Version classiqueVersion mobile

The legacy of French rule in India (1674-1954)

Animesh Rai


Acculturation, Creolization or real Indianization?

Texte intégral

1I first arrived in Pondicherry in the summer of 2003 with an open mind and with the aim of investigating whether or not nearly three centuries of French presence in Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe, Yanam and Chandernagore had led to something new and unexpected. Being a North Indian myself, I had never been to South India except briefly when I was five years old. South India is very different from North India and is practically a different country. I had to figure out for myself how to proceed with my research. I had devised a questionnaire which I would eventually distribute. My mother tongue is Hindi and I did not speak a word of Tamil. Fortunately, a knowledge of English can get one through most situations. It did not take me very long to find out that it is relatively easy to get to know people and that Pondicherry was a small town. However, small towns in India are usually very provincial and not very developed. But Pondicherry was different. There were many French colonial buildings in what was called the White Town and across the canal, the Black town was very crowded and commercialized. I subsequently discovered that Gandhi, Nehru and Mission streets were the principal arteries of the town. Someone later told me that within these three streets, you could find practically anything ranging from modern computers to the most traditional of handicrafts and that people from all over Tamil Nadu came here for shopping. The Sunday market on Gandhi street is known for attracting all classes of Pondicherrian society. The roads of Pondicherry follow a grid pattern which is unique. The grid pattern is based on ancient Dutch plans copied by the French.

2I discovered that various scholars had earlier examined various aspects of Pondicherry from different angles. Paul Michalon’s dissertation was a sociological study of the Franco-Pondicherrian community. I found his insights to be very perceptive and realistic. In the summer of 2005, I made the acquaintance of some of these Franco-Pondicherrians and had extensive conversations with them on a regular basis (and I also met other Franco-Pondicherrians during the summers of 2003 and 2004). I would, for example, wake up every morning at five and go off to the sea side and wait for them until they came back from their early morning walks or jogs. For nearly two months I did that. Through these informal conversations, I tried to unravel the enigma of Pondicherry. I would even go so far as to say that it was these early morning conversations with these anciens militaires, pensioners from the French army, French nationals of Indian origin on the Goubert Avenue of Pondicherry which were the climax, the highlight and even the most interesting and enjoyable part of this very unusual project.

3I had been trying to grapple with the notion and meaning of creolization for the previous two years. There were academic formulations and treatises which had been written about it. I had read about the history and politics of Pondicherry. But when I made friends with these people, the whole idea of creolization seemed to have come to life. I was searching for the definition in purely human terms. These were people who had been born in Pondicherry, had grown up there, gone and lived in France for many years as non-commissioned officers in the army and had come back either to be with family members or to live their retired lives. There it was. Conversations in French with native Tamil speakers. They had seen the development of Pondicherry from the time when it was still legally French territory. I was told that in those days, on July 14, French flags could be seen in windows across the streets whereas now the only thing that happened was a wreath laying ceremony at the Monument des Morts by the anciens militaires attended by the French Consul General and his entourage, the representative of the Lieutenant Governor and members of the Franco-Pondicherrian community and French expatriates.

4I kept prodding them to find out more. I was slowly getting insights into their personal lives, about their sentiments and views on various things. I was beginning to see that creolization was about language, culture, identity, customs, religion, economics, history, eating habits and what have you. But in order to come to grips with it, one had to proceed with patience, one step at a time. For example, Jean Baptiste Pinai, one of these friends mentioned in a previous chapter, told me about a petit pain which was a unique feature of Pondicherry. This kind of bread could only be found in Pondicherry. He would tell me that his family was very fond of petits pains and that these would be delivered to his house. When he was absent, they would be delivered at a neighbor’s house who would then hand them over to him in due course showing that his neighbors could be trusted. But all along he made the distinction between the Pondicherrians who had been there for several generations and those who had migrated there. It seemed, according to him, that the Pondicherrians who had been there for several generations had a greater civic sense than the newcomers.

5In this group, there was also a Muslim gentleman who had lost his wife and who now spent most of his time going on pilgrimages to other parts of Tamil Nadu and to other parts of India including the North. He found Pondicherry to be distinctly different from the rest of India. He said that in Pondicherry no one was bothered about the religious differences among people unlike in North India which he felt was very religion and caste conscious. This was corroborated by others who also said that there had been no communal riots in Pondicherry and especially that there had been an ‘entente cordiale’ between Hindus, Christians and Muslims.

