BOOKS/CONTROVERSY

Vikram Sampath in plagiarism row

Print edition : March 25, 2022

Vikram Sampath signing his latest book on V.D. Savarkar, “Savarkar: A Contested Legacy 1924-1966”, in Chennai in September 2021. Photo: SRINIVASAN K.V.

Audrey Truschke. She is one of the signatories to the letter to the Royal Historical Society. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The historian Vikram Sampath finds himself caught in a controversy over allegations of the use of unattributed passages from the work of other historians, in a 2017 essay and as a general pattern in his work. His defamation suit is being heard by the Delhi High Court.

The story of V.D. Savarkar has been gaining popularity in recent years. As right-wing historians seek to take the attention away from his apology letters to the colonial government from the Andaman Cellular Jail, the attempt has been to throw light on some of the lesser-known facets of Savarkar’s life. Among the better received books have been the historian Vikram Sampath’s Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past 1883-1924 and Savarkar: A Contested Legacy 1924-1966.

Even as the jury is out on the role of Savarkar in India’s freedom struggle, Sampath finds himself embroiled in a plagiarism row with some academics based in the United States. They have alleged that he took “significant” portions of other published works without due citations and footnotes in an essay, “The Revolutionary Leader: Vinayak Damodar Savarkar”, published by India Foundation Journal-2017. There have been whispers about plagiarism against the two books as well. Among those who have made the allegations of plagiarism are the well-known historian Audrey Truschke, whose book on Aurangzeb is credited with changing the contours of discourse on the Mughal emperor; and Janaki Bakhle, whose book on Savarkar is likely to be published soon. Incidentally, when Janaki Bakhle reviewed the first volume of Sampath’s Savarkar biography a couple of years ago, she did not point out any instance of plagiarism.

In a detailed note (a copy of which is in possession of Frontline), Bakhle explained the long gap before the alleged instances of plagiarism could be pointed out in the essay.

“When I reviewed the first volume of Sampath’s biography of Savarkar, I focussed on the book as a work of biography around a figure who has not received adequate scholarly attention in English. I did not think that plagiarism might be an issue, because I assumed that standard practices of citation and verification had been followed as part of the process of peer review and publication. I did, however, convey my evaluation of the kind of biographical arguments Sampath makes in that volume and I believe made clear that I have a host of reservations and criticisms of the work,” she writes in the note.

Janaki Bakhle’s allegation

Janaki Bakhle insists that she “was not aware of, nor had I read, the 2017 publication until just recently, and have now compared it to my own essay, which was published as ‘Savarkar (1883-1996), Sedition and Surveillance: the rule of law in a colonial situation’, Social History, February 2010, Vol 35, No. 1 pp 51-75.” She goes on to point out the portions allegedly taken from her 2010 essay without detailed citation.

She writes, “Significant portions of my own article appear without credit in Vikram Sampath’s ‘The Revolutionary Leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’ published by the India Foundation Journal, July-August, 2017, pp 37-42. The reference to my essay in the bibliography of his essay appears thus: Bakhle, Janaki. “Savarkar (1883-1996), Sedition and Surveillance: the rule of law”, which is an incomplete and inaccurate citation. Sampath has used my words in 4 of the 5 pages of his essay (pp 37, 38, 39, and 40). In this five-page essay, entire sentences of mine appear without quotation marks around them, a footnote, or citation.”

Also read: ‘Savarkar did very little for India’s independence’

Sampath has clarified that it was a transcript of a talk he gave, and not a scholarly work. He is, however, accused of using Janaki Bakhle’s ideas and words as his own.

“The essay includes 13 footnotes, which give the clear implication that it was prepared for publication…But given that my name does not appear anywhere in the text of the essay, and the only reference to my article is incomplete, this essay gives the impression that Sampath is claiming my ideas and words as his own, and would be understood as such by readers. Indeed, a quick analysis using the program Turnitin reveals that 52% of his essay is in fact made up of unattributed use of words taken directly from either my essay, or that of Professor Vinayak Chaturvedi. This constitutes plagiarism by any definition,” Janaki Bakhle writes.

Refusing to comment on the allegations of plagiarism in Sampath’s biography of Savarkar, she says, “Those who are concerned should investigate the biography and its citations with care.”

However, she cites specific instances where words from her Social History article of 2010 have been used by Sampath, allegedly without proper attribution. For instance, Bakhle wrote, “After the 1857 Rebellion, a diverse group comprising intellectuals, poets, mystics, philosophers, novelists, reformers and spiritual leaders from around the country cultivated a distinctly Hindu anti-colonial nationalist discourse that combined inward spiritual development with external political freedom.

