Much Ado About Plagiarism: Fox vs. Malhotra

by Ashay Naik - Jul 15, 2015 02:11 AM +05:30 IST
Much Ado About Plagiarism: Fox vs. Malhotra

The problem, as I see it, is that by raising intellectual objections to a book one implicitly concedes its position as an intellectual work. On the other hand, what Fox seeks to accomplish by raising charges of plagiarism is to deny the book the very status of constituting an intellectual work.

Using a big word like ‘plagiarism’… always causes some damage. It will always do lasting damage, like accusations of racism.
Michel Houellebecq

The core commandment of plagiarism is that you can borrow the words or ideas of another but you shall not steal them. By providing proper references in your text, you can declare your borrowing and thus exonerate yourself from the sin of stealing. Considering what is at stake, the rules of referencing sources are not trivial and their breach is not lightly taken.

In the last few days, Richard Fox Young, author of Resistant Hinduism, in quite a poetically conducted Twitter campaign, turned the heat on Rajiv Malhotra, by making allegations of plagiarism in two of his books, Breaking India and Indra’s Net. But not for him to simply post the seven offences he has claimed in some blogpost and send the link to his followers. Perhaps that is not his style or it did not suit his agenda. In any case, we have been treated to quite a show. The revelations came in trickles, like drops of Kool-Aid, interspersed with warm-ups, just-for-funs, and quotes from Malhotra and his followers fulminating against others plagiarising his own works, the riveting drama concluding with a petition to Malhotra’s publishers to withdraw his books. The audience was tickled, titillated and left gasping for more. Though now in hindsight, it all appears like an episode from Grumpy Ol’ Men.

I have reproduced Fox’s open letter to Malhotra’s publishers and an example of his allegation of Malhotra’s “plagiarism” below. For the full details of his campaign see his Twitter page. For a rebuttal of the allegations by “Independent Readers and Reviewers” see here

In my own view, however, the technical errors pointed out by Fox appear as both serious and valid. He is certainly justified in complaining that he has been misled into believing that certain passages were originally composed by Malhotra when they were not. I don’t know what compensation is due to a customer in these circumstances but Fox is certainly entitled to it. But this does not appear to be genuinely a case of post-purchase dissonance although it has been presented that way. The vindictiveness at the end is quite unsettling like the fatal strike of a beast satisfied that it has played enough with its prey.

After all the glee and tom-tom as we get to the bite at the end, it becomes evident that here is no irate customer demanding his dollar’s worth.It 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. This suspicion of sinister intent is what makes it imperative to look beyond the mere truth or falsehood of these allegations, at the broader context in which they are being made.

Much Ado About Plagiarism: Fox vs. Malhotra

Fox’s open letter to Malhotra’s publishers posted at the end of his Twitter campaign

Much Ado About Plagiarism: Fox vs. Malhotra

An example of Malhotra’s “plagiarism” posted by Fox on Twitter

Whatever be the letter of the law regarding plagiarism in terms of proper referencing, we must bear in mind that the spirit of plagiarism is about consciously passing off the works of another as one’s own with the intent of claiming credit for it. Based on the evidence supplied by Fox, while it cannot be denied that Malhotra’s two books could be guilty of the former, they are clearly not so of the latter.

So, for example, at the places in Indra’s Net where quotation marks have not been provided for material borrowed from Unifying Hinduism by Andrew Nicholson, it does appear regrettably that the passages are Malhotra’s own. But it is obvious from all the other references given in Indra’s Net, that the argument about ‘defending the philosophical unity of Hinduism’ which is the core objective of the book is based principally on Nicholson’s work.

In fact, in my view the problem with Indra’s Net is that it relies far too much on Nicholson’s research but that is a separate matter altogether. I can think of other issues in the book as well. I found the scope of the book to be too broad and involving too many issues. I was not persuaded by the argument on the tat-tvam-asi ethic or on the antiquity of sevā in Hinduism. I also thought that the debate surrounding the discrepancy between Vivekananda’s and Śankara’s concept of Advaita Vedanta remained ultimately unresolved. I will not go into the details of these issues for that is irrelevant here.

Much Ado About Plagiarism: Fox vs. Malhotra

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My point is that when there are more substantial issues that one could raise, why is Fox nit-picking on the absence of quotations and fancy Latin abbreviations? The problem, as I see it, is that by raising intellectual objections to a book one implicitly concedes its position as an intellectual work. On the other hand, what Fox seeks to accomplish by raising charges of plagiarism is to deny the book the very status of constituting an intellectual work.

The kind of technical faults that have been pointed out by Fox and the painstaking research that must have been conducted to unearth them remind me of an article by another Western scholar, McComas Taylor. In Mythology Wars, Taylor has railed against the technical nature of the critiques mounted by Rajiv Malhotra, Vishal Agarwal and Kalavai Venkat against Western academic texts denigrative of Hindu deities, such as Courtright’s Gaṇeśa. Taylor’s whinge in defence of Courtright et al was as follows:

“Errors are regrettable as they are unavoidable … no amount of textual criticism or typographical nitpicking can disprove a view. The fact that Courtright holds this view, and that apparently many of his reviewers and peers in the academy find it illuminating, productive or insightful, cannot be undermined by philological fault-finding. It is possible to disprove a fact by presenting a counter-fact, but interpretations and opinions are not subject to proof or disproof.