6While my conversations with these people were in French, symbolizing the nature of creolization, that is, the interaction of French and Indian cultures, slowly I was getting a sense of perceiving something new that I had not seen before. This was the Whorf Sapir Hypothesis at work. The stimuli which I received from French spoken by these Tamil speakers was different from the stimuli received from English speaking Tamilians. I was getting a glimpse into Indian society through a French prism. Being a North Indian myself who was more familiar with the Hindi speaking belt and being a native Hindi speaker, I was nevertheless in my subconscious mind making all the connections between French, South India, the Tamil world and Hindi, North India and English.

7I was beginning to understand that without a tolerance for ambiguity, I could not hope to grapple with the notion of creolization. Ambiguity meant the search for multiple meanings of words, symbols and signs. Paul Michalon had studied the Franco-Pondicherrian community as a sociologist and hence his interest was in its dynamics. For me, this community was a means of apprehending the notion of creolization. Hence, my conversations with the Franco-Pondicherrians were geared towards formulating an abstract concept. When I spoke to many local people who were not necessarily conversant with French, the word creolization did not mean anything more than something to do with the Créoles. They would then say that you will find Créoles working as domestic help in the houses of French expatriates and so on. One gentleman asked me if creolization did not imply connotations of inferiority or impurity. When I defined creolization as the resultant of the interaction of heterogeneous cultural elements to a very eminent person of Pondicherry who is considered to be an authority on many matters, he seemed to think that the definition itself was erroneous and that creolization really referred to the White colonizers inhabiting the colonies. I was discouraged and disappointed by that remark.

8But really, the whole point of this work was to look at the particular in terms of the general. How were these relatively microscopic entities in particular related to India in general? That led me to think about variables. I think that the key to understanding creolization lies in visualizing a system with many variables. It also means the ability to carry out many thought experiments. When we increase one variable while keeping others constant, how does the system change? What if we increase two or more variables and so on? The idea of having variables implies that creolization is a dynamic process. For that reason, the relatively small size of Pondicherry lends itself to isolating and examining certain variables in creolization. Hence it is a very good natural laboratory for examining the process. It is generally believed that the Reunion Islands, for example, are an excellent natural laboratory for observing creolization at work because there are many different cultures present there and it has been extensively studied by anthropologists and so on. In the case of Pondicherry, there are many local as well as foreign variables but it has not been studied as a venue for creolization.

9A fundamental mistake which I was making all along was to latch on to the French element while trying to determine if there had been creolization in the former French territories of India. It seemed to me that if I could not find some aspect of French culture which was prevalent in some form or the other in combination with whichever Indian element, there was not likely to have been any creolization. It is only after I wrote the chapters that I discovered where I was making the error. However, it was when I realized the mistake which I was making that I understood the meaning of creolization. It came to me as a revelation, enlightenment and an insight of incredible value. It really meant that I had failed to view creolization as a system of many variables. That meant that even if the French element had disappeared, only one variable had been removed from the system but it could have disappeared after having made a change to the system. Hence, even without the French element present in some form or the other, there could still have been a creolization. It is then that I understood that creolization meant an “unexpected synthesis” of heterogeneous cultural elements. As it turned out, in my mind, I was mistaking creolization for hybridity. It meant that in order to conceptualize creolization one had to make a leap in one’s thinking to move from the notion of hybridity to creolization.

10However, it must be said that in the course of the investigation and of writing the chapters, I was gradually making the progression towards understanding the concept of creolization. I have occasionally taken shots at it in some parts of the chapters when I have not been fully lucid about it. Just as well. For full lucidity belongs only in the conclusion. It can perhaps be said that the aim of this work was not only to determine whether or not there was creolization in the former French territories of India but to really understand the meaning of creolization and how it applies to a specific context or region of the world. If I really knew what creolization meant right from the beginning and how it could be defined in this particular area, why bother to write a book about it? The chapters of the book can be viewed as an ongoing process of trying to grapple with the notion of creolization. Some ideas may be guesses, others hints, yet others half-baked and trite. There may be prejudices and dogmatic viewpoints. But as a whole, they are the reflection of a struggling mind trying to make things clear where ambiguity rules the roost.

11There is a certain level of intensity about creolization. Hence, a small area of high convergence is a ready target for creolization. Pondicherry has these ingredients. People from all over India come here and it probably has the largest number of foreigners per square foot. Nowhere else in India is there such a concentration of colonial buildings as in the White Town. One person had mentioned that there was a certain sense of calm which is corroborated by the fact that Hindus, Muslims and Christians live in great harmony. Many high officials and civil servants from other parts of India after having served in Pondicherry retire there because it is very compact and one does not have to go very far to find anything that one needs. My judgment is that it is the best town in India. It is probably the closest equivalent to a United Nations in India in terms of the variety of representations there per square foot. The tourism bureau projects it as a former French town. But here they are capitalizing on the notion of hybridity as I was initially doing by underlining the French and Tamil strains which run through the town. They do not make generalizations by viewing Pondicherry as a system with many variables with or without the French variable. While speaking to many people by asking them whether they thought that there had been creolization in the former French enclaves, most of them seemed to think not because they were mainly confusing it with the notion of hybridity and their general view was that the French had not left a significant imprint. I guess that it requires some initiation to understand the notion in its completeness. Hybridity is a linear state whereas creolization is exponential.

