I was recently “bombed” by an online petition with a sensational charge that I had “plagiarised” in my earlier book, Indra’s Net. The demand was that publishers must withdraw my books. The accusation is that in nine different instances in Indra’s Net, I should have cited a certain book by Andrew Nicholson, which I failed to do.
However, the facts are different: I do cite Nicholson’s book about 10 times in the main text with an additional 20 references in the endnotes. Clearly, I am informing the reader that I utilise Nicholson’s ideas with a combination of his words and mine. I do not cite him after every single sentence where I use him, but it is unambiguously clear when reading entire passages of my book that I am discussing his works. Unfortunately, none of those attacking me have bothered to acknowledge this simple fact. Those passing judgment need to figure out why someone wanting to plagiarise a source would bother referencing it about 30 times.
Highly experienced writers say this is a common grey area in scholarship, with no absolute standard or norm. In the worst case they see this as a simple copyediting human error – but not critical because Nicholson does get ample references and hence the purpose of citing gets satisfied in spirit if not in every literal instance.
The routine method for someone who finds errors in a book is to write to the publisher asking for corrections. Publishers routinely process this. We are not in the era when commandments were carved in stone. In the digital age, content does change routinely, due to various factors including inadvertent copy editing errors.
There is a general understanding among publishers and authors that any errors/addendums get routinely fixed in the next print run. My earlier book, Being Different, has had over 100 small changes made over several print runs – ranging from cosmetic to more significant. These were brought to our attention by readers in a constructive manner as well as those we detected ourselves. None were intentional and none caused any controversy. Each of my books has 300 to 600 citations of various sources, and my editors and I do the best we can to cite accurately. But we are not perfect. Neither me, nor my publisher have a problem in adding quotation marks or citing the source each and every time in the next print. I am happy to do that.
But I suspect the intention is not to help the discourse (and me) become more accurate, but rather to shut me and others out of the debate altogether. The demand to withdraw books (as opposed to correcting the issues) is unprecedented in such a situation. It is a tactic to make a mountain out of a molehill or fake a molehill to make a mountain. Those very voices who hated Dinanath Batra for asking for a book to be withdrawn, are now asking for my books to be withdrawn.
An independent analysis done by serious readers was posted online and out of the nine alleged omissions, they found that six were properly acknowledged, albeit not using the precise format required by certain Western conventions. In the other three cases, there could be a misunderstanding if someone wants to nit-pick, although a reader of the entire chapter would get a clear sense of the source being acknowledged.
However, there is much more going on in the background. The complaint comes from some people whose anger is really targeted at my forthcoming book that exposes some problems in Western scholarship on Indian culture. The petition was started within days after I presented an overview of my next book at an international conference. The chief complainants are individuals I have had tense arguments with in the past, due to the controversial positions I take. I am open to engage in a debate with them on issues of substance without personal acrimony, and with neutral moderation. I have made numerous offers of debate but the other side has not responded. They have chosen to try and silence me instead.
The real issue is even broader. A common criticism they level against me is that I am not in an academic job, hence I am an “outside”’ who is not entitled to “meddle” in the discourse. Despite having researched full time for two decades, produced four major books and countless blogs and lectures, these “high priest” of academics still remain unimpressed.
Or is it that they are worried? Is their monopoly being threatened over the public discourse on matters of general importance, such as how our civilisation is to be interpreted? Why is there a presumption that the adhikara to think creatively is reserved only for the academicians? From Jesus Christ to Sri Krishna, from Vivekananda to Gandhi, from Shashi Tharoor to Narendra Modi to Arvind Kejriwal – public intellectuals all across the ideological spectrum have included influential persons who were not academicians. In this Internet age and with its dis-intermediation (eliminating the middlemen), the world of knowledge producers has expanded and the high priests of the past feel threatened.
This brings us to the further question of the norms and standards of English usage that we are supposed to obey literally. My attackers wish to judge me by certain specific norms of citation that most Indian writers do not follow – including many trained in Western systems. In fact, one academician suggested that someone should examine the published works of the persons accusing me, as that is sure to reveal that they are guilty of the very same thing they accuse me of. In other words, in actual practice most scholars like to give “enough” references to indicate their sources clearly, but without over-populating the text with “scare quotes”. The extent of literal citation should also depend on the type of genre and audience.
Unfortunately, our colonised minds are programmed to obey the rules of idiom, quotation, style, etc. set by the West. It is time to discuss whether we should decolonise ourselves in this regard. I believe we should be free to innovate in the way we use language. I am not writing academic books, but writing for the commoner. I am taking subject matter that has remained hidden in the academic closet, and I am making it accessible to the mainstream reader. This is frightening to the gatekeepers of the academic world who see me as a trespasser on their turf. I am not bound to obey the rules they have made. It is for my readers to judge whether my works are useful or not, and academics do not have the license to authorise or deny my free speech.
Ironically, these very same academicians are claiming to champion the downtrodden voices, the subalterns, on the basis that elitist Brahmins have controlled the Sanskrit rules, idiom, etc. and non-Brahmins have been treated as unqualified and lacking the adhikara to write in Sanskrit. I feel they are guilty of the same elitism by treating me as unqualified to write in English. My forthcoming book, in fact, examines these very topics of Sanskrit versus English elitism and issues of who controls the intellectual production.
An allegation of plagiarism must look at the issue at two distinct levels: substance and form. Plagiarism as a matter of substance is when the author hides a source because he wants to claim originality for something he has borrowed. Nobody who has read my book has said that that is even remotely the case, because it would run counter to the fact that I have very frequently referenced Nicholson’s work.
The second level is whether there is omission of references in a merely technical sense. This is where customs for acknowledgment differ, depending on whether it is an academic book (which mine are not), which readership is viewing it, and so forth. I wish to point out that in ancient Indian traditions, references were required (as in ancient Sanskrit texts) but the Western conventions did not apply. Sanskrit does not even have quotation marks in its character set. Yet traditional scholars made clear when they referred to someone else’s thoughts. So in the worst case, I might be accused of violating a specific technical convention of the style and form of acknowledging sources. But certainly no plagiarism can be said at the level of the intention and spirit of my work.
Suppose we gave the dog a bone by increasing the number of citations for Nicholson from 30 to 35, would that really bring them to the discussion table to sort out the matters of substance and avoid playing such games? I hope so.