Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ananya Vajpeyi's slander piece in World Policy Journal, and why it made me angry

When an international "policy journal" run by Duke University Press, focusing on "thought leadership and new ideas" publishes a piece full of pure slander, I invest 30 minutes in writing out a rebuttal on why this is all wrong.

Here is the article:

And here is my response to the editors. More than the author, I am angry with the editorial board that claims to run a prestigious  publication and allows such trash to be published: (My writeup refers to the article in a lot of places, but I have reproduced content here, so if you want, you can go back and read there, or read here. Both are fine) :

If this is a scholarly publication, or claims to be, the least it can do is verify the veracity of its publications. This is an  article that does not deserve to be in a tabloid, much less in a "scholarly" publication. "About us" of your publications mentions " Fresh Ideas" - I am guessing that fact does not have to be absolutely discounted in presenting these fresh ideas.

If you are a publication in the pursuit of propaganda, please let me know and I will correct my feedback immediately. But it appears to me that that is not the case.

I cannot even start to point out the sheer factual inaccuracies in this article. The very first paragraph had me laughing. So I will share my first chuckle with you:

"For at least the past two and half millennia, Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists have considered the sign auspicious. But in the 1920s, the National Socialist Party in Germany adopted it, rotating it to give it a diagonal orientation. Ever since, outside of Asian ritual settings, the association with Nazis has stigmatized the symbol."
- Outside Asian ritual settings? Are you insane? A symbol that is auspicious and good for 2500 years will be sullied for all 7 bn people of the world because one party in one country adopted it ? And you decide what the perception of the population is? I am sorry.. where did you get that information? I don't recall. I don't think it was quoted in the article. How the Swastika is viewed in the Western world does not determine how, and in what context, it is viewed in the Eastern, Southern and Northern world. (and you cannot presume the West's perception either. Unless you run a poll and ask people what they associate the symbol with. That's data. And you don't have it)

"And so, until recently, Sanskrit had settled into a kind of quiescence (seemingly even an obsolescence)".
- As FIJ goes, presumed non action by the state, that too on one data point, goes into the realm of judgement (that means: An opinion expressed completely unsubstantiated by data). I will readily provide data that indicates the no. of students that actively learnt Sanskrit - both as part of the mandatory (state driven) school curriculum and voluntarily, but that would be doing the homework of the editorial team for you. And I am not getting paid for that. You are. So tell me, what was the verification you did before allowing an article to use a word like "Obsolescence?"

"Only in the past two to three years, with the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has Sanskrit re-entered the public imagination as part of the “culture wars” between the Hindu right and secular left."
- Please substantiate this statement. How have you decided that there is a cultural war in place here? Allow me to explain. The left, by its own admission, has no subscription to any culture. Therefore, its war can be ideological. Not cultural. IF such a "war" exists (and your editorial team should have a way to explain this war, because even in the capital of the country, I don't see it), you have to also specify how Sanskrit was "a part of" - was it a weapon? Was it an ideological debate? Is an ideological debate of the inclusion or lack thereof, of a language, by itself a bad thing? Is debate a negative word in the definition of the author and the editorial board?

"The ruling party is now fighting to legitimate the two cornerstones of its interpretation of Hindu culture: caste and Sanskrit. These ideas constitute an assault on the more egalitarian, pluralist, participatory, and progressive visions of political modernity that have prevailed since India’s founding. "
- Really? If this is not slander, I would like to know what is. If I was a part of the government, I would send you a legal notice for slander. Please do not make accusations that you cannot substantiate. And you cannot. I live in India, and am a fairly aware citizen. This is not in the grey area of opinion. This is in that black hole of pure slander. Once again, if I was paid to be on the editorial team, I would provide you with evidence of legislative measures that have been taken to work against the caste divide (which, by the way, has a history of its own - that I am not paid to educate you on. So I won't). So if that lawsuit of slander comes up, you are likely to lose it. Because you did not do your homework.

"The ghosts of the caste system and of Sanskrit have now returned to haunt the Indian polity.  "
- And just like that, in one sentence, she equates the caste system with Sanskrit. And your editors were doing ...what?

"The point is to prove that Hinduism pre-dates not only all of the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) but also all other Indic religions (Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism). "
- Please check your history on this sentence. It is too ridiculous for me to even make a comment. Read a few books on ancient Indian history. Check a few manuscripts with our excellent museums. Or ask your authors to do that and send evidence to you. It is one thing to interpret history in one way and arrive at a different conclusion based on the same facts. Quite another to discount facts entirely and arrive at a guess of what the government or some imagined "enemy" is trying to do.

Pushing back against this insistence on the centrality of Sanskrit are Indian secularists (for whom the language’s overwhelmingly Hindu baggage weighs it down), liberals (who are uncomfortable with its non-modern provenance), leftists (who object to the ideologies of social inequality embedded in Sanskrit texts), feminists (who deem it a repository of patriarchal values), and Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables, who see Sanskrit as inseparable from the caste system, the language of Brahmin domination over the rest of Hindu society).
- Source of this data please. These are opinions expressed on behalf of a group of people. I am not sure if this kind of unsolicited representation of the opinion of vast groups of people is allowed. I would not do it. In at least 3 cases, the author is equating content of texts with the language - I am not sure if I can hold English responsible for the actions of the British Empire. Are you? Is English responsible for the content available in that language? Is English responsible for what was written in it 2500 years ago? I don't think so. Neither is Sanskrit.  The language is not the content. Basic logical fallacy.