12The starting point for my interest in this topic was, of course, the French language. It seemed to me that language was an important constituent of the notion of creolization. I chose to devote one chapter to its study. For one thing, the issue of languages, especially in India, lends itself to the study of a system of many variables. But all along, when I spoke of language, it was also as a representative of a culture, in other words I wanted to view the French language as the encapsulation of French culture. As it turns out, its study opened a Pandora’s Box with the associated issues of the language politics of India. In broad terms, it meant that an increase in English would lead to a decrease in French. A decrease in Hindi in South India would lead to an increase in English and hence a decrease in French. An increase in Hindi in South India was inconceivable but, in theory, that would mean a decrease in English and an increase in French. All these increases and decreases could take place while keeping Tamil, the local language of Pondicherry and Karaikal, Malayalam, the local language of Mahe, and Telugu, the local language of Yanam, constant.

  • 1 William Miles, Imperial Burdens, p. 172.

13William Miles, in his book, Imperial Burdens, has spoken about the notions of “legitimacy and psychology” with reference to the Franco-Pondicherrians in Pondicherry.1 He argues that they lack political legitimacy and that they are economically and psychologically dependent on France due to the severance of their links with India. Even though they are financially well off due to their pensions which they receive in European currency, the French state in reality is very reluctant to continue paying them these pensions. He also points out that they lack a proper homeland. While they are juridically a part of France, they do not belong culturally there and it is the reverse situation for them in India. My own assessment of the situation on the ground led me to conclude that present day Pondicherry lacks a certain sense of legitimacy. Ironically, for me, this lack of legitimacy came from the departure of the Franco-Pondicherrians and I can only repeat the phrase, “Les Pondichériens sont tous partis” (which translates as“Pondicherrians have all left”) which I heard from some people during my field trips there. There is certainly a sense of legitimacy which comes from being legally part of India. In that sense, the present day Pondicherrians are legitimate. But so rampant is the perception that Pondicherry is now constituted of migrants from other parts of Tamil Nadu as well as from other parts of India that I viewed these people as being, in a sense, the false proprietors of Pondicherry. Pondicherry was legitimately the home of the Franco-Pondicherrians. The Franco-Pondicherrians left because the Treaty of Cession governing the de jure transfer gave them the option to take up French nationality. Here again, one has a system of many variables. Perhaps, the best explanation of creolization in this case comes from the fact that with the exponential decrease of the Franco-Pondicherrian variable, the system was affected and a consequent change was brought about. One aspect of that change was the induction of many other variables, such as inhabitants of other parts of Tamil Nadu as well as of India.

14It would be noteworthy to look at the five articles of the Treaty of Cession which allowed the Franco-Pondicherrians to opt for French nationality. These articles of the treaty may be regarded as the catalysts which brought about creolization manifested in the departure of the Franco-Pondicherrians which left a vacuum which was filled by migrants from elsewhere. According to article 4, the legal residents automatically became Indian citizens:

French Nationals born in the territory of the Establishments and domiciled therein at the date of the entry into force of the Treaty of Cession shall become Nationals and citizens of the Indian Union, with the exceptions enumerated Under Article 5 hereafter.

15Article 5 gave them the right to opt:

The persons referred to in the previous article may by means of a written declaration drawn up within six months of the entry into force of the Treaty of Cession, choose to retain their nationality. Persons availing themselves of this right shall be deemed never to have acquired Indian nationality.

The declaration of the father or, if the latter be deceased, of the mother, and in the event of the decease of both parents, of the legal guardian shall determine the nationality of unmarried children of under eighteen years of age. Such children shall be mentioned in the aforesaid declaration. But married male children of over sixteen years of age shall be entitled to make this choice themselves.

Persons having retained French nationality by reason of a decision of their parents, as indicated in the previous paragraph, may make a personal choice with the object of acquiring Indian nationality by means of a declaration signed in the presence of the competent Indian authorities, within six months of attaining their eighteenth birthday. The said choice shall come into force as from the date of signature of the declaration.

