The plagiarism parampara and the guru-shishya tradition

A guru, according to Upanishadic interpretation, is the one who has the power to dispel darkness. Today’s post, about a guru and her student, comes from the district of Bhagalpur in Bihar. Those of you who know your modern history will not miss the allusion I try to draw to the Bhagalpur blindings of 1980 — one of the most horrific and shameful incidents of modern India.

But I digress. And I also give you fair warning that this is a long post!

Plagiarism in social science research in India is an issue that doesn’t come up often enough in discussion when discussing academic rigour and the quality of higher education here. Even so, the usual complaints are directed at students, who are accused of non-attribution, or incorrect attribution, while presenting their research. It is incredibly rare to encounter the reverse, where a student openly accuses a teacher of stealing a text, and passing it off as her own; and it is, surely, rarer still to have an allegedly plagiarised text form the subject of a copyright infringement case in a court of law!

All of this forms part of this very interesting decision of the Patna High Court (Roma Mitra vs State of Bihar) I chanced upon on that incredible website, . At the outset, I must warn you that this case fell through on fairly ordinary grounds — of limitation — for the complaint was filed too late to be taken cognizance of. Nevertheless, it is an ugly case of allegation and counter-allegation, and it may be a disturbing case to read for some.

NB: It’s also interesting that a similar story should have cropped up in Germany, as reported by IPKat recently.

The facts, briefly —

The complainant, Sutapa Bhattacharya completed her PhD from Bhagalpur University in Bihar in 1988 on “Political Mobilization and caste conflict in Bihar since 1967 to 1980 – a survey”. The thesis was supervised by Roma Mitra, a professor at the university. Bhattacharya soon moved to Kolkata, West Bengal, and visited Bhagalpur in 2000. In that visit, she got a copy of a book authored by Mitra titled “Caste Polarisation and Politics”, which was first published in 1992. Bhattacharya discovered that “the book was virtually copied from [her] thesis”. A complaint for cheating (under the Indian Penal Code), and copyright infringement and related offences was filed in 2000, which was taken cognizance of by the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhagalpur.

Mitra, the petitioner in the present case, moved the Patna High Court against the order of the Magistrate. Here, she made several arguments, including the following:

  1. “In a case of a guide and disciple the allegation of copying from the thesis by the guide cannot be applicable unless it is a case of exact copying from the thesis.”
  2. The Magistrate, whose order of cognizance was challenged, had not held that it was exact copy of the complainant’s thesis, but there was some similarity of the contents.
  3. That the thesis was prepared under her supervision.
  4. It was her ideas and language which had been adopted by the student, and not vice versa.
  5. She had published several articles and books on the same subject well before her student’s thesis had been written up.
  6. She had also given the complainant access to some unpublished manuscripts, which was allegedly “borrowed” while writing the thesis.
  7. Finally, she argued that this case was out of the period of limitation under the Code of Criminal Procedure (the book was published in 1992; the complaint was filed in 2000).

On that last point, the complainant tried to argue that limitation was to be considered from the date of knowledge (i.e., 2000), and not from the date of commission of the offence (i.e., 1992). This argument did not stand with the High Court, who held that the Magistrate, while taking cognizance of the offence, had not passed any order on the point of limitation.

“Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; copy from two, it’s research.*Wilson Mizner

I choose not to discuss plagiarism in the Indian university classroom here in much detail, for it is unlikely that I will be able to do justice to such a discussion in much measure. Also because, a recent issue of EPW ran a series of articles precisely this subject, which covers the field much better, which you can download and read here, here and here.

At best, I can offer a very personal comment: having studied the social sciences at a post-secondary level in two fairly highly regarded Indian institutions, and two equally well-regarded non-Indian ones, I realise that there is negligible awareness of plagiarism in Indian academia. Hardly anyone cared to educate us about the protocol of citation, let alone the difference in various citation formats. (Image from here).

In stark contrast, the first “orientation” lectures my cohort was delivered in both the non-Indian universities I attended were special classes held the Faculty Dean — on plagiarism, and the rather scary rustication rules that would be followed if anyone were found to have submitted something incorrectly. Those lectures kept us on our toes the rest of the year, and I don’t recall any untoward incidents. It would be a useful “orientation” model to follow here at home too. What do you think?


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