Savarkar Biographer Vikram Sampath Accused of Plagiarism, Historians Say Others' Work Not Cited Fairly

While Sampath denies the charge, Vinayak Chaturvedi, an affected scholar, says Savarkar "set 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."

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New Delhi: Three historians of India based in the United States have accused Vikram Sampath, author of a two-volume biography of Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar, of plagiarism.

In a letter marked to Emma Griffin, president of the Royal Historical Society (RHS) in Britain, which recently admitted Sampath as a member,  Georgetown University professor Ananya Chakravarti; Rohit Chopra from Santa Clara University; and Rutgers University academic Audrey Truschke pointed out multiple sentences from one of Sampath’s articles on Savarkar, published in 2017, which they say have either been directly reproduced verbatim or paraphrased without proper attribution from two articles.

The first is an article written by University of California, Irvine historian Vinayak Chaturvedi’s titled ‘A revolutionary’s biography: The case of VD Savarkar’, published in the refereed journal Postcolonial Studies in 2013  and the second is a 2010 essay, ‘Savarkar (1883–1966), Sedition and Surveillance: The rule of law in a colonial situation’, written by University of California, Berkeley professor Janaki Bakhle and published in the journal Social History.

The three historians also cited similar resemblances between a passage in Sampath’s two-volume biography of Savarkar and an award-winning undergraduate thesis written in 2012 by a Wesleyan University student, Paul Schaffel. All of this amounts to plagiarism, copyright violations and a breach of RHS’s code of ethics, they charge, and want the Society to revisit Sampath’s membership.

In an email to The Wire, however, Sampath, denied the allegations and insisted all the references in his works were duly credited as citations in his works. He added that the allegations made in the letter are “quite thoroughly libelous”, and indicated that he would soon take “due legal recourse”, including against The Wire for reporting its contents.

Prof Vinayak Chaturvedi. Photo: uic.edu

The Wire reached out to Bakhle and Chaturvedi – neither of whom had initiated the complaint – to ask for their response to Sampath’s explanation and whether they believed their work was plagiarised or improperly/inadequately cited.

While Bakhle’s reply is awaited, Chaturvedi said, “It is very disappointing to learn about this situation. 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.”

Chaturvedi’s 2013 article begins thus:

“As an intellectual founder of Hindu nationalism, V D Savarkar has emerged as one of the most controversial Indian political thinkers of the twentieth century. His writings on Hindutva have generated a great deal of attention for many decades now…. Interpretations of Indian revolutionary thought are situated within a Western Marxist lineage, so it is generally assumed that Savarkar could neither have been a revolutionary, nor could he have contributed to the making of revolutionary thought. His understanding of revolutionary thought was initially informed by the writings of the Italian political theorist Guiseppe Mazzini, rather than within a Marxist tradition.”

Sampath’s 2017 article begins:

“As an intellectual fountainhead and founder of what is termed as “Hindu nationalism,” Vinayak Damodar Savarkar has emerged as one of the most controversial Indian political thinkers of the 20th Century. His writings on Hindutva have generated a great deal of attention for long… The interpretations that we have had of Indian revolutionary thought are situated almost always within a Western Marxist lineage. Hence it becomes difficult for historians to accept that Savarkar was both a revolutionary and someone who also contributed to the making of a revolutionary thought… Savarkar’s revolutionary inspiration was Italian political theorist Guiseppe Mazzini, rather than Karl Marx and other thinkers of the Marxist ideology.”

While Chaturvedi’s paper is cited in Sampath’s list of references, none of the words and phrases used by Sampath in the passage above are cited as quotations from his work.

In their letter to the RHS, Chakravarti, Chopra and Truschke said that their suspicions were first aroused when they read Sampath’s essay, ‘The Revolutionary Leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’, published in the India Foundation Journal and found that “some of the phrases” were “remarkably similar to the work” of Chaturvedi.

“While Dr. Sampath does cite this essay, he does so in passing without acknowledging that the central thesis is largely borrowed from Dr. Chaturvedi’s earlier (and pioneering) essay,” the historians said in the letter.

They then went on to cite portions from Sampath’s essay which have been lifted from Chaturvedi’s article without attribution or used with very little paraphrasing in a manner that was similar to, the historians said, “callow undergraduate students who seek unsuccessfully to evade plagiarism detection software”.

