A renowned archaeology professor recently appointed to the Indian Council of Historical Research was faulted in the 1980s for the “impropriety” of reproducing almost verbatim his student’s MPhil dissertation in a co-authored book but found blameless on the charge of plagiarism.

Dilip K Chakrabarti, a professor emeritus at Cambridge University, was appointed as a member of the research body by Union Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani in March. He is associated with the Delhi-based Vivekanand International Foundation, the think-tank that has links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and has given the Narendra Modi government some of its most significant and strategic appointees. In the early ’80s, Chakrabarti was a Reader in the Department of History at Delhi University – and this case dates back to those days.

In 1981-'82, Chakrabarti’s student Syed Jamal Hasan submitted his MPhil dissertation titled “The Archaeology of Kangra” under his supervision. In 1984, the dissertation appeared in the form of a book titled The Antiquities of Kangra under the joint authorship of Chakrabarti and Hasan. In the book, Hasan was referred to as the second author and the copyright was in Chakrabarti’s name.

The publication of the book triggered a controversy, prompting the university to set up in 1985 a three-member inquiry committee, comprising Prof KK Sinha of Benaras Hindu University, Prof BK Bachhawat of Delhi University and Prof KL Krishna of the Delhi School of Economics. Their report, submitted in September 1986, remained buried all these years and could be dug out from the dust-laden files of the Delhi University only after much effort.

A balancing act

The report exonerated Chakrabarti and indicted him at the same time. “The charge of plagiarism against Dr. Dilip Chakrabarti is unfounded,” it said, but added in the very next sentence, “However, Dr. Chakrabarti committed an impropriety of near-verbatim reproduction of Mr. SJ Hasan’s M.Phil thesis.”

It further said: “Dr. Chakrabarti’s failure to mention in the preface to the book that the book is substantially the same as Mr. Hasan’s M.Phil thesis submitted to the University of Delhi is a serious impropriety.”

On the copyright issue, it said, “Technically, Dr. Chakrabarti’s claim to copyright of the book can be faulted only to the extent that his co-author Mr. Hasan has been excluded.”

When contacted by Scroll.in, Chakrabarti expressed surprise that the inquiry committee three decades back had discovered “impropriety” in his case despite it being a normal practice in “scientific/technical” fields. In an email response he said:
“Innumerable scientific/technical works published jointly by the teacher and the student are in many cases the student’s dissertation work of some kind. Seldom is this fact considered necessary to mention in the concerned publication either by the student or the teacher. I cannot say how the members of the ‘probe panel’ of Delhi University discovered ‘impropriety’ in it and that too only on my part! Only they can answer this question.”

The report had noted that “publications based on M.Phil/Ph.D. thesis under the joint authorship of the supervisor and the student are rather rare in the social sciences, while they are very common in the natural sciences”. It also said that Hasan, in his submission before the committee, had claimed that “his consent for the publication of his dissertation under joint authorship was not obtained” and that “after the publication, Dr. Chakrabarti had promised Mr. Hasan that he would modify the preface of the book suitably”. The report said “this promise was not kept” by Chakrabarti.

Hasan’s case was not the only one the committee dealt with. It had also looked into a similar instance in which an article, titled “Lead in Early India: A Study of the Geological, Archaeological and Literary Data”, was published in the June 1985 issue of the Indian Historical Review (a journal of the ICHR) under the joint authorship of Chakrabarti and his student, Rajni Nanda.

The article was a verbatim reproduction of a portion of the MPhil thesis, titled “Lead and Silver in Early India: A Study of the Geological, Archaeological and Literary Data”, which Nanda had submitted under Chakrabarti’s supervision. In this instance, the committee absolved Chakrabarti, saying that “it was done with her [Rajni Nanda’s] consent”.

Three decades later, Chakrabarti, probably the only renowned academic face on the Indian Council of Historical Research, is the chief editor of the Indian Historical Review. He came into the position after noted historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya resigned from the post, upset with a general right-wing turn of the historical research body.