A saga of plagiarism

Print edition : November 07, 2003

The NCERT finds itself in a fresh controversy thanks to a newly authored textbook for Class XII, which contains many sections plagiarised from an American history book.

in New Delhi

IN recent times, the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has repeatedly attracted controversy over its new textbooks. If earlier it was about the erroneous depiction of history in school textbooks as pointed out in a recent publication titled Index of Errors, brought out by the Indian History Congress, the latest controversy relates to plagiarism. It is another matter that the NCERT does not believe that some of its books are plagiarised versions. "Contemporary World History", a textbook for Class XII, has been found to contain several sections lifted from World Civilizations - Their History and Their Culture authored by Edward MacNall Burns, Philip Lee Ralph, Robert E. Lerner and Standish Meacham. The latter book, published by American publishers W.W. Norton & Company Inc, has a special Indian edition, which is the only authorised, complete and unabridged reprint of the latest American edition.

Chapter 18 of the American edition titled "The Civilization of the Renaissance (c.1350-c.1550)" is one such chapter from which substantial sections have been reproduced in the NCERT textbook. Under the sub-section "The Italian Background", Burns et al write: "The Renaissance originated in Italy for several reasons. The most fundamental was that Italy in the later Middle Ages encompassed the most advanced urban society in all of Europe. Unlike aristocrats north of the Alps, Italian aristocrats customarily lived in urban centres rather than in rural castles and consequently became fully involved in urban public affairs." Chapter 2 titled "Beginning of the Modern Age" in the NCERT textbook, contains the following lines: "Italian aristocrats customarily lived in urban centres rather than in rural castles unlike their counterparts in northern Europe and consequently became fully involved in urban public affairs."

The coincidence is too much to ignore, but the authors have described it as "tallying". Although there has been no official explanation from the otherwise voluble NCERT director J.S. Rajput, it appears that the NCERT will stick by the authors of the textbook. The authors could have at least acknowledged their source. There is not a single reference provided in the entire book, though Burns et al have, at the end of each chapter, listed out "Source Material".

In the same chapter of Burns et al, page 600, the sentence "The noted Florentine family of the Medici, for example, emerged as a family of physicians (as the name suggests), made its fortune in banking, and rose imperceptibly into the aristocracy in the fifteenth century" has been rephrased in the textbook as "The famous Florentine family of Medici, which emerged as a family of physicians, made its fortune in banking and rose to the status of aristocracy in the 15th century." The NCERT textbook omits "imperceptibly", substitutes "famous" for "noted" and adds the word "status" to give the sentence a distinct identity. As is evident, the "lifting" has been done quite brazenly.

Further, referring to the Florentine family and its influence, Burns et al write: "The results of these developments for the history of education are obvious: not only was there a great demand for education in the skills for reading and counting necessary to become a successful merchant, but the richest and most prominent families sought above all to find teachers who would impart to their offspring the knowledge and skills necessary to argue well in the public arena. Consequently, Italy produced a large number of secular educators, many of whom not only taught students but demonstrated their learned attainments in the production of political and ethical treatises and works of literature." The NCERT book slightly modifies the above as: "There was not only a demand for education for the development of skills in reading and accountancy necessary to become successful merchants but also the richest and most prominent families looked for able teachers who would impart to their offspring the knowledge and skills necessary to argue well in the public arena." The next sentence is reproduced almost verbatim save for the following changes: the word "secular" has been dropped, "also" has been added and "treatises" misspelt as "treaties".

Further, in the same chapter, Burns et al write: "A second reason why late-medieval Italy was the birthplace of an intellectual and artistic Renaissance lay in the fact that it had a far greater sense of rapport with the classical past than any other territory in western Europe." Patnaik et al write: "Another reason, why the (sic) late medieval-Italy became the birthplace of an intellectual and artistic renaissance, is because it had a far greater sense of rapport with the classical past than any other region of Europe."

In the same chapter, word-by-word lifting is witnessed in sections dealing with the early humanists in Italy and their contributions to classical Greek studies. Say Burns et al: "Many of them discovered important new Latin texts, but far more important was their success in opening up the field of classical Greek studies." The NCERT textbook says: "Many of them recovered important Latin texts, though far more important was their success in opening up the field of classical Greek studies." And a subsequent sentence in Burns, "In doing so, they inspired Italian scholars to make trips to Constantinople and other West Asian cities in search of Greek manuscripts" is reproduced verbatim in the NCERT textbook.

References to Niccolo Machiavelli have also been generously lifted from the American textbook. For the benefit of the uninitiated, Burns et al at least refer to Machiavelli as Renaissance Italy's greatest political philosopher but the NCERT authors do not seem to find the need to offer an introductory line on him. Write Burns et al: "No man did more than Machiavelli to overturn all earlier views of the ethical basis of politics or to pioneer in the dispassionate direct observation of political life... But Machiavelli also wrote The Prince in which he described the policies and practices of government, not in accordance with some lofty ideal, but as they actually were." The NCERT authors write: "No man did more than Machiavelli to overturn all earlier views regarding the ethical foundations of real politics. In his magnum opus, The Prince, he described the policies and practices of modern governments, not in accordance with some lofty ideal, but as they actually were."