The letter also mentions that Sampath’s essay was found to be “roughly 50%” plagiarised by a plagiarism detection software, almost half of which came from Chaturvedi and Bakhle’s articles.

Instances of alleged plagiarism in Vikram Sampath’s article. Photo: Excerpt from letter to RHS

“The sheer number of lifted sentences and ideas in the five-page essay,” the historians said, prompted them to probe his recently published two-volume biography on Savarkar: Savarkar: Echoes From A Forgotten Past, 1883–1924 and Savarkar: A Contested Legacy 1924–1966. Upon checking for plagiarised content in the books, the historians said that they “found that apart from established scholars like Dr. Chaturvedi [and] deceased eminent historians like R.C. Majumdar, Dr. Sampath did not spare even the work of a deceased undergraduate from his predations”.

Drawing comparison between Sampath’s first volume of the biography of Savarkar and Paul Schaffel’s thesis submitted to Wesleyan University in 2012, the three historians cite the following paragraphs from both the works that are quite similar.

Mr. Schaffel (2012): “A.M. Shah describes the Indian Sociologist as only ‘mild in its criticism of British Rule,’ pointing to Krishnavarma’s common statement that “India and England should sever their connection peaceably and part as friends.” The Indian Sociologist appears to have circulated widely, both in Great Britain, India, and the United States, even after the British authorities attempted to stop the import of the paper to India in September of 1907, and was read by individuals of all political leanings, including Dadabhai Naoroji and members of the India Office.”

 Dr. Sampath, Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883–1924 (Penguin, 2019): “A.M. Shah describes the Indian Sociologist as only ‘mild in its criticism of British rule’ and points to Shyamji’s statement that ‘India and England should severe (sic) their connection peaceably and part as friends’. It circulated widely in Great Britain, India, and even the United States of America, even after the British tried to prohibit its import from 1907 onward.” p. 2144 

“Dr. Sampath cites the thesis incorrectly as a PhD dissertation in his bibliography, but does not attribute this section to Mr. Schaffel, in a familiar pattern,” the historians allege in the letter. 

The historians also claim that they have “other examples of similar violations” by Sampath but have only shared their preliminary findings with the Royal Historical Society with the aim that the society reconsiders Sampath’s membership and puts his body of work under further scrutiny, which the historians say was largely ignored by academics until now, “in part because his publications are largely in non-peer reviewed venues”.

Sampath denies allegations

Speaking to The Wire, Sampath said that the historians, whom he calls a “dubious triumvirate” had “little understanding of what ‘plagiarism’ means or what copyright laws are meant to do.”

He said the India Foundation Journal essay in question wasn’t an academic article but “merely a transcript of a talk” that he delivered at a conference in 2017. 

“I had, at that conference, cited not only my own work but also the works of several other authors with attribution. If you wish to get to the truth of the matter, please feel free to contact the organisers or those who were actually present at the talk from the India Foundation and also speak to those who were in charge of transcribing what I had spoken about. The people who wrote this letter were not present at the event and hence, when the matter is taken to court, as it will be, their testimony is likely to be discounted, as the same is not direct evidence of what transpired,” Sampath said in his response.

“Even a basic perusal of the India Foundation website would clearly reveal that Vinayak Chaturvedi has been copiously cited and attributed, even in this talk transcript, which is not an academic article,” he said. 

“Stray references to alleged plagiarism in my two books, from the likes of Profs/- Vinayak Chaturvedi or Janaki Bakhle or late R.C Majumdar are vague, unsubstantiated slander that do not necessitate to be dignified by any response,” he added.  

On the allegation of lifting portions from the undergraduate thesis, he said that the similarities between his book and Schaffel’s thesis was because both of them used the same source, which is A.M. Shah’s ‘The Indian Sociologist, 1905-14, 1920-22’ published in Economic and Political Weekly (2006). “A perusal of Mr. Schaffel’s thesis would indicate that he has also referenced the exact same article. In view of this matter, I fail to understand how it can be construed as plagiarism. I could not possibly have divined that the late Mr. Schaffel would be reading the same EPW article that I did!,” Sampath said.

Sampath said he has cited the source in the bibliography and endnotes of his book, although he did not respond to the specific allegation of missing “immediate citation”. The three historians alleged that most of the portions which were found to be “plagiarised” were cited only in “passing” without acknowledgement of the borrowed ideas or proper credit standardised by the global academia.

