other. Nothing of the deer remains, except what the tiger rejects. What is eaten then strengthens the tiger. This is what happens to native cultures when conquered by a stronger foreign one. The foreign culture imbibes whatever it finds useful, and the rest goes into a museum.

A well-known social phenomenon is the "Pizza effect", where native people accept elements of their own culture only when they come back to them as something foreign, or from a "superior" culture. Pizzas were originally only eaten by poor people in Italy, but when American pizza companies opened outlets in Italy, affluent Italians began to find it socially acceptable to eat pizza. The same happens to many Indians who only accept aspects of Indian culture when they come back to them with Western packaging.

As a third example of cultural interaction, Malhotra talks about a "U-Turn Theory", which is related to both "digestion" and the "Pizza effect". Here, native people receive what they think are aspects of a foreign culture, but these are nothing but their own artifacts that have been stripped of all traces of their origin and packaged in the trappings of the foreign culture. It is a tragedy when civilisations disown important elements of their own culture, only to accept them in an unrecognisable alien form. "Cultural genocide" is perhaps too strong a term for it, but it is nevertheless worthy of condemnation.

Particular examples of how Western culture has appropriated Eastern science come from the world of psychology, and Malhotra provides the following examples:

  1. Howard Gardner took Sri Aurobindo's "Planes and Parts of Being" along with the Rasas of NatyaShastra and turned them into "Multiple Intelligences"
  2. Herbert Benson took Maharshi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation and turned it into "Relaxation Response"
  3. Jon Kabat-Zinn took Buddhist Vipassana and turned it into "Mindfulness Meditation"
  4. Steven LaBerge took Yoga Nidra and turned it into "Lucid Dreaming"

In spite of his spirited defence of Indic culture, Malhotra is not a cringe-inducing fruitcake like Dinanath Batra, whose idea of Indian history involves flying vimanas and nuclear weapons used in the Mahabharata war. I particularly like Malhotra's no-nonsense approach when he talks about the greatness of the Indic civilisation. He is disdainful of the claims that there were aircraft and nuclear weapons in ancient India. "Show me a runway or a crash site", he says, "show me radioactivity." His Infinity Foundation has produced many books detailing historically factual Indian innovations in various technical fields. Similarly, he is derisive of vacuous claims that Hinduism is "a way of life", which he likens to an equally meaningless claim that a car is a collection of atoms. 

Where Malhotra gets into controversial territory is when he discusses Western conspiracies to "break India". I will discuss this in greater detail shortly, but I believe it is his conflation of the very different ideas of "India" and of "Hinduism" that are responsible for his peculiar viewpoint. I am particularly sensitive to this distinction, since I am simultaneously a social liberal and a hawk on Indian foreign policy. I agree with him that India needs a geopolitical "grand narrative" to give it a sense of identity and direction. I further agree with him that this grand narrative has to have a civilisational basis, i.e., in the Indic civilisation. Where I have trouble agreeing with him is when this Indic civilisational identity is conflated with a Hindu religious/philosophical identity. Such a conflation would needlessly alienate millions of patriotic Indians on the basis of a perceived philosophical divide. It would weaken, not strengthen, the Indian nation-state. I have a competing model of the Indic civilisation that I believe is more inclusive and positive.

Needless to say, Malhotra's conflation of Hindu-ness and Indian-ness appeals greatly to the Hindu right, who have made this their foundational ideological plank. Hence, although Malhotra is too erudite and sophisticated to be associated with the jingoistic saffron movement (he has often referred to himself as a "non-Hindutva Hindu"), he has been co-opted by the more literate section of the movement which has been hungering for a respectable ideological basis for its collective insecurities.

Apart from the danger of his brand of civilisational identity alienating religious minorities, Rajiv Malhotra's major intellectual failing is, ironically, the very same difference anxiety that he accuses others of. He correctly demolishes the notion of universalism as nothing but "Western universalism", under which genuine cultural difference is downplayed. When recounting a discussion with former BBC India correspondent Mark Tully, Malhotra says Tully asked him why he was so focused on difference and why he could not instead talk about the ways in which people were the same. Malhotra's riposte made a very important point. He asked Tully, "By 'the same', do you mean that you will become the same as me, or that I should become the same as you?"

That telling question is the petard by which Malhotra himself should be hoisted.

