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|| आ नो भद्राः क्रतवो यन्तु विश्वतः || Let nobel thoughts come to us from everywhere, from all the world || 1.89.1 Rigveda ||
Section : Culture

“Idea of Bharatiya Exceptionalism” – Idea of Bharat International Conference
There are strong inferiority complexes that need to be confronted when it comes to building the Bharatiya grand narrative.

By Rajiv Malhotra

Ithis talkI discuss the idea of “Bharatiya Exceptionalism”, what it means and its ramifications in various fields of activity. Drawing upon my experience of having been in the USA, I discuss as to how the understanding of “American Exceptionalism” led me to discover the equivalents of it in the people of other countries. What logically followed was the quest for a definition of “Bharatiya Exceptionalism”.

American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism means a unique state of collective consciousness of the Americans about them being exceptional and best. This sense of being exceptional extends to everything ranging from sports to science. This feeling is nurtured in people right from their childhood. It doesn’t mean that the people hold a few people here and there to be exceptional but it is a feeling that their “system” is such that it turns out exceptional people. We often find in Bharat that we extol a few exceptional individuals. But American Exceptionalism is a claim about the American “system”, in this case “system” being equated to culture and therefore a cultural claim that American culture is the best.

People on both sides of the political spectrum in the USA, the left and the right agree that there is an American Exceptionalism. Both of them though, agree for quite different reasons. The Christian Right claims exceptionalism because of the Bible i.e. the narrative of them being the chosen people and America the chosen land. A famous statement by Jesus Christ talks of a “city upon a hill”. This is the ideal city which shines for the whole world (this is similar to the view of many Bharatiyas that Bharat has to be the light for the other cultures). When the Europeans were arriving in America, they saw lights on the land and hence they thought they have reached “the city on the hill”. This, they thought was the land as promised in the Bible. Hence, the right wing idea of American Exceptionalism has its basis in America being “the city on the hill”, being verdant like the garden of Eden and so forth, that in turn are very much rooted in Biblical narrative.

The Left wing doesn’t use biblical metaphors to claim American Exceptionalism however, and their idea of exceptionalism is rooted in America’s supremacy in science, technology, freedom, valuesamong other things. Therefore we see that American Exceptionalism is a claim which is common to both left and right wing, although based on quite different ideas.

In Bharat, there are many kinds of Bharatiyas; they disagree, fight and generally have their own views on anything. But, do they have an understanding of Bharatiya Exceptionalism? There may be a need to define it, discuss it. It is also necessary that people across political divides believe in it just as they do in the US for it is the one story that unifies people across the nation. Every student needs to be taught, every businessman needs to know, every diplomat has to project it and every politician has to talk about it.

American Exceptionalism is propagated using parades, big museums, the American flag and various other symbols. It is seen that the American flag has a status on par with a God, with elaborate rituals concerning its folding, carrying and so on. The same is with their national anthem. It is unfortunate that such symbols are often not respected in Bharat and is accepted to be a right, but they are always respected in the US and that too as normal duty. There are certain aspects of the American Exceptionalism which may sound bizarre to an average Bharatiya in this day and age – for example, their pride in carrying arms. This is guaranteed by the American constitution because the founding fathers of America needed to carry guns. Many of these things become part of the myth of greatness and are cherished as the identity of the nation and its culture. Many of these aspects needn’t be logical, they are just part of a shared myth.

Other cultures / countries with the idea of exceptionalism

Similar things can be found in other cultures / countries too. The Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and various others have these shared myths and do propagate their narratives. The Chinese propagate this through their China Institute which has a hundred branches all over the world. They peddle the narrative that they are modernizing but not westernizing. They say that their modernization is based on their ancient philosopher Confucius. In other words, their modernity is Confucian modernity. It is through the lenses of these exceptional narratives that the Americans, Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese evaluate themselves and the wider world. When the Americans study Bharat, it is through the lens of American Exceptionalism. Such studies are quite extensive and large scale and grouped under the head of “South Asian Studies”, the American name for what used to be called Indology in Europe.

Exceptionalism as “lens”

The Church, and foundations such as Ford Foundation study Bharat all the time. They not only fund NGOs in Bharat but also the much touted and in fashion “Think tanks”. There are many think tanks of the US which operate in Bharat. They have opened branches in many places in Bharat and they study Bharat based on their lenses. If we are to reverse the gaze and do purvapaksha on say, China, US or some other country, we have to understand what our lens is going to be, what our logical premises are going to be. Only on these premises will we be able to do purvapaksha.

These logical premises will function as our lenses just like it is for American Exceptionalism. In earlier generations, the Bharatiya narrative was Ramayana. Ram Lila used to be enacted in many villages where everyone would join in and participate, bond together and also enact one’s own version of Ramayana. The personal involvement and stake in the story was because it was a community event. With the advent of TV, the personal involvement of communities declined and it became a spectacle one watched being enacted on TV by someone else. That itself brought in a level of detachment from the Ramayana.

Identity questions confounding even the scholars

The Bharatiya identity doesn’t seem to be clear even to scholars or they choose not to own it. To illustrate the point, on my regular visits to Bharat that have been happening for 45 years, I met Ashish Nandy and asked him about his identity. Ashish replied by saying that he was a Bengali first, then a Christian and then a scholar without even mentioning Bharat as part of his identity. When probed further, he said that the Bharatiya identity is forced upon people by chauvinists. I then asked him what the Bharatiya grand narrative, on the lines of the American one and Chinese one, was, and as to why Bharat should keep together as a nation and why has it stayed together through history in spite of the diversity. He was honest in accepting that he didn’t know the answer to this question.

Some others like John Dayal who was the head of the National Integration Council under the previous government regime holds views that are not conducive to the unity of this country.

Even IFS trainees unaw

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