The choice of a husband shall not affect the nationality of the spouse. The declarations referred to in the first and second paragraphs of this Article shall be drawn up in two copies, the one in French, the other in English, which shall be transmitted to the competent French authorities. The latter shall immediately transmit to the competent Indian authorities the English copy of the aforesaid declaration.

16Article 6 stipulated that those residents who were outside the territories but still within India would become Indian citizens but with the right to opt for French citizenship:

French nationals born in the territory of the Establishments and domiciled in the territory of the Indian Union on the date of the entry into force of the Treaty of Cession shall become nationals and citizens of the Indian Union. Notwithstanding, they and their children shall be entitled to choose as indicated in Article 5 above. They shall make this choice under the conditions and in the manner prescribed in the aforesaid Article.

17The French citizens who were outside India automatically remained French citizens. Article 7 allows them to opt for Indian nationality:

French nationals born in the territory of the Establishments and domiciled in a country other than the territory of the Indian Union or the territory of the said Establishments on the date of entry into force of the Treaty of Cession shall retain their French nationality, with the exceptions enumerated in Article 8 hereafter.

18Article 8 spells out how the nonresident Indians of French nationality can opt for Indian citizenship. This includes their children as well. According to paragraph 3 of this article, however, French nationality can also be acquired in the following situation:

Persons having acquired Indian nationality by reason of a decision of their parents… may make a personal choice with the object of recovering French nationality by means of a declaration signed in the presence of the competent French authorities within six months of attaining their eighteenth birthday.

  • 2 William Miles, Imperial Burdens, p. 45.

19The option clause of this treaty is considered to be unique in the history of decolonization and, hence, it can perhaps be said that the document in itself, and in particular these five articles, could be regarded as an example of creolization. The comprehensiveness of the treaty is remarkable in the sense that it took into account all the variations which could occur: in the places where the French subjects were residing: in the French territories, in India and abroad as well as a variation in the people: adults, minors, husbands and wives.2 Hence, again, we have a system with many variables.

  • 3 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, pp. 187-188.

20The population of French nationality in Pondicherry, estimated at around 10 000, consists largely of Indians who opted for French nationality and who remained in the country or who came back there after retirement. They enjoy a situation which is close to that of double nationality. According to article 17 of the Cession Treaty, the French who resided on 1 November 1954 in the Establishments have the same rights of residence, movement, trade and profession as the other inhabitants there. According to the agreed minutes of 16 March 1963, they also enjoy civil rights notably of the right to acquire, possess, manage, rent all property, movable and immovable, rights and interests to enjoy and dispose of them in the same way as the citizens of the country.3

  • 4 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 188.

21While this population is on the verge of disappearing, some European French are trying to settle down in Pondicherry where, due to the favorable exchange rate, they can lead a life of ease. Some have set up businesses. The hospitality industry seems to be their preferred field of activity even though they may have made advances in other areas as well. Thanks to them, French dining etiquette which risked disappearing has known a jump in vitality. The French Consulate General covering Tamil Nadu and Kerala in addition to Pondicherry is located in Pondicherry because of the large French population there; it is a place where not only the interests of French citizens are taken care of but also where the generosity of the French state towards destitute French nationals and towards the larger population there and in surrounding areas in times of natural disasters is in evidence. The consulate is in charge of the “Monument aux morts” which France was anxious to keep in its possession at the time of transfer. It is the rallying point with a high sentimental value for the anciens militaires who constitute the bulk of the French population. The French authorities when passing through Pondicherry make it a point to lay a wreath in honor of the Pondicherrians who sacrificed their lives serving France during the two world wars. This sober monument, with an elegant silhouette, catches the attention of passers by and perpetuates the memory of vital links which have existed between France and Pondicherry.4

  • 5 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, pp. 188-189.

22The media are fascinated by the Franco-Indian population of Pondicherry, but they do not focus their attention on the expatriate Pondicherrian population in France. Many of those expatriates come to Pondicherry more or less regularly to rediscover their roots, to revisit their families who stayed on and to stock up on jewelry, clothes and, of course, spices. It is to be noted that the emigrated population of Pondicherry in France is proportionally greater than the emigrated population of the rest of India in the rest of the world. This high density could be viewed as another manifestation of creolization, something new and unexpected resulting from a Franco-Indian treaty giving Indians the right to opt for French citizenship. Their impact is accentuated by the French tourists who are pleased to include Pondicherry in their tours. Organized tours have institutionalized this trend. In this regard, one can witness a seasonal upsurge of Francophony in July-August and in January-February, which can very easily be noticed on the sea side esplanade where French tones gush out. Some merchants wait for these two seasons and, in their shops, they try very hard to speak French.5

  • 6 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 189.