Rajiv Malhotra is guilty of "Hindu universalism" just as surely as many liberal, secular people are guilty of Western universalism. In "Being Different", he claims to have isolated the core characteristics that unite the various sampradayas (schools of philosophical thought) of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism (the "Dharmic" religions), and that simultaneously distinguish them from non-Dharmic philosophies. In doing so, he claims to speak for all the adherents of the "Dharmic" religions, but he emphatically does not.

As just one example, his thesis in the Chapter on "Inherent Unity" in "Being Different", expanded into an entire book in "Indra's Net" describes just one branch of Hindu philosophy - Advaita Vedanta or Monism. This view is absolutely irreconcilable with Dvaita Vedanta or Dualism. Malhotra does not, indeed cannot, speak for both Advaita and Dvaita at the same time because the differences between them are so fundamental. There is no overarching "Dharmic" philosophy that reconciles these two viewpoints. Indeed, it could be argued that in a theological sense, Dvaita Vedanta has more in common with Abrahamic religions than with Advaita Vedanta (because of their views on the relationship between God and Man, or between Creator and Creation), even if Dvaita and Advaita have both evolved cheek-by-jowl in the Indian spiritual milieu. This is a point no one from the neo-Hindu movement will acknowledge. That's why I use the term "Hindu universalism". Malhotra imposes an Advaita Vedanta view on all the philosophies that he calls "Dharmic", whether or not it fits.

Why does he do this in spite of asserting that the Dharmic philosophy has an "Open Architecture" that accommodates diversity? I believe it's because he suffers from the all too common human failing of "privilege-blindness". In his case, that privilege-blindness comes from being an upper-caste, North Indian Hindu male. He simply cannot see some differences where they exist, and it is up to the minority viewpoints to speak up and make themselves heard when they are incorrectly represented.

I also suspect it is this privilege-blindness that causes him to deny an ethnic or cultural basis for the differences within Hindu society.

He is a strong opponent of the Aryan Invasion Theory, whereas recent genetic evidence reveals that Indians do have a mixture of two distinct racial groups. While it is not possible to call North Indians "Aryan" and South Indians "Dravidian", it is a genetic fact that North Indians have more "Aryan" genes than "Dravidian" ones, and South Indians have the ratio reversed. There is thus a genetic basis for South Indians to be considered distinct from North Indians, but Malhotra (just like many others of the Hindutva movement) absolutely denies the distinction. As a South Indian, I am tempted to ask Malhotra, "By 'the same', do you mean that you will become the same as me, or that I should become the same as you?" (With the emphasis that many in the neo-Hindu movement place on the Hindi language, I believe I can guess the answer to that question.)

This difference anxiety also causes him to deny, against all evidence, that the caste system in Hinduism was oppressive and permitted no mobility. His attitude sits well with the Hindutva ideology, since that movement is also made up of privilege-blind, upper-caste North Indian Hindu males.

For example, when Indologist Wendy Doniger analyses Hinduism from a feminist and subaltern perspective, she filters out the brahmin male narrative and looks at what remains. It's not a pretty sight, and the fact that an outsider has dared to do this has outraged the privilege-blind, Malhotra included. This is why he has launched an all-out war against Doniger and other Western scholars whom he deems to be insufficiently reverent towards Hindu traditions. His RISA-leela article on Sulekha.com and the book "Invading the Sacred" that he sponsored, are powerful volleys against unflattering Western studies of Hinduism. Some of his points are well made, but his outrage seems to be more about the fact that the dominant narrative of a privileged group within the Hindu fold has been challenged by "outsiders". He believes that control of the narrative on Hinduism should remain with cultural insiders rather than with outsiders.

I don't believe in privileging either "insiders" or "outsiders". Anyone should be able to contribute a perspective without being denigrated, and while believing Hindus should be able to rebut views of their religion that they disagree with (without resorting to threats), critics should also be allowed to present their views (no matter how offensive they may be to believers).

There is a branch of academia called Islamic Studies in Muslim countries, and it is only believing Muslims who are permitted to engage in this research. Needless to say, they may not challenge core tenets or beliefs of the faith, which leads one to question the credibility of the whole exercise. In much the same way, the Hindu right (of which Malhotra is one regardless of his protestations) howls whenever Hinduism is analysed with anything less than reverence, which prompts one to ask if Hinduism is also to be considered above criticism.