It emerged from the anguished belief that despite India’s ancient culture and civilisation, her heirs had allowed themselves to be defeated by a foreign country with a far inferior civilisation. The spread of Western attitudes among the small growing middle class in urban colonial India only made matters more urgent.” Sampath in his 2017 essay is said to have written, on page 37 of the journal, the first page of the essay: “I argue here that the roots of this division could be traced back to the 1857 uprising after which a diverse group comprising intellectuals, poets, mystics, philosophers, novelists, reformers and spiritual leaders from around the country cultivated a distinctly Hindi anti-colonial nationalist discourse that combined inward spiritual development with external political freedom. It emerged from the anguished belief that despite India’s ancient culture and civilisation her heirs had allowed themselves to be defeated by a foreign country with a far inferior civilisation. The spread of Western attitudes among the small growing middle class in urban colonial India only made matters more urgent.”

Likewise, Janaki Bakhle wrote in 2010: “There are few original documents concerning this society because members destroyed them all to prevent them from falling into the hands of the British. He insisted that members read works dealing with major historical figures, biographies of Mazzini, Garibaldi, Napoleon Bonaparte.” Sampath in the 2017 essay wrote on page 38: “There are few original documents concerning the society because the members destroyed them all to prevent them falling into the hands of the British.

He insisted that members (of the Mitra Mela), read works dealing with major historical works, biographies of Mazzini, Garibaldi, Napoleon Bonaparte.”

Letter to Royal Historical Society

Janaki Bakhle’s response followed a letter dated February 11, 2022, written by three associate professors, all based in the U.S., to the President of the Royal Historical Society in the United Kingdom raising concerns about a “long-standing pattern of plagiarism” in the work of Vikram Sampath, who is a member of the Society. The letter was written by Audrey Truschke, Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University, along with Dr Ananya Chakravarti, Associate Professor of History, Georgetown University, and Dr Rohit Chopra, Associate Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University.

They alleged that Sampath used the words of the famous historian R.C. Majumdar, Dr Vinayak Chaturvedi and even the award-winning thesis of Paul Schaffel in his work without due citations.

Also read: Savarkar & the BJP

Responding to Frontline’s queries about the allegations against Sampath, Audrey Truschke said: “I have caught dozens of plagiarists during my academic career (mainly in the classroom). The case of Vikram Sampath is the most egregious I have ever seen, by far. Academics agree on relatively little, but we have global standards on plagiarism, and this is a rather obvious and alarming case, spanning multiple years and publications.”

Sampath himself called the letter to the RHS “an international smear campaign” and denied the allegations. The letter, however, has been archived as a document of importance and continues to be available on Audrey Truschke’s website.

Letter of support and denials

An open letter from “concerned scholars” in support of the three signatories has been in circulation in recent weeks. Truschke had tweeted the letter of support, which is said to have been signed by 135 people at that time. Among them were the names of Ramachandra Guha and Pratap Bhanu Mehta; both have since denied signing it. Guha tweeted: “My attention has been drawn to this letter below. I had never seen it before, and contrary to what is claimed there, I have not signed it, neither as Ramachandra Guha nor as ‘Ram Guha’.” Mehta tweeted, “It has come to my notice that I am listed as a signatory to this letter. I did not receive the contents of this particular letter and never signed it. I also have institutional affiliations that would have been part of my signature.”

Defamation suit

Sampath has taken judicial recourse on the subject. He has filed a defamation suit in Delhi High Court against the three historians who wrote the letter to the RHS and sought Rs.2 crore in damages. He claims he has cited the works of fellow historians and not plagiarised from them. Seeking permanent injunction against the RHS letter, his plea stated: “There is a systematic pattern of maligning for vested and ideological reasons. Why this instance is the last straw on the camel’s back is it prejudices the Plaintiff (Mr Sampath) irrevocably especially in academic circles where plagiarism is viewed very seriously…This would close all doors forever in academic careers, possibly cancel his fellowship at the Royal Historical Society, and also force many publishers to withdraw his books and cancel future contracts. In effect, if this letter is allowed to go free pass, then it will permanently destroy the Plaintiff’s career and reputation built painstakingly over 15 years.”

Also read: Modi & Savarkar: Ideological turns

Sampath got relief from the court, which barred Audrey Truschke, Ananya Chakravarti and Rohit Chopra from publishing any material against him that might be deemed “defamatory” on any platform. “The continued publication of the letter has been causing considerable damage to the plaintiff’s reputation and career. Balance of convenience is also in his favour and irreparable damage will be caused if the injunction is not granted,” the High Court said.

“Till the next date of hearing, defendants 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7 are restrained from publishing the letter or any other defamatory material with respect to the plaintiff in any forum or Twitter as well as any other online or offline platforms,” the court ordered. The next hearing is on April 1. The Delhi High Court also ordered Twitter to take down Audrey Truschke’s tweets against Sampath.

Meanwhile, Audrey Truschke told Frontline: “I rest on the strength of the initial letter that I co-wrote and co-signed, along with additional examples.” Chaturvedi, whose 2013 article is said to have been plagiarised, confined himself to calling the situation “disappointing”.

He added, in a message to the media portal The Wire, “For anyone working on Savarkar knows that he had very high ethical standards in the production of knowledge, even from his supporters. I encourage anyone interested to read the two articles side-by-side and judge for themselves.”

The truth may yet be in details.