Wherever Rajiv Malhotra goes, controversy unfailingly follows. The self-taught social scientist who is an important ideologue for the political right delivered a talk at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai on January 29, and it quickly devolved into a hail of accusations at his audience.
Since then, US-based Malhotra and others have accused some of the attending students of being uncritical leftist goons and missionary agents who cannot engage with his views in a calm academic manner. This article is a response to this accusation.
The topic of the talk was colonialism in the social sciences, and how social scientists and Indologists view aspects of Indian culture pertaining to dharma, Sanskrit and Hindu scriptures. Malhotra, who speaks and writes particularly on Dharmic religion and Hindu philosophy, made an argument that could be summed up thus:
* The analysis of Indian society made by social scientists has been inadequate. This is as true for the spread of Sanskrit, and the restricted learning in India due to the presence of a caste system.
* Social scientists use foreign structures and ideas to understand Indian society. Their analysis uncritically borrows from colonisers to highlight only the problems within. The reason for this is that Indian social scientists are unthinking elites infused with money and ideas from America/colonisers. This is also why these colonised social scientists never speak of the problems in US society, such as the prejudice faced by “blacks, the Hispanics and the indigenous”.
In the later part of the talk, Malhotra claimed that China progressed due to its pride in its history. The division between the Left and the Right as political ideologies, he said, is futile. There was also a bit where he spoke of appropriation of black street culture and the Hispanic confusion about whom to appropriate. The speaker was self-professedly trying to reverse the gaze on the colonisers.
Malhotra’s talk was dotted with terms such as cultural capital, literarisation and aestheticisation, and he dropped names like Pierre Bourdieu and Walter Benjamin. In the midst of all this, however, he left out details. Who are the social scientists writing on India he disagrees with? What are their specific observations, arguments or the evidences used by them? And what (if any) is the basis for his contention with these academicians? Instead, the author of books such as Indra’s Net: Defending Hinduism’s Philosophical Unityand the recently published Battle for Sanskrit used an unhelpful analogy: Indian social scientists are like dogs that are trained to stay within a perimeter with a tracking collar and electric shocks.
As useless as that were his answers to the questions posed by the students after the address. Asked about his reported history of plagiarism, he dismissed it as a hegemonic American concept. Indeed, one cannot plagiarise ideas, he said. As an apparent defence, he added that there was a copy editing mistake, which didn’t account for the block quotes that he had used but forgotten to indent.
Despite our “militant” character, we students sat through the hour and a half long lecture. So inspired were we that a student even asked Malhotra to move on to other questions. But upon hearing the suggestion, he called the students unthinking parrots and asked them to shut up.
The session then moved on to a harmless question: on what basis do you claim that Hindu Dharma is superior and yet not speak of its justification of oppressive systems, such as caste? Describing the question as a tough one, he said there are good and bad things in society – the problem is that, unlike China, we don’t have a unified grand narrative of history. When some in the audience said the response was inadequate, Malhotra asked the name of the student who raised the query. Rohith Vemula, came the reply. Bemused at the applause from some in the audience, Malhotra said, “I am informed that I am talking to a dead person, and it is nice to know that I have a direct line to heaven.” (Curiously, this exchange is absent from the YouTube video. Check cuts at 1:21:19 and at 1:22:10.)
Towards the end of the session, when he was asked his opinion about whether Ambedkar has been understood clearly, Malhotra yet again took refuge in ambiguity – Ambedkar was a complex person, he said, and many of his documents during his formative years are still to be understood.
An audience divided
Altogether, the arguments and tenor of Malhotra’s talk at TISS were hollow. Worse than that, his responses – and the reaction of some audience members supportive of him – were provocative and malicious. They were intended to provoke students, and fracture student solidarity within TISS, which is part of the larger student movement led by the struggle of the Dalit scholars at University of Hyderabad. It is not unsurprising then that the students in the audience were agitated. At the end of the talk, when some students sloganeered “Brahmanvaad murdabad” (down with Brahmanism), it was met with vociferous chants of “Vande Mataram” by a section of audience supportive of the speaker (many of whom had come from outside the campus) .
Now that the dust has settled, a few things must be put before Malhotra and his supporters. Contrary to your assumptions, we are not an unthinking mass of colonised social scientists. Nor are we gullible. The use of ambiguous and out-of-context terms – colonial, postcolonial or otherwise – are not an effective counter to the rigorous analyses and criticisms of Indian society by BR Ambedkar, Sheldon Pollock, Rahul Sankrityayan, Debiprasad Chattopadhyay and many others. Also, a student who says he is Rohith Vemula and claims your response to caste is inadequate is pointing out the two-facedness of your analysis of Hindu Dharma. This criticism cannot be countered or diffused by a taunt that we are toeing a colonial American line.
Further, there is no ambiguity or lack of clarity in Ambedkar’s work when he indicts caste and Hindu Dharma as being anti-modern and oppressive to the millions who could never achieve political, social and economic justice until it was uprooted. Nor does shouting slogans against caste mean we are anti-national. Rather it is the exact statement of an ideal that we think our nation and society should aspire to be. And no, China has nothing to do with it