Plagiarism row: How Rajiv Malhotra became the Ayn Rand of Internet Hindutva

Shoaib Daniyal

Last week, historian Richard Fox Young charged Hindutva activist and author, Rajiv Malhotra with plagiarism.  Young, an Associate Professor of the history of religions at the US-based Princeton Theological Seminary, listed out seven instances where Malhotra had plagiarised by quoting verbatim or picking ideas from other works without acknowledgement.

Pointing to global academic standards, such as Princeton University’s guidelines on the use of references, Young accused Malhotra of a “lack of academic integrity” given his “repeated failure to acknowledge outside sources”. (A summary of Young’s charges can be found here).

Interestingly, the New Jersey-based Rajiv Malhotra did not deny the charges per se. On Twitter, his defence rested on the fact that the standards Young was citing were too high.

Shifting standards

Here, for example, with considerable innovation, Malhotra defended his decision not to mark out extracts by using quotation marks since it is a Western convention and Sanskrit didn’t have them:

He also defended his lack of references in places by citing a “global acknowledgment” and claiming “it suffices by all norms”.

To which, other academics pointed out that that wasn’t the case.

Malhotra, of course, denied the charge of plagiarism and passed off the lack of acknowledgements and the presence of unmarked verbatim quotes as “cosmetic” errors:

HarperCollins, Malhotra’s publisher, has taken note of the charges and is examining it legally. Chief Editor at HarperCollins, Karthika VK, added, “We will make sure the matter is sorted out as soon as possible and are in conversation with the author about it.”

The Ayn Rand of Internet Hindutva

While they’ve never been this serious, allegations of substandard scholarship against Malhotra aren’t new. In 2007, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, professor at the University of Chicago, had this to say about Malhotra in her book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future:

“Malhotra’s voluminous writings show a highly aggressive, threatening personality. His attacks are sarcastic and intemperate. He shows little concern about factual accuracy. Typically he makes no attempt to describe the book or books he attacks in a complete or balanced way; instead, his broadsides are lists of alleged mistakes or distortions, conveying little or no sense of what the book is about and what it argues.”
Of course, the fact that Nussbaum was writing about him in the first place shows how effective Malhotra has been in at least creating a splash, the efficacy of which, really, has little to do with the quality of his scholarship. Rajiv Malhotra is, today, the philosopher-in-chief of Internet Hindutva. Roughly, he is to swarms of angry right-wing bloggers, chat-room lurkers and Twitter trolls what Ayn Rand is to American libertarians. His fevered ideas about Hinduism being under siege, with American intellectuals leading at least one front, have struck a chord with many conservative sections of the Indian diaspora and, from there, back home in India.

Yankee Hindutva

Born in 1950, in India, Malhotra went to school in Delhi. After earning his undergraduate degree in physics at St Stephens’ College, he moved to the US to do his masters in computer science. From here, he worked in the American corporate world in the information technology and media industries, eventually turning into a successful entrepreneur.

In 2001, Malhotra started his cultural studies career at an unusual place:Sulekha.com, an Indian web portal that, amongst other things, runs a classified section to help find flatmates in Indian cities. He was driven by a rather personal motive: a teacher, at the New Jersey school his children were in, declined to teach a class about the Bengal mystic, Ramakrishna. Basing his opinion on a psychoanalytical study of Ramakrishna in a book called Kali’s Child by Jeffrey Kripal (currently a religious studies professor at Rice University  in Texas),  the teacher, or so Malhotra claims, thought the material would be inappropriate. This led Malhotra to other US academic works on Hinduism – many using psychoanalysis as a tool – which Malhotra found had a “very vulgar kind of view” which is “completely inapplicable to the Indian way of life.” In response, Malhotra says, “I took it upon myself to start writing articles expressing that these are not correct interpretations”.

Malhotra’s “Yankee Hindutva”, to use Gita Ramaswamy’s admirable phrase, therefore, began as a response to the experience of being a diaspora Hindu in the US. In one of his Sulekha pieces, he quotes in full the experience of a Hindu American girl and her embarrassment at being in a “world religions” class in her school where Hinduism is caricatured. In another, he emphasises the importance of his anti-academic crusade by reminding his readers “that college professors write most of the school textbooks in the US” and it is these textbooks that will be used to teach “our own kids”.

The emotional churning that Malhotra’s diasporic experience caused brought about a flood of very popular writing, the most impactful of which was an online essay published in 2002 called “Wendy’s Child Syndrome”. In it, he trains his guns on Wendy Doniger, an American Indologist who, according to Malhotra, is “undoubtedly the most powerful person in academic Hinduism Studies today”. Malhotra blames Doniger and her “cult of students” (Wendy’s “children”) for the “eroticisation of Hinduism”.

The Malhotra Syndrome

The essay is almost a perfect encapsulation of Malhotra’s style. Containing very little insight, it deals mostly with personal attacks on the people he disagrees with. Some of these can be quite vicious such as when he brings up the fact that scholar Sarah Caldwell was sexually abused as a child in order to refute her work. He characterises American academics studying Hinduism as “psychosexual deviants or other misfits in their own culture” whose writing is driven by the “lucrative market” for “negative exotica and for positive cultural loot”.

