In this talk, I 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 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.