Then, on the subject of the artistic Renaissance in Italy, Burns et al write: "Despite numerous intellectual and literary advances, the most long-lived achievements of the Italian Renaissance were made in the realm of art. Of all the arts, painting was undoubtedly supreme." The NCERT book says: "Among the numerous achievements of the Italian Renaissance, the most widely visible are in the realm of art. Of all the great art works, painting undoubtedly was supreme."

Historians like Arjun Dev and Indira Dev, who have written history textbooks for the NCERT, say that historians do have to rely on secondary material to obtain a broad understanding of issues involved but finally they write in their own words. Said Arjun Dev: "One cannot base one's understanding of the Renaissance from one book alone. It is also possible that while writing, some phrases get stuck in one's mind but even that has to be consciously controlled. What the NCERT authors have done is conscious copying. This is just not acceptable."

THE NCERT authors have also lifted references to Martin Luther's early life. In chapter 19, "Europe Expands and Divides: Overseas Discoveries and Protestant Reformation", Burns et al write on page 653: "Martin Luther may ultimately have been a source of inspiration for millions, but at first he was a terrible disappointment to his father." The NCERT textbook has reproduced this verbatim on page 21 under the section "Emergence of Protestant Movements." Similarly, the NCERT authors have reproduced almost verbatim the reference to the Estates General in the chapter in Burns et al dealing with the consequences of the French and Industrial Revolutions. Burns et al write: "Shortly after the opening of the Estates General at Versailles in May 1789, the representatives of the third estate, angered by the King's attitude, took the revolutionary step of leaving the body and declaring themselves the National Assembly." The NCERT textbook says: "Shortly after the opening of the Estates' General at Versailles, the representatives of the Third Estate, angered by the King's attitude, took the revolutionary step of leaving the Estates' General and declared themselves as the National Assembly of France." As is evident, the NCERT textbook's attempts at being original fall flat.

Not only have the authors of "Contemporary World History" lifted passages from an international publication without acknowledgement, but entire passages have been transplanted from one of the NCERT's own textbooks prescribed for Class VII titled "History in India and the World". An entire paragraph from this social sciences textbook, referring to Issac Newton, has been repeated in the new book for Class XII. Evidently, the authors have a limited understanding of the conceptual level of the audience they are writing for. In fact, the entire section on "Explorations and Discoveries of the New World and New Routes to India" is lifted from the Class VII book. Similarly, the section on the advent of the Europeans in India in the Class VII textbook has been almost entirely reproduced in "Contemporary World".

Moreover, the NCERT's "Modern India" textbook prescribed for Class XII, which is authored by Satish Chandra Mittal, has a section on Vasudeo Phadke that has been lifted from the works of none other than the late nationalist historian R.C. Majumdar.

Mittal writes on page 138 in Chapter 6 titled "Some Major Armed Uprisings": "The seeds of revolution that he sowed grew into a mighty banyan tree, with its shoots spreading all over India - his patriotism and daring spirit were taken up by the Chapekar brothers and from them it was taken over by the revolutionary wing of Indian nationalists early in the twentieth century. Even his method of secretly collecting arms, imparting military training to youths and securing necessary funds by means of political dacoities were followed by the latter. He may, therefore, be justly called the father of militant nationalism in India." Wrote Majumdar in History and Culture of the Indian People (Volume 1X, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1963): "The history of Phadke has been dealt with at some length because though it was a curious phenomenon - one man standing out against the mighty British empire - it left its legacy, and the seeds he sowed grew into a mighty banyan tree with its shoots spread all over India, in about a quarter of a century's time. His patriotism and daring spirit were taken up by the Chapekar brothers, to whom reference will be made later, and from them it was taken over by the revolutionary wing of the Indian nationalists early in the 20th century. Even his method of secretly collecting arms, imparting military training to youths and securing funds by means of political dacoities were followed by the latter. He may, therefore be justly called the father of militant nationalism in India."

It is unfortunate that neither the Council nor the Human Resource Development Ministry has taken any serious cognisance of the reports of plagiarism by the authors. It is clear that the new breed of NCERT authors, in their enthusiasm to write books different from what they call the "ancient regime", have paid little attention to intellectual and academic honesty. Not only are most of the new NCERT history books replete with errors and ideological biases, but now they have been found wanting in the area of intellectual scrupulousness and elementary honesty. The least the authors could have done was to have acknowledged the books or the authors they have quoted verbatim in several places. Today, the NCERT stands in the dock for its present culture of education. If it has to salvage its reputation, it along with the HRD Ministry should first stop defending the indefensible.

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