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Why the Left Ecosystem Loves to Attack Vikram Sampath, Sanjeev Sanyal

Having so far monopolised the discourse on Savarkar, the Left have created a clever tool of self-perpetuation, argues Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (In pic: Vikram Sampath's book, Savarkar: A Contested Legacy)

Having so far monopolised the discourse on Savarkar, the Left have created a clever tool of self-perpetuation, argues Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (In pic: Vikram Sampath's book, Savarkar: A Contested Legacy)

For an outsider to author the most comprehensive and authoritative work on the leftist bete-noir Savarkar is like a rival gang moving into Pablo Escobar’s territory

The Left ecosystem seems to be becoming increasingly unhinged. Their usual tactic of ignoring their opponent’s arguments and creating closed citation loops that preclude anyone from accessing sources not originating from their cabal is clearly not working anymore. Consequently, they are now trying to discredit anyone who writes about anything that is not from their own stable. Sadly, the process seems to have backfired quite spectacularly. Not only has it led to greater attention and book sales of their intended targets, but also exposes the deep methodological flaws and fallacies of their own arguments. Clearly, the fortress walls are about to be breached.

The two latest victims of this concerted attack are historian Vikram Sampath and policymaker and author Sanjeev Sanyal. Their books on modern and ancient history provide an important counter-narrative to what has so far been a complete monopoly of the Left on academic syllabi and publishing houses ever since Indira Gandhi apparently entered a Faustian contract with the Left giving them absolute control of academia in India.

These attacks have a very careful modus operandi. The “big names” of the Left avoid attacking them, but employ the underdogs who fall over each other to please the “big names” in order to ingratiate themselves, get scholarships and possibly overseas academic postings. Mind you, the “overdogs” if we can call them that actually orchestrate the attack, but don’t actually carry the attacks out for fear of giving the victim publicity. Mostly the role of the overdog is to silently call editors, endorsers and publishers and subtly cajole or threaten them. This time however while largely sticking to the attack pattern, the level of attacks escalated to the “middle dogs”, indicating the sheer desperation in the Left camp. A few more books by Sampath and Sanyal, and we’ll have the overdogs howling as well.

The attacks on Sanyal have followed a standard pattern — they don’t contest his objective facts, they contest the subjective contextualisation of those facts, the subtext being “my contextualisation is trained, your contextualisation is untrained and therefore unscholarly”. Basically, they are the self-proclaimed weights and measures board of India and the Halal Board of India, who will determine the weightage that should be given to what facts, and what facts are halal and what haram.

The attacks on Sampath have followed a slightly different variation on the theme. Some no name alleged “historian”, who literally nobody has heard of, writing in a rag that nobody knew existed, attacked his methodology claiming he has used Savarkar’s self-narratives as the sole if not main source. The argument is facetious on three counts — first for a piece claiming that external referencing is inadequate, the author provides no quotes from Sampath’s book, or specific counter quotes from allegedly contradictory books. Essentially what the author does is condense what he thinks Sampath is saying — creating a strawman, and then destroying it with an equally vague condensed counter shorn of specific quotes.

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Second is how he disagrees with Sampath’s external quotes (contradicting himself saying earlier that Sampath did not reference externally), passing off interpretative, subjective differences as objective, methodological ones given that even a cursory glance at Sampath’s books will show copious external references. Third, even in terms of methodology, self-narratives are an important part of any biography, as they are the most reliable insight into what the subject of said biography was thinking. For example, Srinath Raghavan’s impressive works on Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign and defence policy quote extensively from Nehru’s own writings on the subject, while Tripurdaman Singh and Adeel Hussain’s magnum opus on Nehru depends entirely on Nehru’s own correspondences with Iqbal, Jinnah, Patel and Mukherjee.

Therein lies the mortal danger to Left-wing quacks. Having so far monopolised the discourse on Savarkar, they have created a clever tool of self-perpetuation — the citation loop. The way a citation loop works is, essentially, as an academic equivalent of a drug cartel. It sources only those views that are convenient, and excludes disliked personalities and views. For an outsider to author the most comprehensive and authoritative work on the leftist bete-noir Savarkar is like a rival gang moving into Pablo Escobar’s territory — and naturally they react exactly like Escobar would.

Sampath’s books threaten their livelihoods, sources of income and narrative control. On the one hand, the copious primary source material means that they have to reference it in any future book on Savarkar they write. They can no longer editorialise or de-contextualise with impunity, as their academic chicanery will be caught and called out with a handy reference not requiring painstaking journeys to libraries and archives. This is a dilemma for them. On the one hand they can no longer fib, on the other their academic progress depends on continuing to distort with impunity.

