Few other people in India pose “a challenge to common sense,” wrote historian and author AR Venkatachalapathy, as the Tamils with their “long claims to Tamil distinctiveness and exceptionalism. The ‘South’, especially Tamil Nadu, has posed problems to the Indian nation...(because) Tamil Nadu has been part of the Indian mainstream, yet maintains its distinctiveness.”

In many ways, Tamil Nadu has been more progressive than any other state, including the central government, especially considering that “Systematic caste-based reservations in employment and education were introduced in Tamil Nadu nearly a century ago, while most of India is still struggling to reconcile itself to such positive discrimination and affirmative action.”

The Tamils not only take great pride in their icon Chinnaswami Subramania Bharati, freedom fighter and social reformer, regarded as one of the greatest Tamil literary figures, but also in their native bullfight, jallikattu, held during Pongal, something unique to Tamil Nadu, for which they defied the Supreme Court ban in 2017.

“The intertwining of film songs and politics,” wrote Venkatachalapathy, “is most apparent in the fact that the state has been ruled for nearly fifty years by four chief ministers whose popularity was derived in large measures from their film career.” The Tamils’ great pride and love of the Tamil language and intense opposition to the imposition of Hindi as the sole national and official language of India led to the acceptance of English as the co- official language, making Hindi-English the lingua franca of India.

Hindi threatened the Tamil sense of exceptionalism and they fought against it. Ironically, one of the most popular Bollywood Hindi film singers is a Tamilian, AR Rahman, whose “Jai Ho” reverberated across India for a long time.

The Andhras, who asserted that they weren’t Tamils or Madrasis, instigated the linguistic reorganisation of India. And tracing their cultural lineage to the epic Mahabharata and heritage to the great Vijayanagara Empire, they said their language (Telugu) and culture were unique. The linguistic reorganisation of India was based partly upon the fact that each region with its own language, literature, historical icons, legends and ruling deities had a sense of exceptionalism and feared obliteration if not allowed to be politically separate.

It’s a great tribute to the wisdom and farsightedness of the founders of the Indian Republic, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Ambedkar, Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad and others that they structured this sense and sensibility of exceptionalism into constitutional federalism, which makes Indians uniquely separate but nonetheless together.

The sense of exceptionalism, and the fear of its loss, is not limited to linguistic and regional cultures. It encompasses the caste system because, in spite of its widespread condemnation as an evil system, no one in India wants to give up their caste.

Throughout his public life, Nehru was referred to as Pandit Nehru, a Kashmiri Brahmin, but he never objected to it, though he was formally agnostic and secular. As has been said elsewhere, “At the heart of a self-organising social system is a nucleus of core values that shapes the emergent culture and behaviour of the people. It is ‘a preferred position of the system’ to which the system returns from any state, repositioning itself in a state of equilibrium.”

In the Indian parliamentary federal system, the nucleus of core values is ensconced in caste-language-regionalism, the framework that determines the mode of thinking and behaviour of the people and their identities in spite of the fact that the Indian Constitution is based on freedom and equality. Subliminally and subconsciously, even the most secular, agnostic and atheist Indian elites think in the caste-language-regionalism mental framework, as happened in the case of Amartya Sen when his Bengali sensibility was pricked by the Hindutva catfish.

At the most unguarded moment, like the proverbial Freudian slip of the tongue, the culturally suppressed feeling sometimes erupts like a spring of fresh water and sometimes like a poisonous volcano. PV Narasimha Rao, the ninth prime minister of India, was an unabashedly self-conscious Telugu Brahmin, and he let it be known.

Nehru never demurred to being called “Pandit,” just as MK Stalin, a Tamil political leader of the supposedly atheist political party, in spite of his un-Indian name, doesn’t object to being called a Dravidian; Mayawati, twice the chief minister of the most politically significant state, Uttar Pradesh, feels proud to be a Dalit; and Mamata Banerjee, the great destroyer of Bengali communists, professes to be a Maa Durga devotee, for example. Sheikh Abdullah, who, like most Indians, lived comfortably with a sense of cognitive dissonance, always thought he was above all a patriotic Kashmiri Muslim. An Indian becomes an Indian only when he steps out of India.

AK Ramanujan, poet, scholar and philologist, gave a fascinating thumbnail portrait of his father that embodies the Indians’ capacity to live in contradictions, with a high sense of exceptionalism and fear of loss:

“My father’s clothes represented his inner life very well. He was a South Indian Brahmin gentleman. He wore neat white turban, a Sri Vaisnava caste mark (in his earlier pictures, a diamond ring), yet wore Tootal ties, Kromentz buttons and collar studs, and donned English surge jackets over his muslin dhotis which he wore draped in traditional Brahmin style... He was a mathematician, an astronomer. But he was also a Sanskrit scholar, an expert astrologer. He had two kinds of exotic visitors: American and English mathematicians...and local astrologers, orthodox pundits who wore splendid gold- embroidered shawls dowered by the Maharaja... I looked for consistency in him, a consistency he did not seem to care about or think about. When I asked him what the discovery of Pluto and Neptune did to his archaic nine-planet astrology, he said, ‘You make the necessary corrections, that’s all.”