Another possible reason for scholars studying Hinduism, says Malhotra, is that “sexually abused Western women, seeking an outlet for anger, find in the Hindu Devi either a symbol of female violence or a symbol of male oppression”. Homosexuality could also be a factor: “American Lesbian and Gay women’s vasanas [desires], also suppressed by Abrahamic condemnation, seek private and public legitimacy, and [these scholars] therefore, interpret Indian texts for this autobiographical purpose.”

Repressed desires also drive Wendy Doniger, Malhotra proclaims: “Western women, such as the famous professor herself, who are suppressed by the prudish and male chauvinistic myths of the Abrahamic religions, find in their study of Hinduism a way to release their innermost latent vasanas [desires], but they disguise this autobiography as a portrayal of the “other” (in this case superimposing their obsessions upon Hindu deities and saints)”. Jeffrey Kripal, whose research of Ramakirshna got Malhotra into this field in the first place, is driven by his “self-acknowledged homophobia”.

Rants on the Internet are not uncommon. But this one had an explosive impact, tapping into a deep sense of resentment felt by some American Hindus, many of whom believed they were being singled out, as compared to other religio-cultural groups in the country. (A constant refrain of Malhotra’s is that only insiders should study a religion’s history, or at least have a final say in its interpretation).

Malhotra’s ideas also struck a chord with another audience: conservative Hindus back in the homeland. Malhotra’s thesis was neatly ported to India, where similar anger existed against homegrown academics, many of whom had battled the distortion of history by the increasingly dominant Hindutva section of Indian society. Like in the US, Hindutva imagines a state of siege for Hindus even in India, which is 80% Hindu.

The wizard’s megaphone

All of this was, of course, powered by the wondrous Internet, allowing an unknown Indian-American from New Jersey to suddenly capture the attention of the global Hindutva movement. Fellow Hindutva historian and Belgian Indologist, Koenraad Elst, in fact, gushingly applauds Malhotra’s online work:

“Rajiv Malhotra’s Infinity Foundation, makes expert use of the new media to reach ever more Hindus both in the diaspora and in India, and teaches them to think seriously and strategically. It develops a Hindu answer to the anti-Hindu machinations in the media and academe, both in India and in America”.
Doniger, at the receiving end of Malhotra’s ferocious attacks, is naturally less appreciative of this new, Internet version of Hindutva. Calling this the “blog mentality of the Hindu Right”, she says:

“Unfortunately, a self-selecting, small, but vociferous group of disaffected Hindus have used this Indian ether to communicate with one another within what is perceived as a community. This accounts in large part for the proliferation of these groups and for the magnitude of the reaction to any incident, within just a few hours; it’s more fun than video games and a lot more dangerous too.”
The last bit might seem like hyperbole – after all, how can, say, a Yahoo chat group, no matter how vicious be “dangerous”?

After Malhotra’s screed, Jeffrey Kripal received death threats and attempts were made to pressure a prospective employer, Rice University, to desist from hiring him. After many years of battling this, Kripal simply stopped writing about India. Paul Courtright, another American academic attacked bitterly by Malhotra in 2002 for his book  Ganesa, Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, ended up calling the US’s Federal Bureau of Investigation after being the recipient of thousands of threatening emails. His house and family were under guard as long as the investigations continued.

While the “children” were affected in the US, it was in India that Wendy Doniger’s work itself was targeted.

Doniger book ban

In a lawsuit filed in 2011, Dinanath Batra, an old Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh apparatchik, accused Doniger’s book, The Hindus, of causing offense to, well, Hindus. Interestingly, the legal notice sent by Batra to Doniger, characterised her as a “woman hungry of sex”, obviously inspired by Malhotra’s original attack on her 13 years back, which linked Doniger’s academic work to her supposed sexual desires.

In 2014, Penguin conceded defeat in this lawsuit and agreed to pull out the book from India – another casualty in the long list of art works prohibited in the country for being “blasphemous”.

While Malhotra was not involved in the legal case, he seems quite proud of the fact that a book was proscribed for being blasphemous (“When Westerners make fun of our gods, they’re instigating trouble”). In an interview after the verdict, hepointed out that it was he who “basically lit the fire in the beginning by highlighting that these are issues”. Malhotra even called the banning of the book a “moral victory”.

This event also marked his transition from activist and author to having an association with Hindutva politics in India.

Of course, the aims of the Hindutva movement in India, when it comes to historical scholarship, and Malhotra’s are strikingly similar, so this is not surprising. To use the words of Amartya Sen, both aim to “to miniaturise the broad idea of a large India ‒ proud of its heterodox past and its pluralist present ‒ and to replace it by the stamp of a small India, bundled around a drastically downsized version of Hinduism”.

Postscript

Sen’s views and overall liberal stance haven’t gone unnoticed and Malhotra has taken care to refute him – in his trademark style, of course:

http://scroll.in/article/740814/plagiarism-row-how-rajiv-malhotra-become-the-ayn-rand-of-internet-hindutva

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