Notice the main criticism that no-name alleged “historian” writing in a nobody-knows leftist rag makes is that the diversity sources aren’t the sources that he/she believes should be quoted, neither are the interpretations. In effect, what Sampath has shown is that you can write incredible, primary source histories, without having to reference the Left. What Sampath has done to the Left historian cartel is not just grabbed their prime territory, but also evicted them entirely from it, with brutality and decisiveness that would make Stalin look like an amateur.

The fightback however has started. An Oxbridge “professor” (described by a major Left-wing editor in private as a “spare wheel”) who bears an uncanny resemblance to mentally disturbed German film personality Klaus Kinsky publicised an event that was meant to take down Sampath’s book. The event was curious because it included one of the Left’s medium-weight hitters combined with an unheard of “poet”, “filmmaker”, “writers” and even more obscure low-level “researchers”, unsurprisingly all Muslim, save for the token alleged Hindu — not unlike how a modern day Klu-Klux-Klan coven would require a token coloured to show “we are not racist”. Needless to say, the irony of having a panel with roadside dramatists, and tea stall poets talking about a book whose author is being called out for not being a “historian” is lost on nobody. The problem is this has gone beyond irony into comedy — much like Dave Chapelle’s caricature of a blind black man who tries to join the KKK having been brought up to believe he is white.

While Chappelle is intentionally funny, this particular parliament of clowns is unintentionally funny, but also deeply sinister. The puppeteers who dominate this scene are vicious. Only a few years back, a scholar who had written a fantastic volume on a certain Malyalee bureaucrat and welder of the Indian Union, made the cardinal error of calling a BJP minister among others to release the book. Said scholar should have known trouble was brewing, when the mentor of the book pulled out at the last minute after hearing the BJP politician’s name citing a medical procedure that everyone knows cannot be scheduled without several weeks’ notice.

Unsurprisingly when a controversy broke out over the BJP minister’s speech, the mentor joined, indeed led the attacks on his erstwhile protégé. A few weeks later the organisers of India’s self-proclaimed “pre-eminent” literature festival informed the author that they would not be getting either a stand-alone slot or even a speaking slot, but rather would only be made a moderator where the book could be “self-publicised for a few seconds”. Obviously, the scholar having a great degree of self-respect politely declined, only to be met with a series of threatening and outright derisive emails and phone calls on said scholar’s “ingratitude” followed by desperate calls from the publisher warning said scholar not to antagonise these “powerful people”.

I have a personal history with his “pre-eminence” having written a saucy column comparing him to a certain female journalist who is yet to provide a single shred of evidence for anything she has ever written, another who concocted an interview with a former defence minister out of thin air; another whose only claim to fame is her father’s connection to Information and Broadcasting; and yet others whose research was done between Khan Market and the café of the Italian Cultural Centre. Within minutes of publication, my editor and her boss started giving me panicked calls.

Apparently, his “pre-eminence” was horrified to be compared to these “unworthy Khan Market people” — people he normally lauds on his Twitter timeline, but clearly despises in private as underneath him. Having threatened my editors with blackballing, blacklisting and everything under the sun, I realised the pressure on them was unfair and consented to his name being removed from my public list of ridicule. That was the first time I realised how seriously the Left takes anything the Right writes and how far they will go to censor them.

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Clearly, much like “pre-eminent historian” and “pre-eminent lit-fest” — these eminences-grises have been piling up intense pressure privately on Faisal Devji, to first water down and perhaps, ultimately retract his rich endorsement of Sampath’s book by shaming and bullying him. Worse, long, comical threads on Facebook and Twitter discuss strategies to investigate and mount pressure on the prestigious Royal Historical Society that recently elected Sampath as a Fellow, to disenfranchise him.

This obviously isn’t the end of these attacks whose calibre and viciousness will slowly and surely build up, mostly because Sampath poses such a formidable threat that if they do not destroy him, they will destroy themselves. To quote Gandhi, this has become their “do or die” moment. Sanyal escaped the worst of this because being a policy wonk in government, there are limits to what you can do to him. But with Sampath the lines have crossed so far that he is now the subject of hate mails, crank calls to him and his family, even ominous deliveries and late-night knocks on the door.

The big question is if everybody is going to pretend nothing is happening, and continue to revere the truly execrable pre-eminences coordinating this attack, or if someone will actually stand up and say enough is enough.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:February 14, 2022, 16:11 IST