Unlike Americans, Indians don’t want to be assimilated into one unified homogenised culture because assimilation means loss of exceptionalism. It is the non-assimilative yet distinctively integrating feature of the Indian parliamentary federal system that has made democracy an operational success in India.

Democracy functions well in India because it makes people, various caste-linguistic- cultural groups, feel free and autonomous with their sense of exceptionalism (like Ramanujan’s father); and yet it brings them together for dialogue and shared governance. The democratic parliamentary federalism in India acts as a shock-absorbing mechanism, which keeps the system stable, adaptable and dynamic by channelling and redistributing excessive energy generated by the social and political conflicts that are spawned by the claims of egalitarianism and exceptionalism.

But sometimes, the claims of exceptionalism have led not only to the misinterpretation of history but also the appropriation of folklore, mythology and religious fantasies as historical truths.

What used to be street and backyard folklore surfaced in recent times as historical achievements proudly proclaimed by prominent Hindutva politicians on public platforms. Consider, for example, some of the following inexplicable claims of exceptionalism by some of our leaders:

“Mahabharata says Karna was not born out of his mother’s womb. This means people then were aware of genetic science. There must have been a plastic surgeon who fixed an elephant’s head on Ganesha.”

—Narendra Modi

“Today we are talking about nuclear tests. Lakhs of years ago, Sage Kanad had conducted a nuclear test. Our knowledge and science do not lack anything.”

—Ramesh Pokhriyal, BJP MP

“India has been using [the] internet for ages. In Mahabharata, Sanjay was blind but he narrated what was happening on the battlefield to Dhritarashtra anyway. This was due to [the] internet and technology. The satellite also existed during that period.”

—Biplab Deb, Tripura CM11

But the idea of Indian exceptionalism is not limited to Indians. Even some foreigners have accepted it wholeheartedly. Sir William Jones, the English philologist, said, “From the vedas (ancient Indian Scriptures), we learn a practical art of surgery, medicine, music, house building under which ... They are encyclopaedia of every aspect of life, culture, religion, science, ethics, law, cosmology and meteorology.”

The ancient Indian surgeon, Sushruta, is credited with being the father of the nose job, whose treatise, Sushruta Samhita, “describes more than a thousand diseases (including a very early awareness of diabetes), and about 650 types of drugs...includes a special focus on surgery, which it considers the apex of the healing art. The roughly 300 surgical procedures it describes include cataract surgery, the removal of bladder stones, hernia repair, eye surgery, and caesarean sections...The text also stresses the importance of cleanliness in both surgeons and their instruments – safeguards Europe wouldn’t adopt for the better part of two millennia.”

American historian and philosopher Will Durant called India:

“...[T]he motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self- government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.”

The foreigners’ assessment of the glory of ancient Indian science, medicine, philosophy, mathematics and technology feeds into the Indian mind, looking for recovery and redemption of the glorious past.

The sense and sensibility of exceptionalism as to how unique Indians were once upon a time and must salvage the past glory through rediscovery and recovery found expression not only in the rebuilding of the Somnath Temple, the Nalanda University and the Ram Janmabhoomi resurrection but also in India’s foreign policy. It was through its foreign policy that India presented itself to the world as a ‘unique and universal’ civilization founded on a higher spiritual order. Discussing the concept of exceptionalism, Nicola Nymalm and Johannes Plagemann say:

This link (unique and universal) is peculiar because it establishes uniqueness as a foundation for, first, a conviction of moral superiority over virtually every other society, based on which the self-ascribed exceptionalist state pursues an allegedly universal common good in its foreign policy conduct. Second, exceptionalism based on uniqueness implies the belief in an exceptional state’s disposition as impossible to be replicated by others.

This interplay between uniqueness (or particularity) and universality is what constitutes the paradox of exceptionalism: A unique insight into supposedly universal values and their foreign policy implications is derived from a particular civilisational or spiritual heritage, political history, and/or geographical location.

Iqbal beautifully captured the concept of Indian exceptionalism when he said; there’s something about India that had made it an indestructible civilisation (Urdu: Kuch bāt hai kih hastī, mi·ttī nahīn hamārī).

For India, the struggle for freedom was essentially a spiritual and moral struggle under the leadership of Gandhi, who based his peaceful activism on Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagrah (commitment to truth). After Independence, the non-alignment foreign policy of Prime Minister Nehru, drawing inspiration from its unique form of freedom struggle, was based on India’s capacity to offer moral leadership to the world.

Fighting economic and political imperialism by bringing newly independent third world countries together, without entanglement with or antagonism against the Cold War blocs led by the Soviet Union and the US, was the main plank of foreign policy. The idea that India was a unique cradle of religion and spirituality “supported a missionary claim that India had the capacity and obligation to provide moral leadership in world affairs.”

India In A New Key

Excerpted with permission from India In A New Key, Narain D Batra, Rupa Publications.