23This Pondicherrian community in France, estimated at around 50,000 people is on the whole younger, more educated than the one which has stayed on in Pondicherry. It is the foliage of which the Franco-Indian population of Pondicherry constitutes the roots. At first, the Pondicherrians did not want to exhibit their Tamil aspect; they strove to appear perfectly French. With an increase in their numbers, they started adopting some of the customs of their country of origin. This became more pronounced when the Tamil population practically doubled due to the arrival in large numbers in France of Tamils from Sri Lanka, who were ardent defenders of Tamil culture. Signs in Tamil became familiar in certain quarters in Paris. Some candidates for the Baccalauréat in Paris desire opting for this language. They have a large number of associations bringing together either Pondicherrians of a suburb or all those who have a common cultural objective. Some of them bring out periodic publications. One of them, which is known as “Centre d’Information et de Documentation de l’Inde française”(CIDIF), has a biannual publication worthy of being preserved.6

  • 7 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 189.

24There are in Paris Hindu temples; they are in general old halls where statues of Hindu divinities have been installed; there is even a procession of the chariot of Poulléar which each year takes on more splendor. As far as the Catholics are concerned, it is possible for them from time to time to participate in Tamil masses in some places of Paris and the Parisian region. A Tamil chaplain is posted at the seat of Foreign Missions, rue du Bac in Paris. He is available for baptisms, marriages and burials in Tamil in all of France for those who desire it. The Pondicherrians have succeeded in installing statues of Notre Dame de Vélangany in Pontoise and in Sarcelles.7

  • 8 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 190.

25The Franco-Tamil population can easily obtain in Paris books and periodicals in Indian languages, cassettes of Indian music and of course, videos to watch Indian films at the time when they come out in India. Shops and Indian restaurants are plentiful near the Gare du Nord where Pondicherrians like to gather. Quite paradoxically, it is those who show themselves in France to be the most attached to their Tamil culture of origin who are the most useful for the conservation of French culture in Pondicherry, as it is they who return there often and naturally propagate this culture around them without any expenses incurred by the French government. The Franco-Indian community of Pondicherry and of France constitutes a living relic which prolongs the secular political and cultural links which have been extinguished in law.8

26According to me, the second article of the Treaty of Cession is the catalyst which brought about creolization in the administrative structure of Pondicherry which led to the formation of the Union Territory of Pondicherry:

These Establishments will keep the benefit of the special administrative status which was in force prior to 1st November 1954 [date of the de facto transfer]. Any constitutional changes in this status which may be made subsequently shall be made after ascertaining the wishes of the people.

  • 9 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, pp. 181-182.
  • 10 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 182.

27The politicians of Pondicherry could see that the Union Territories’ Act gave them less than what they expected. In fact, behind the appearance of an autonomous apparatus of governance, there are many vital questions which remain within the powers of the Lieutenant-Governor or of the Central government in Delhi. Other Union Territories, such as Goa understanding the severe limitations on their autonomy, asked to be made states and succeeded. The same claim was made on several occasions by the politicians of Pondicherry. It was explained to them that, in this event, they would lose the substantial grants which the territory received from the central government. Since then, the politicians have asked for Pondicherry to be made a state with special status which would give it all the powers of a state as well as all the money of a Union Territory. Such favors had been granted to certain Union Territories which had become states, as it was a question of backward states which were strategically important. Pondicherry does not satisfy any of these two criteria: it is better placed, even in relation to the big states, from the economic and educational point of view.9 In the process of claiming more and more advantages, one risks jeopardizing the status of a separate entity which was granted solely owing to Pondicherry’s characteristic of being an ex-French territory. This specifity becomes weaker with the passage of time. It is known that the administration of these dispersed territories is costly. The Indian government, which is not as short of resources as it was 20 years ago, leaves things as they are. The governments of neighboring states do not seem to be particularly concerned either, even though the smuggling of alcoholic drinks becomes an irritant from time to time. The present situation continues due to inertia, which it would be wise not to disturb.10

  • 11 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 182.

28As mentioned earlier, article 2 of the Treaty of Cession stipulates that any constitutional modification of the special administrative status in effect at the time of the cession could take place only after consulting the population. This clause was inserted in response to the demand of the Pondicherrians who had then expressed the need for a transition period of twenty-five years. The Indian government was not inclined to grant them that then. Now, fifty years have elapsed. The Francophone part of the population, which had demanded the prolonged transition period, has largely emigrated to France or has extinguished itself. The clause for the popular consultation, having been inserted on the request of this population, has therefore lost its raison d’être. Even if one strictly follows the stipulations of the treaty, it would apply only to those who were residing in Pondicherry when the French ruled the Establishments and, at the most, to their descendants. Furthermore, the population of the enclaves which was 369 000 in 1961 on the eve of the cession became 973 000 in 2001. It almost tripled. This increase has been around thirty percent every ten years, in other words almost double that of the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu revealing a strong immigration. In these conditions, one can say that the clause of consultation has become obsolete. Moreover, it was never observed in the case of all the fundamental modifications which were made after the transfer.11

  • 12 Pierre Pichard, Indo-French Dialogue in Architecture: The Case of Pondicherry, pp. 1-2.

