February 25, 2022
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we look at the controversy surrounding Dr Vikram Sampath’s published works. We also look at why Himachal Pradesh has set up a commission for communities from the general category, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Dr Vikram Sampath and his alleged plagiarism
In a world where we’re exposed to a little bit of everything all of the time, originality has developed into something of a virtue. Even when copyright law isn’t involved, simply getting accused of plagiarism on Twitter circles is enough to ruin a person’s hard-earned reputation. When it comes to the academic sphere, this sentiment gets steroid-boosted and often leads to career-ending accusations.
This is something historian and biographer Dr Vikram Sampath has gotten himself into. Mostly known for his two-volume biography on V D Savarkar, the crusader of Hindutva, Sampath has been accused of plagiarism by three historians. While Sampath claims that he is being pushed into the shark tank for the nature of his work, others say that his references were simply not good enough to evade finger-pointing.
Is this just another attack from the “Left cabal” to crush right-wing history, or are we simply dealing with some seriously suspicious citations? Either way, we’re sure one can sympathise with Vikram Sampath’s publisher right now.
Over the past few weeks, Dr Vikram Sampath has been accused of a “long-standing pattern” of plagiarism by three US-based historians. Dr Ananya Chakravarti of Georgetown University, Dr Audrey Truschke of Rutgers University and Dr Rohit Chopra of Santa Clara University, in several letters, both open and not, have pointed out many instances proving them.
It all started with a letter sent to Dr Emma Griffin, the president of the Royal Historical Society (RHS). The letter went over the detected instances of plagiarism, complete with side-by-side comparisons. Now, Dr Sampath recently became a fellow of Britain’s RHS that offers a Statement of Ethics that clearly goes over the principles of the Society. As one might expect, ripping people off is not tolerated.
The instances cited weren’t just contained to Dr Sampath’s biography of Savarkar, which had similarities with an undergraduate thesis from 2012 by Paul Schaffel. But, they included articles and essays written by him as well. The first example given was the striking resemblance of his 2017 essay, “The Revolutionary Leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar”, with Dr Vinayak Chaturvedi’s “A revolutionary’s biography: the case of VD Savarkar” published 4 years before.
Unsurprisingly, Dr Sampath has denied all allegations and has said that the similarities have been cited as references. He even moved the courts to look into the matter as these accusations, according to him, are nothing more than classic examples of character assassination. On 18 February, the Delhi High Court barred the three main accusers from publishing any “defamatory” material against Dr Sampath till the next hearing, i.e. 1 April.
The proof is in the writing
If there’s anything we’ve learnt from Dr Adrian Mallory, played by John Malkovich in Space Force, it’s that there definitely exists a strong academic fraternity. It’s a brotherhood of sorts. One simply does not just accuse their brother of a cardinal sin on a whim. All the accusations against Dr Sampath did not come from some guy on the internet; they came directly from researchers. And if you’ve never met a professor in your life, let us be the first to tell you that these people are thorough.
On 23 February, an open letter signed by several historians and writers in support of Dr Chakravarti, Dr Truschke and Dr Chopra was published. While the letter goes into the importance of upholding ethical standards in scholarly publications, it also points out that none of the accusers has ever “crossed paths” with Dr Sampath. The notion that this issue has come about due to personal vendettas is utterly ludicrous. Thus, the barrage of online harassment that has met the three professors from supporters of Dr Sampath’s work is definitely out of line.
If we are to look at cold hard facts as well, the two letters sent to the RHS elaborately cover the cases in a side-by-side manner. The open letter even talks about the methodology and tech used by the accusers to come to the conclusion that Dr Sampath has, in fact, plagiarised the material. The software used by them is the Modi government’s preferred, Turnitin. It has been endorsed by the Centre to curb plagiarism among PhD students in India. And some of his work had a plagiarism mark of about 50%.
Clearly, one can’t just create a theory out of thin air. Of course, given this is an issue regarding historical texts and analysis, references need to be made. The problem that arises when one looks into Dr Sampath’s work is the inadequacy of those references. In the first letter sent to the RHS, it is noted that Dr Sampath does cite certain references but the fact that the central thesis of his work is taken from somewhere else is largely absent. Simply citing something in passing doesn’t count.
Dr Vinayak Chaturvedi, after learning of his work being lifted by Dr Sampath, said, “For anyone working on Savarkar knows that he had very high ethical standards in the production of knowledge, even from his supporters.” Even we had to link comedian Bo Burnham’s Welcome to the Internet in the opening sentence of this article. What makes Dr Vikram Sampath any different?
Citations were never the issue
Dr Vikram Sampath has come out guns-a-blazing against the “dubious triumvirate”, as he calls them. According to him, their understanding of copyright law itself is rather inadequate. His 2017 article that was published in the India Foundation Journal was simply not an academic article. It was a mere transcript of a speech he had delivered at an event hosted by the India Foundation. During the speech, he had cited not only his own work but also complimentary works of other authors. Thus, crying copyright doesn’t do much.