“Furthermore, just to avoid charges of ‘plagiarism’, I cannot make Savarkar jump ship off the North Sea coast of Germany instead of Marseilles. So pointing these portions that are factual truisms that would be common to ANY account on Savarkar – biography or article, as proof of plagiarism shows the extremely poor comprehension skills and scholarship standards of the people who have penned that dubious, motivated letter,” Sampath said.

Responding to the accusation that his work also bore similarities with Bakhle’s essay, he said that Bakhle herself had reviewed his book in 2019 for India Today and “does not seem to share the opinion of this triumvirate”.

“It is a mixed assessment of the book, but nowhere have any allegations of plagiarism been mentioned by her. It is completely unimaginable that someone who is directly affected by such plagiarism from her work, if at all, and unlike this triumvirate, would not have raised a howler [sic] if she had found any part of her work being lifted with impunity,” he said, adding that the letter was “yet another smear campaign in the long list of hit jobs” against him by people whose only motive is to “defame” him and “devalue the scholarship of my work”.

Historians defend their allegations against Sampath

When The Wire shared Sampath’s response with them, the three historians defended their letter to the RHS. Truschke noted that most universities outline “three basic kinds of plagiarism: using a source’s language without quoting, using information from a source without attribution, and paraphrasing a source in a form that stays too close to the original.”

Chakrabarti added, “According to the standards of my own university, I would be forced to report Dr. Sampath for his shoddy citational practices and blatant plagiarism. Lifting the words of others verbatim without immediate attribution (not merely putting it in the bibliography) qualifies, as does taking the ideas of others without acknowledging their original source, or paraphrasing material. (As example two here shows, a footnote without quotation mark, is insufficient.) Indeed, Dr. Sampath has demonstrated all these malpractices in his work.”

She went on to point out yet another example where Sampath’s work is reproduced almost verbatim from the late nationalist historian R.C.Majumdar.

Dr. Majumdar (1966): “The Moderates, though not wholly satisfied, stood for ungrudging and whole-hearted co-operation for working it as successfully as possible within the limited sphere. A strong section was inclined to reject it altogether. But Tilak, who dominated the Nationalist Party and the Congress, stuck to the middle way all along advocated by him.” p. 50 Dr. Sampath (2019): “The moderates, though not fully satisfied, advocated ungrudging cooperation within the contours of the new reforms to help them succeed. A strong section was inclined to reject it altogether. Tilak, who by then dominated the Congress after the death of Gokhale in 1915, stuck to a middle path of ‘Responsive Cooperation’ that would depend on how the government acted on each of its promises.” pp. 738–39

Chopra’s response also echoed the same sentiments articulated by his peers. “While I have no way of ascertaining Sampath’s psychological state at the time he produced these works, I should point out that unintended plagiarism also constitutes plagiarism and is not by any means a valid exculpatory argument. I am sharing an article which Sampath may want to read, which, among other things, lists UGC criteria for what constitutes plagiarism in Indian universities,” he said while sharing the UGC norms on plagiarism.

India Foundation Journal article a ‘transcript’?

While Sampath says his article in the India Foundation Journal is not an ‘essay’ or an academic journal article but “merely a transcript of a talk I delivered”, Chakravarti said this was not a valid response to the charge of plagiarism. “To claim it is a transcript of a speech would not be a defence; many of us are asked to publish keynotes and other talks, and we all routinely verify and check footnotes before it goes to print.”

While the India Foundation Journal says in an asterisked footnote, ‘This paper was presented by Dr. Vikram Sampath at the national seminar on ‘Revisiting Indian Independence Movement’ organised by India Foundation at New Delhi on 18th March, 2017,’ it does not state the text to be a transcript, as Sampath claimed.

Moreover, the impugned article contains seven references and 13 footnotes and it is hard to imagine how they could be part of a ‘transcript’ unless Sampath read them out at each point in his talk – something scholars who deliver talks never do – so that they could be ‘transcribed’. If the footnotes were added after, as part of the publishing process, this may call into question Sampath’s ‘merely a transcript’ defence.

In one of Sampath’s paragraphs with three footnotes, not only is the text virtually identical to Chaturvedi but so are the footnotes:

Comparison of a passage and its associated footnotes between Vikram Sampath and Vinayak Chaturvedi.

While the book by Bayly figures among the seven works referenced by Sampath, [Benedict] Anderson’s Under Three Flags does not.