Wendy Doniger has written a response arguing why non-Hindus should be allowed to discuss Hinduism, and I agree with her. The last thing Hinduism Studies needs is an echo chamber, but the Hindu Right, led by its intellectual stalwarts like Rajiv Malhotra, are attempting to muzzle all irreverent views. This is a slippery slope, because its victims are not just Western scholars but Indian ones like AK Ramanujan, whose scholarly and fact-based work "300 Ramayanas", was withdrawn from study by Delhi University. The reason? Some of the lesser-known (yet authentically Indian) versions of the Ramayana contradicted the more orthodox versions, which then rendered them heretical and even blasphemous. The general strain of intolerance of critical viewpoints that Malhotra seems to approve of is paradoxically turning Hinduism into an Abrahamic religion with a single approved body of scripture, and hostility towards "heretics" and "blasphemy". Once again, there is the echo of Malhotra's famous question, "Should Abrahamic religions become the same as the Dharmic ones, or should the Dharmic religions become the same as the Abrahamic?" 

The anxiety to deny caste discrimination in Hinduism also leads Malhotra down the path of least resistance, as he points towards external forces attempting to break India (the Chinese supporting the Maoists, the Pakistanis and Saudis supporting the Islamists, and Christian missionaries/NGOs converting Hindus to Christianity). In his book, "Breaking India", he deals exclusively with the last of these threats. He is absolutely right that Christian missionary organisations have been operating on a war footing in South and East India, converting poor and disadvantaged Hindus to Christianity with a mix of deception, bribery and intimidation. While it is necessary to condemn and stop these activities, it is even more important to address the core reasons why Hindus may want to convert to other religions - the shocking caste-based discrimination that exists to this day. Indeed, the subtitle of "Breaking India" acknowledges the root of the problem - "Western Intervention in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines". It is the existence of faultlines in Hindu society that permits external forces to exploit them, yet eradicating caste is not the focus of either Malhotra or anyone else of the Hindu right. They will deny the fact of oppression and discrimination, and argue for the preservation of the status quo, all the while claiming to fight the evil missionaries trying to divide Hindu society and thus "break India".

In fact, Malhotra goes so far as to blame the British (especially Lord Risley, who conducted the 1901 census) for creating a caste-consciousness among Indian Hindus that did not exist earlier. On the contrary, genetic evidence tells us that strict endogamy (the cessation of interbreeding between castes) occurred 1900 years ago, long before Lord Risley and the British. Why does Malhotra point a finger at external parties when his focus should be where it belongs? I believe it is his privilege blindness that causes him to ignore the real rifts within Hindu society that can only be healed through an ideological overhaul. That's a far harder task than pointing the finger at external enemies, and Malhotra takes the easy way out. That's why I think he has disappointed as an intellectual thought leader. He has chosen expediency over truth.

It is perhaps in this context that we should see the latest charges of plagiarism that have been made against Malhotra. Malhotra's attacks against Western agencies have obviously not gone unnoticed.

Plagiarism is a very serious charge in academic circles and if proven, is sufficient to kill an author's career and reputation.

But how true is the charge? Malhotra's critics accuse him of lifting whole paragraphs from other authors without quotes and without specific attribution of each such quote. Malhotra replies that he has acknowledged the sources at the end of each chapter saying "This section draws heavily on author XYZ". To my mind, Malhotra's transgression, if any, is of the nature of a technicality and not the more serious intent to deceive or to pass off another's work as one's own. He may deserve a slap on the wrist to ensure that he is more meticulous in pointing out each instance when he quotes another author, but the charge of plagiarism seems overblown to me.

Malhotra has many critics, especially in the West. Rather than address his many theses point by point, in which exercise they will have to concede some points even as they score others, they seem to have chosen the nuclear option of destroying his credibility wholesale with the charge of plagiarism. It's a risky gambit, because if they can control the levers of power in the academic and publishing worlds, they may succeed in inflicting a lot of damage. Personally, I think they have overreached and this episode will only make him stronger.

I have mixed feelings about Malhotra's work. He has tackled the powerfully emotive area of cultural identity with some groundbreaking books and articles. There are areas where he absolutely hits the nail on the head, and yet others where he seems to overstate his case. His work is so vast and encompasses so many aspects that it is hard to do justice to it all. Nevertheless, the correct way to critique him is to engage with him point by point. Where he is right, the rest of the world will have to change. Indeed, the world is changing to accommodate minority viewpoints at a faster rate than ever before in history, so this is not an unreasonable demand.

Having said that, Malhotra's more outlandish conspiracy theories need to be called out and ridiculed. His one-size-fits-all "Hindu Universalism" that stems from his own privilege blindness is in need of overhaul. And his call for an Indian "grand narrative" should be heeded, although formulated in a more socially inclusive way than he himself has done.
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