That first letter sent to the RHS also said that Dr Sampath’s Savarkar biography was similar to Paul Scaffel’s award-winning undergraduate thesis at Wesleyan University. This, he claims, was a complete coincidence and rather obvious as both, the thesis and the books, shared the same source. Both the pieces used “The Indian Sociologist, 1905-15, 1920-22” by A M Shah, published in the Economic and Political Weekly (2006). Dr Sampath says that he had added it in the books’ endnotes and its bibliography.
Now, Dr Vikram Sampath is definitely no stranger to controversy. Since his two biographies have come out, he’s been branded a right-wing intellectual who is setting a dangerous precedent for the handling of history. Even if one does not agree with Savarkar’s theories, expecting the work to be interpreted without contextualising it does little to help the liberal cause. It must be noted that Savarkar was writing at the height of British suppression of Indian voices. What that does for one’s opinion of him should not matter much in the eyes of history.
Regarding other accusations as well, Dr Sampath has said that when it comes down to facts in a biography, he does not hold any artistic liberty. Thus, simply looking for similarities will obviously garner plenty as one cannot change the basics of Savarkar’s story. You simply cannot change history. And as of now, even the Delhi High Court seems to be on his side.
What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) The accusations of plagiarism against Dr Vikram Sampath make sense.
b) The accusations of plagiarism against Dr Vikram Sampath do not make sense.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Dubious History, Doubtful Benefits – Interlinking Of Rivers
For the Left:
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🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Samanya Varg Aayog notified (Himachal Pradesh) – The Himachal Pradesh government notified the constitution of the Samanya Varg Aayog. It included its term of office, powers, and functions. It will have a chairperson and two members nominated by the government. The objective will be to look into grievances of those in the general category communities and study the condition of the poor and marginalised in the general category. It will recommend policies and schemes for their betterment.
Why it matters: In December, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur announced the formation of the Samanya Varg Aayog. It came after a nearly year-long movement from many who demanded it. He said it’s the government’s responsibility to look after all people. He cited the existence of a similar commission in Madhya Pradesh but said the demand was first raised in Himachal Pradesh.
Model tourism village troubles (Kerala) – Kumbalangi, an inland fishing hamlet located to the West of Kochi, was declared a model tourism village in 2003. The model village is now facing the effects of climate change and extreme weather. Now, tidal floods, though not a new occurrence, have increased in frequency and severity. For many in this village, life has become hard, and they blame the levelling of the surrounding river. Officials say all 17 wards of the village are under threat due to tidal flooding.
Why it matters: According to some locals, the area’s severe flooding is due to the natural levelling of the backwater river bed over the years. The panchayat enlisted the help of a start-up to study tidal floods in the area. The results of the study showed living in the village will become difficult in the next five to ten years.
MSMEs seek protection (Odisha) – The Odisha Assembly of Small and Medium Enterprises (OASME) has asked the Prime Minister to step in and help protect MSMEs from the effects of the coal shortage. Satwik Swain, the Secretary-General at OASME, said the situation for the non-power sector is grim due to coal shortages. He said many MSMEs are on the verge of closure. He said if the issue isn’t resolved, nearly 5,000 MSMEs could be forced to close.
Why it matters: Earlier, other MSME organisations like the Utkal Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Industrial Entrepreneurs (AIE) sought help from the local administrations, but no solution was provided. In January, the OASME asked Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to intervene and normalise the coal shortage issues. Many Captive Power Plants (CPPs) in the state are getting intermittent coal supplies. Estimates say they’re getting only 40-50% of their requirement.
Marathi signboards (Maharashtra) – The Bombay High Court rejected a petition from the Federation of Retail Traders Association that challenged the state government’s mandate for all shops to display signboards in Marathi. The bench said Marathi is the mother tongue of the state and the rule for displaying signboards in that language doesn’t amount to discrimination. The Association said retailers have suffered because of the pandemic. It added that during the lockdowns they wouldn’t have been able to afford new signboards.
Why it matters: In 2017, the state made a similar rule, but it wasn’t implemented or properly followed. Last month, the Shiv Sena-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government approved a proposal mandating shops to prominently display signboards in Marathi. At the time, some said the decision was politically motivated as it came in the run-up to local body elections. The proposal also stated that the font of the Marathi-Devanagari script cannot be smaller than the font of other scripts.
Preserve indigenous rituals (Arunachal Pradesh) – Chief Minister Pema Khandu called on the state’s tribal community leaders to practice and preserve indigenous festivals and rituals. He lauded the Nyishis for preserving their age-old customs and celebrating Nyokum. He also appealed to locals to wear traditional attire during the festival period. He asked students studying in colleges and universities to do their part too. He said the government is working to promote and preserve indigenous culture through the Department of Indigenous Affairs.
Why it matters: Last February, Khandu made similar comments at the inaugural function of the 15-day seminar-cum-workshop of priesthood. He voiced his concern over the dwindling existence of the institution of priesthood, which forms an integral part of indigenous culture. He cited the prominence of other written languages and modern education as the reason for native languages disappearing. The state has 24 major tribes and more than 100 sub-tribes.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
₹18,000 crores – The amount recovered by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in cases involving Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, and Mehul Choksi.