Saturday, March 11, 2006

what rediff chose not to publish re. the calif textbook case

mar 10th

i had written a five-part series in late january.

rediff published parts one and two.

they mysteriously did not publish parts three, four and five. they have their own constraints and pressures put on them. in general they are very good about freedom of expression.

here they are, all five of them, for your entertainment.

part 1 is at

part 2 is at

here is part 3

Leading the pack: the honorable Harvard professor


Rajeev Srinivasan on the energetic Michael Witzel


Heading the list of important people in the California textbook saga – like the cloying Abou ben Adhem --  is the remarkable Michael Witzel. A German-speaker from a Germanic enclave in Poland, Witzel is a tenured professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University in Massachusetts. Some people have labeled Witzel a Nazi because of his ethnic origin, but of course I condemn that. It is clearly despicable to be prejudiced against someone simply based on their roots, although Witzel himself is not averse to this sort of attack on Indians.


Incidentally, Witzel has proudly stated that he is a descendant of Martin Luther and implied that that explains his combativeness. It is ironic that a descendant of such a famous dissident should be as prey to dogma and conventional wisdom – and an arch-conservative – as Witzel has shown himself to be.

Witzel toiled away for years in well-deserved obscurity conjugating complex verbs as professional Sankritists do. There was, of course, a small matter of academic irregularities, lawsuits from researchers in the department, and chaos when Witzel was department head, (see the Harvard Crimson, "Sanskrit Dept. in Disarray, Students, Officials Say" ) but we won't let that detain us, for Witzel must be an honorable man. After all, Harvard wouldn't give him tenure if he weren't, would they?


Yes, there was Witzel comfortably ensconced, scribbling away in anonymity. Then the limelight (and greatness) was thrust upon him, when the Indian Marxist mouthpiece Frontline invited him to write an article related to the Aryan Invasion Theory a few years ago. This was in response to a claim that the Indus-Sarasvati script had been deciphered by Jha and Rajaram.


Witzel burst on the scene like a – meteor, enfant terrible, bombshell – take your pick. He and his assistant, one Steve Farmer of Portola Valley, California, immediately became famous for their scathing articles about what they alleged were serious errors in the Jha-Rajaram work regarding Indus-Sarasvati seals. Furthermore, they alleged Jha-Rajaram had mis-identified some seals and turned what were images of donkeys and unicorns and bulls into images of horses.


And that of course, was heresy, as there is an axiom in some circles that there were no horses in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. "No horse in Harappa", thundered Witzel, instantly becoming the darling of the soi-disant Indian 'intelligentsia', particularly those who inhabit Jawaharlal Nehru University. The fact that Witzel was especially foul-mouthed, downright rude and acted like a colonial overlord must have added a certain frisson to their glee upon seeing the white man dressing down uppity natives.


It was interesting to note the tone employed by Witzel: it was full of contempt. It was not the sober tone adopted by academics in debate, but the sort of thing you would use when dealing with inferior beings. If I didn't have faith in Witzel's probity, him being from Harvard University and therefore an honorable man, I might even have wondered if he were a racist. But of course I don't because it would be absurd to question the sincerity of a tenured professor of Sanskrit and occupant of the Wales Chair in the ivied halls of Harvard. Witzel is even editor of the Harvard Oriental Series, which sounds important.


Impressed by his forcefulness, I began observing Witzel's frequent outbursts, and a pattern emerged: even when discussing an obscure point in grammar – as he did with the grave and courteous retired principal of the Guruvayur Sanskrit School – Witzel's contempt and derision are notable. Such instances are legion: there is a detailed write-up on him at this site  


I would like to draw everyone's attention to a petition circulated by a several concerned groups, including Citizens to Stop Funding Hatred and Citizens to End Racism in Academia In sober terms, it describes the various trespasses of Witzel and company, and asks the concerned academic authorities to exercise their checks and balances against inflammatory behavior.


There is the yahoo newsgroup Indo-European Research, run by Witzel and Farmer. There too, there is a palpable air of contempt for all things Indian and Hindu. Especially for Hindus in the US (Witzel refers, playfully no doubt, to them as hina, meaning inferior), and most particularly for those in engineering. This suggests there is something more than meets the eye, sort of as I said before in my column 'Fear of Engineering' . There is either a hidden agenda or there is something unusual afoot.


Let's take 'unusual' first. Witzel's acts remind me powerfully of Don Quixote. In this corner, Witzel as the gallant Don Quixote, atop his nag Rosinante (possibly the Indus-Sarasvati horse with 17 pairs of ribs), holding aloft that strange device "No horse in Harappa!" and tilting at all passing windmills.


In that corner, Steve Farmer as the faithful Sancho Panza, riding his donkey – the one he says Jha-Rajaram mistook for a horse? – and tirelessly shilling for his boss. Most admirably medieval of them, indeed. Maybe this whole thing is an elaborate practical joke by experts in medieval texts – after all, Farmer is variously described as an autodidact linguist who did his PhD on a medieval Christian work by Pico and also a 'comparative cultural historian'. The joke must be on those of us who fail to see the thigh-slapping humor in all this.


Comments welcome at


889 words, January 22, 2006


Cacoethes said...

Rajeev, You are being modest. Not "entertainment", but edification.

Kalyani said...

Yes.I second that!

"Witzel has proudly stated that he is a descendant of Martin Luther "

Didn't Martin Luther decry "conscientious stupidity and sincere ignorance"?

Kalyani said...

Not just edifying.Full of wit and humour enlivening it!

Will the AIT proponents recant and apologise graciously if not profusely? Remember,the idiotic brit instead of identifying himself as one,with characteristic peremptoriness named iron/copper pyrites *Fool's Gold*:-)