29Pierre Pichard says that foreign as well as Indian visitors all agree that the architecture and urban texture of Pondicherry are unique and that these give Pondicherry a specific atmosphere which makes it different from other Indian cities. This further reinforces the thesis for creolization. Pierre Pichard attributes this specificity to several historical factors. For one thing, Pondicherry is not an ancient Indian city. It was a fishermen’s village which was developed into a town and then a city by the French. As a colonial city, it is very different from other Tamil towns not very far from it such as Kanchipuram or Tanjavur. It also differentiates itself from other ancient Indian cities in that it is located right on the sea. Secondly, as a French city, Pondicherry was insulated from British rule. While other cities such as Madras or Bombay grew into what they are at present, Pondicherry is not very different from what it was during the eighteenth century. Most other cities have evolved from their ancient characteristics. Thirdly, after Independence, all modernization efforts have mostly occurred in the suburbs. This has left the inner part of the city more or less intact. In recent times, however, the population pressure due to migration from other parts of Tamil Nadu as well as from other parts of India coupled with the increased urban development which this has led to is likely to threaten this special characteristic of Pondicherry.12

  • 13 Pierre Pichard, Indo-French Dialogue in Architecture: The Case of Pondicherry, p. 8.

30In the French houses, one can discern the influence of the ‘hôtel particulier’ of the urban aristocracy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in France. It had a symmetrical plan and would usually open on to a garden rather than directly on the street. The Pondicherrian adaptation consisted in combining both courtyard and garden in one compact space. In the original model, courtyard and garden were separate. The use of flat, terraced roofs differentiated Pondicherrian houses from French ones. This can be attributed to the prevalence of cyclones and of gusty winds but it can also be attributed to the influence of Greek and Italian architecture which the French modeled in response to hot climates.13

  • 14 Pierre Pichard, Indo-French Dialogue in Architecture: The Case of Pondicherry, pp. 10-11.

31One can see some European influence in local Pondicherrian houses as well. In the traditional Tamil house, the entrance is from the street. The wooden door is finely carved behind a traditional verandah with columns made of timber. It opens into a courtyard with a room on one side. The French influence in some of these houses can be seen in higher ceilings than normal. In many instances, we can see the local structure on the ground floor characterized by the presence of timber columns and wood carving. The upper storeys are more French. As a result, one can notice wooden pillars supporting walls and masonry columns and which are probably structurally not very sound. The house of Ananda Ranga Pillai, the Dubash or translator of Dupleix, is perhaps the best known example of this mixed architecture where the ground floor is like the traditional Tamil house and the upper storey very French.14

  • 15 Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, vol. 12, Introduction, pp. xxii-xxiv.

32With reference to Ananda Ranga Pillai, H. Dodwell has said that one can deduce from Ranga Pillai’s Diary that the Indian mind in the nineteenth century needed to be shaken up by an external agent such as the French colonizer. Perhaps, this is not inconsistent with the view of Dupleix that India was ripe for European intervention in the eighteenth century or, for that matter, with former Prime Minister Nehru’s view that Indian languages needed to be startled into life by contact with European languages as they had become insular and inbred. H. Dodwell says that, in the eighteenth century, the French in actual fact did not shake up Indian society outside the realm of politics. He says that like the other European powers in the East at that time, their view was that they must either keep their distance from the natives or aim to revert to proselytism and never really thought that there could be a middle route to take. He says that like the other Roman Catholic countries, the French were inclined to favor proselytism unlike the Protestant countries except for Denmark which preferred to remain aloof. But even if the French converted the natives, this did not mean that there was any cultural contact with them. Hence, even if there was in Pondicherry at that time a substantial Indian Christian congregation as for example, that of Ananda Ranga Pillai’s uncle, the Chevalier Guruvappa who was a Christian, it remained essentially Indian in character.15

  • 16 Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, vol. 4, Introduction, pp. xi-xiii.