Malhotra, Agarwal and Venkat, like many successful members of the Indian diaspora, have backgrounds in the natural sciences. This perhaps explains their tendency to see the positivist, scientific ‘‘fact’’ as the basic unit of currency in academic discourse. Had their training been in the humanities or social sciences, they might have been more attuned to the nuanced status of ideas and theories that predominate in these disciplines.” (p. 159)

When I had first read this article, I had grudgingly conceded Taylor’s point. Indeed, in texts related to humanities we should be more open-minded and lenient, try to understand the other person’s point of view and its overall context, and refrain from belaboring too much over incidental matters, textual errors or other factual inaccuracies. Yet, now I find that a Western scholar such as Fox, fully trained in the humanities and social sciences, is doing exactly the same thing: carping about oversights in referencing instead of addressing the issues raised in the text.

Much Ado About Plagiarism: Fox vs. Malhotra

It is thus evident that this plagiarism drama is not at all what it purports to be. While the charges have been made against Malhotra’s scholarship, their target appears to be his credibility and integrity as a thinker in general. The reason for this attack is not far to see. I don’t think Malhotra’s detractors care as much about the scholarly depth of his books, one way or the other, as the relentless campaign he has waged to awaken the Hindu community with regards to the threat their texts and traditions face from the academic institutions in the West. It is not so much Malhotra, the scholar, who is worrisome to them as Malhotra, the strategist.

Among the Hindus, he appears to be the first who has approached the Western academy as a knowledge-producing ‘industry.’ At least this is what I have gathered from his speeches and writings. Just like any company which builds and markets a product, the Western academy is in the business of generating and selling certain narratives.

The knowledge of other cultures is collected as “raw data” from its native informants who subsequently do not play much of a role in its interpretation. This data is then subjected to hermeneutical processes based entirely on Western theories. The end result undergoes critical review processes and is packaged with notes, cross-references, bibliographies, the whole she-bang, to produce a ‘representation’ which is then admitted as authoritative knowledge on the particular subject both in the West and tragically in the host country as well.

For most disingenuous Hindus, the Western academy yet shines as a temple of objective knowledge but Malhotra is at the forefront of unravelling this delightful illusion and has worked tirelessly and selflessly over the last two decades and more to ensure that power over Hindus knowledge systems – their interpretation, their criticism, their presentation – remains in the hands of the Hindus.

In other circumstances, he could have been simply ignored as a troublemaker. But times are a-changing and Western academic institutions are no longer as flushed with funds as they used to be especially in the field of humanities, and even more so in relation to the study of the ancient cultures of foreign lands.

In this situation, Western academicians are increasingly coming to rely on wealthy Hindus to patronize their work. Through his writings and speeches in a variety of forums such as temples, universities, the internet, and so on, Malhotra has consistently opposed their efforts to impress the Hindus, by exposing the superficiality of their tactics and their hidden agenda to write about Hindu culture from a Christo-centric, psychoanalytic or post-Marxist lens, which is at best meaningless to the Hindus and at worst inimical to the future of their traditions. Hence, the antipathy of these Western scholars against Malhotra.

Champions of free speech never fail to admonish us that we should not attempt to silence a text that offends us but respond to it with a contrary text of our own. Raising technical issues in a text, such as plagiarism, which implicitly question the moral character of its author, and kicking up a fuss as a disgruntled customer to get that text withdrawn from the market by its publisher, is the way in which civilized persons aim to achieve the same goal which their barbaric and unsophisticated counterparts seek through burning or legal bans, but without suffering from the stigma of muzzling free speech, of course.

In conclusion, the point of this article has been to put into perspective the smear campaign initiated by Fox against Malhotra. None of it is meant to suggest that conceptual issues do not exist in Malhotra’s books. They should rightly be debated and worked upon intellectually – not just by Western scholars but by Hindus themselves. But what Fox has attempted brings to mind one of my favorite lines from The Fountainhead:

“It is difficult enough to acquire fame. It is impossible to change its nature once you’ve acquired it. No, you can never ruin an architect by proving that he’s a bad architect. But you can ruin him because he’s an atheist, or because somebody sued him, or because he slept with some woman, or because he pulls wings off bottleflies. You’ll say it doesn’t make sense? Of course it doesn’t. That’s why it works. Reason can be fought with reason. How are you going to fight the unreasonable? The trouble with you, my dear, and with most people, is that you don’t have sufficient respect for the senseless. The senseless is the major factor in our lives. You have no chance if it is your enemy.”

Indeed, what better way to ruin Malhotra’s work and credibility than to make him famous as a plagiarist?

Ashay Naik is a student of Indian philosophy
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