Even many of those who know and appreciate the Sanskrit corpus for the wealth of its knowledge systems, the aesthetics of its literary genres, the beauty of its poetry, the brilliance of its thought, the regularity of its grammar, and the profundity of its insights have a hard time defending it against the charges leveled by its many detractors.
- Who wants to defend? And why?

"Since Modi came to power, the BJP government has made Sanskrit a key component of its goal to recast the secular Republic of India as the “Hindu Rashtra”—"
- to this I have the greatest objection. Please produce the government document that even mentions the idea of a Hindu Rashtra. This is slander against the government of India.

Guru Utsav”—literally “Festival of the Guru" ” a name with strong Hindu connotations.
- So what exactly is the word "Guru" doing in the Oxford English Dictionary? Did we Hindu-ise the Oxford Dictionary in the last 3 years? I don't think so.. the word was an English word long before then. The word has Indian origins and we cannot deny the word its origin. Nor can we fault the word for where it came from. Can we say that calling it Teacher's Day smacks of an effort to make India a British colony?

"By encouraging Sanskrit studies at the IITs, Modi’s party wants to drive home the “modern,” “rational,” and “scientific” capacities of Sanskrit, thereby dislodging it from its received status as an artifact of the ancient world, and instead project it as the most appropriate and empowering idiom for 21st century India. "
- Once again, dear Editorial Team, do some homework. "received status" - received from whom? The author? How can a language have a received status? What is the received status of Tamil? Hebrew? English?

"Today Sanskrit has come out of the ivory tower and descended onto the cultural battlefield. It’s time that scholars and academics did the same."
- Thank you, dear author and the editorial team, for the unnecessary invitation. There was no ivory tower for Sanskrit except in your own head. There is no cultural battlefield except in your article. And if I asked you to even define both these terms and the context in which they have been used in this article, my guess is that words and data would both fail you. 

Therefore, dear editors - please correct my understanding. Are you a scholarly journal, or are you a political agenda tabloid? Because as the Indian book on public administration says - politics is not the same as policy. But this article - falls neither under good politics, nor input to policy. This is propaganda. And I have invested 30 precious minutes to give you this feedback, assuming that you are a publication that cares about feedback. If this helps you improve your editorial practices and get back to authors with improved guidelines, it will help everyone - most of all, the readers who might come to this journal looking for thought leadership, not slander.


How do we know said...

Prof GN Jha Sir
(Chair Person, SCSS, JNU) Dear colleagues, Ananya Vajpai a student of Sheldon Pollock recently wrote a nasty criticism of Sanskrit, JNU's Sanskrit center, Modi ji and BJP. I sent her and the Indology community the following response. Please read her article and the response -

Dear Ananya

On a first look, I would have safely ignored your article ( as just another leftist rant, but since you mentioned JNU and its Sanskrit center, I had to jot down some quick remarks as response. Here are they (somebody should forward it to the Indology group because I am not a member there)

First impression - your article appears to be an anti-BJP and pro-Pollock pamphlet and not a scholarly piece at all. A typical Hindu-phobic pro-left rhetoric that's all one can say about your article!

Our building is 'swastika' shaped in the good sense that it is known in the whole of India. Swastika does not become a stigma for India just because some German fanatic misrepresents it. Most other buildings in JNU follow some western architecture. In your opinion should that be preferable to using any native designs for architecture on Indian campuses?

Later in your article, you have faintly suggested Sanskrit center as casteist, communal etc. But you do not know that we have helped in developing the first English-Urdu Machine Translation for Microsoft Bing Translator in the Sanskrit center of JNU. We are leading Indian government's corpora development initiative for Indian languages on a server based platform. Please check it out at at and for details. This in my view is the meaning and power of Indian swastika and Sanskrit - taking along everyone. Sadly, the brand of scholarship you represent does want to understand this.

Sanskrit studies in India have nothing to do with elitism of any kind whatsoever. You are most welcome to visit our center in JNU to witness it.

The claim that Sanskrit has re-entered the popular imagination in in last 3 years or so is a fiction and smacks of a certain kind of argument that scholars like you take against any well meaning government. Do you have any data to support this argument?

Sanskrit does not represent high caste or culture at all. Please collect data from the 17 universities and 150 departments of Sanskrit and revise your article accordingly.

Sanskrit has done a great job in uniting India. You portray a completely altered image of it for reasons best known to you.

Please read the arguments given by our national leaders who supported Sanskrit in place of Hindi as the national official language.

Sanskrit does not have 'Brahmin domination'. Dr Ambedkar was a strong votary of Sanskrit and not one as you have projected him to be.

Though i admire scholars like Prof Pollock for their work on Sanskrit based Indology, but I seriously doubt the capacity of such scholars to read and interpret historical culture texts of Sanskrit. However, you have devoted at least three paragraphs in praising Prof Pollock. And I wonder if this was one of the objectives of your article.

By 'naturalizing' Sanskrit words in English, these words do not 'become' English words. They maintain their identity, as we maintain our identity in a foreign land. If the objective is to mis-appropriate these, then you may be simply day-dreaming.

And again, the rest of the article is simply anti-BJP masala and nothing else. If any government wants to promote Indian symbols and things (every other country in the world does it), then you have a problem. I am sure concepts like guru or yoga or ayurveda or kali-puja will be promoted even by the leftists if they ever come to power in India.

Please do not link Sanskrit to a fictitious 'cultural battle field'. Let us say no to paid-scholarship and work towards building a genuine rational logical scholarship which benefits us and also the rest of the world.

Thank you.

Onkar said...

Thoughtful response

How do we know said...

Thank you sir!