33With respect to Dupleix, H. Dodwell has also pointed out that apart from his exalted qualities, there was a certain violence in his temper which clouded his judgment and the subtle character of his mind made him appear insincere and secretive. Dodwell says that in his judgment of other people, Dupleix was likely to be very uncharitable, express his opinions of others in offensive language and would act on it in a dubious and unacceptable manner. For example, in his report in 1750 about the character of the servants of the French Company, Dupleix had adopted a very condemnatory attitude towards people except those who were in his inner circle. Three of them are described successively as being a “fool,” “having no morals,” “untrustworthy and corrupt” in a language which leaves a painful impression and points to his “suspicious and passionate” character. He would resort to lying rather than being truthful if it served his immediate interests. Dodwell says that this enabled Dupleix to combat Oriental courts “with their own weapons” but that a wise statesman should resort to deceit only as a last resort and even then it is never likely to be of advantage to him. The use of deceit, according to Dodwell, turned against Dupleix because it was used in every day business and for petty purposes.16 While much has been said about the brilliance of Dupleix, his ideas and his vision for the role of France in India in the eighteenth century and onwards, it must perhaps also be borne in mind that there were certain flaws in the founding architect of the French colonial enterprise in India. Symbolically, this can perhaps be extrapolated to the French colonial attitude during that entire century.

34In the nineteenth century, according to article 12 of the Treaty of Paris, France was not allowed to keep an army; it was allowed to keep only a police force to maintain law and order. Strictly speaking, this means that France was technically not a colony. This was part of the British design to severely constrict the powers of the French. But any discussion of French colonialism in the nineteenth century or beyond must take this fundamental fact into account. The nineteenth century is significant because it was then that France tried to set up an electoral apparatus which would make the former French territories of India more democratized at the time of Independence than British India. The setting up of free schools for Indians in 1827 was part of France’s general policy of assimilation. The beginnings of democracy can be seen in the implementation of the edict of 23 July 1840 calling for the creation of an assembly where Indians would have half the seats. In the nineteenth century, there was a certain arrogance manifested by Pondicherry towards the other enclaves. The role of Karaikal was to cater to the needs of Pondicherry. As for the other enclaves, they were viewed as mere currency of exchange for the enlargement of Pondicherry. One can also see that there was a continuum in the scale of preferences according to the following hierarchy: Whites, Topas, Indians as in the decree of 1826 stipulating a distribution of funds among the population.

35In religious terms, there was a certain empathy of Europeans towards Hindus due to the mildness of their character and the systematic organization of their lives where their dwelling places were arranged according to their professions. This was in spite of the fact that the notion of the pure and the impure shocked them. Jacques Weber has said that the foreigner could not escape the effects of the caste mentality of Hinduism. He says that Islam and Christianity had been profoundly Indianized. France would not be able to assimilate the Indians because the French had realized that in order to remain in the colony they would have had to come to terms with the Hindu religion.

36Also in the nineteenth century, a hybrid constitution embracing Western and Indian cultures was formed. It was liberal and democratic, decentralizing, conservative and paternalistic. French conservatives thought that it was putting the cart before the horse to impose administrative and political assimilation before cultural assimilation. Instead, it would perhaps have been more effective to expose them more thoroughly to science and French culture before making the transition to political institutions as the British had done. This would have been feasible as the French more than any other colonial power had endeared themselves in the eyes of the natives due to the respect and deference which they expressed towards them. It is the use of these principles which had allowed Dupleix to make inroads into Indian territory which policy the Count Dupuy in 1819 had tried to revive. It is perhaps for this reason that the French are now still viewed with a high degree of respect in the former French enclaves.

37Furthermore, in the nineteenth century, there was certainly a contradiction between the imposition of universal suffrage and the hierarchy of castes. Universal suffrage implied equality whereas the caste system was by definition unequal. According to Ristelhueber, the Indian caste system actually placed the French in the category of outcastes or pariahs as, for one thing, they offended Hindu sensibilities by eating beef, for example. Thus, the French became the outcastes even though they were the sovereigns. The “ridiculous matter of footwear” raised to a public level the question of assimilation. Chanemougam proved to be the antithesis of Ponnoutamby in opposing moves to impose universal suffrage. In the end, the introduction of universal suffrage favored the Brahmanical coalition which had imposed its supremacy on Indian society. These factors prevented Hindu society from being assimilated. Furthermore, as these enclaves were located far apart and in different parts of the country there was no real common factor among them. Thus, as was pointed out in 1879 by the Councilor General Bayol, it made more sense to decentralize the establishments rather than to assimilate them collectively to France.

