I have recently wondered how Vinayak Damodar Savarkar would have interpreted contemporary discussions about plagiarism and copyright violations. A letter that is part of the “VD Savarkar Papers” in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library provides some clues about Savarkar’s position.

On June 27, 1940, Savarkar, as the president of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, wrote to Mahasabha secretary Indra Prakash stating that he had given permission to several individuals to translate Essentials of Hindutva into Tamil, Telegu, Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali. Savarkar explained that he offered translation rights for free with the agreement that the translators would provide him copies of the texts once they were published.

In addition, he told Prakash that he had communicated with individuals who were reprinting his books or writing texts that included extensive direct quotations from his writings. He explained that these authors agreed to send the final text for review by Savarkar before it was made available to the public – presumably Savarkar wanted to ensure that he was being cited correctly. Savarkar states, “That is all that I expect for the time being as the remuneration of the author or the copyright.”

However, Savarkar was upset that the authors and translators were violating the terms of their agreement with him. Moreover, they were breaking established copyright rules and he was not receiving any royalties. For Savarkar, this was not acceptable behaviour from those who should have known better.

In every undergraduate and graduate class that I teach, I review the university’s guidelines for academic integrity with my students. No matter how many times I explain the guidelines and penalties to students, every term I must spend numerous hours filling out forms as required by the university for any student found to have violated the policies.

Plagiarism has proliferated beyond what anyone could have anticipated. For habitual offenders, there are meetings and interviews with counsellors. A student must be caught four or five times before anything serious happens. And students know this to be the case. So, the cycle continues.

Rebecca Moore Howard, in her important article “Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty,” College English, 57, 7 (1995), 788-806, argues that the contemporary “textual economy” requires a different approach to plagiarism than in the past. Students caught copying sentences or parts of sentences and adding a few words here and there – or what she calls “patchwriting” – should be given an opportunity to learn how to write and cite properly as per normative academic standards.

To teach a student that patchwriting is a form of plagiarism is a starting point. She argues against subjecting students to the academic death penalty as punishment for all cases. On the other hand, she also argues against leniency for students who refuse to maintain academic integrity. Every incident needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis, especially for teenagers who may not have had proper training in high school.

In 17th century-19th century Maharashtra, there was an established genre of historical writing called bakhars in which it was quite common for one author to copy and integrate an earlier author’s writings as their own. Savarkar, of course, was well-versed in reading bakhars, as they were introduced to him by his father Damodarpant Savarkar. He also cites bakhars in his work.

But when it came to his own writings and publications, he clearly situated himself in a textual economy of the twentieth century in which copyright rules and royalties were to be respected and paid.

Would Savarkar have allowed anyone to copy parts of one of his essays, change a few words, retitle it, republish it, and then claim them as their own? I doubt it. Savarkar’s family members should be very concerned that in 2026 – 60 years after his death – the copyright on Savarkar’s writings will expire. And there will likely be many who will claim Savarkar’s writings as their own following the established patterns of copying verbatim and patchwriting that exists in India today

The current situation is worsened by the fact that the Government of India allows authors the ability to plagiarise 10% of a dissertation, article, or book from other works. Percentages determine the shade of plagiarism according to the University Grants Commission. The 10% rule also applies for student work.

A text with 10%-40% plagiarism will result in a student having to revise and resubmit work, while 40%-60% plagiarism results in a one-year suspension. The consequence of plagiarising more than 60% is expulsion from the university. It is no wonder that some writers have no sense of what constitutes the normative academic understanding of plagiarism used by universities and presses across the world.

In my reading of Savarkar, I think that he would be disappointed with the direction of intellectual life among his supporters today. The projects he outlined have not come to fruition.

A few years before his death in 1966, he wrote a plan for Hindu organisers to continue his writing projects by publishing books and journals. He also proposed books for children, the publication of key texts – the Arthashastra, for example – and a series of biographies of key historical figures. He advocated the establishment of publishing houses. He thought it was important for Hindus to read global histories.

It was also important to situate the writing of Indian history as part of comparative histories. It was necessary to understand the key developments in the field to be taken seriously. He thought there were many individuals who could potentially be his successors. But he also expected his political heirs to produce knowledge with some basic ethical standards.

I am reminded of a dinner party I attended in Southern California for Atal Bihari Vajpayee around 1990-’91. One of our family friends knew Vajpayee from childhood in Madhya Pradesh and he invited a few families to join them for a meal. An uncle suggested that I attend, especially as he knew that I had been writing research papers about the Bharatiya Janata Party. He thought I might be able to ask a few questions that I had on my mind. Otherwise, when would I get another chance to speak to one of the founders of the BJP and the individual who was anticipated to become the future prime minister of India – a position he assumed in the late 1990s.

At dinner, Vajpayee turned to me and asked what I was studying. I stated that I was planning to do a PhD in History. He started laughing and jokingly said something like, “Don’t spend too much time on the PhD. All you have to do is go to a few colleges in India and copy from a few dissertations.” I do not know if Vajpayee was being serious, but I have recently been thinking a lot about this interaction.

If Hindutva-vadis were willing to violate Savarkar’s rights as an author when he was alive, we should not be surprised by their contributions to today’s textual economy. So, the cycle continues.

Vinayak Chaturvedi is Associate Professor in the Department of History, University of California, Irvine. His book on Savarkar’s ideas and intellectual life is in press with Permanent Black, Ranikhet, and SUNY Press, New York.