38Chandernagore, in every sense, represented the extreme case of the situation in the enclaves. It was located furthest away from Pondicherry. It was the only North Indian enclave whereas all the others were South Indian. There is no denying the fact that North India is different from South India not only geographically but also due to the fact that the people and languages of North India belong to a different family from that of the South Indian one. If there was one enclave which Paris would have liked to have disburdened itself of, it was certainly Chandernagore due to its susceptibility to British influences. Already in 1855, the “Morning Chronicle” and the “Journal du Havre” had reported about a plan to exchange Chandernagore with the Dominican Islands and Saint Lucia. Of course, this view was not shared unanimously by the French public as in France, the “Indo-Chinese academic society” had advocated the need to retain French influence in the crucial and strategic area of Bengal.

39The civil servants of Chandernagore could not quite accept taking orders from those of Pondicherry. It was a conflictual situation as both Bengalis and Tamilians are known for their pride and linguistic and cultural chauvinism. There was a symbiotic relationship between Chandernagore and Calcutta as the residents of Chandernagore would go to work in Calcutta and where they did not have much use for speaking French and of propagating French culture. This lack of a vibrant French culture further increased the divide between Chandernagore and Pondicherry. As far as the inhabitants of Chandernagore were concerned, they made good use of the ambiguous nature of Chandernagore as a French enclave by furthering their own interests against the British.

40In the beginning of the twentieth century, the local people of Chandernagore were not against the French government as such as can be witnessed by the protest of the revolutionary newspaper Matri Boumi against a threatened plan in 1910 about a possible cession of Chandernagore where it projected the French as being on the whole better colonizers than the British. Bengal being the center of nationalist movements in British India in the beginning of the twentieth century, it was inevitable that the inhabitants of Chandernagore would feel the pulse of the independence movement more than those of the other French enclaves. Being a land of asylum, Chandernagore would be a haven for revolutionaries fleeing British authorities even though Pondicherry was also a land of asylum. Chandernagore would also serve as a receiving post for literature which was considered to be seditious by the British authorities. Finally, since the purchase of firearms was free, it was not unusual for revolutionary activities to be planned from Chandernagore.

41The Charu Chandra Roy affair is illustrative of the interplay between the French and British governments and the French colony and reveals the precarious nature of relations which existed between the three at that time and of the ambivalent stance taken by the French themselves towards one of their own subjects. The extradition demands by the British authorities of Charu Chandra Roy, a resident of Chandernagore on murder charges were met by the Governor in Pondicherry because Charu Chandra Roy was a French subject of Indian origin. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not convinced that the Governor of Pondicherry should have acceded to the British demands because he was of Indian origin and not of French stock.

42Even though in French political circles, the perceived value of the enclaves was waning, there would still be reluctance among them to let go of the Establishments. The principal resistance would come from the French Ministry of Overseas Territories. In 1947, the Inspector General of the Colonies, Tézenas du Montcel, would advocate the need for France to keep Chandernagore as he feared that with its loss, the repercussions for the other French enclaves would be disastrous.

  • 17 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 191.

43It is upon the invitation of an Indian prince that the French established themselves in Pondicherry. Many of them lived there, procreated, made grand projects, struggled, won victories, overcame disappointments and left their bones. After many generations, their descendants returned to the country, not without regrets. The impact of their passage is still present in the buildings. Initially a dependency of Surat, Pondicherry then became its equal, and then became the capital of the French Establishments in India. Indian princes and French merchants sought each other for their respective profits; however, their relations were often stormy. The Indian princes tended to treat the French merchants condescendingly and with haughtiness and tried to extract from them as much money as possible. But they were careless to allow the French to bring in armed forces; they even went to the extent of soliciting their military aid in their internal strifes. The Europeans soon realized that with their superiority in firepower and their well trained and disciplined troops they could triumph over Indian forces who were numerically superior. The Europeans then began to make their own choice of alliances to ensure their supremacy. At this stage, the French and the British were the only ones on the battleground. The British finally triumphed.17

  • 18 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 191.

44The struggle for supremacy between the two ended with five enclaves and eight lodges under French control. These were scraps of territories which the British agreed to leave to France and which they regretted later. Yet the French keenly wanted to hold on to them in order to continue their trading activities in India which proved ultimately to be a disappointment. The two parties tried on many occasions to exchange these territories for others located elsewhere but they were forced to give up these plans due to obstinate opposition from the inhabitants of these territories.18

  • 19 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, pp. 191-192.

45These dispersed territories, united politically under the name of French Establishments in India, have known different political régimes. In the beginning, the power was exercised by the Company which was regarded as a vassal of the king. On the ground, there was a sovereign council presided by a governor. He often consulted an Indian notable named by him, who would progressively become the leader of the Indians. The king subsequently took direct charge of the administration. At the time of the “Restauration,” an elaborate political organization was put in place. The governor was the dominant figure, all the auxiliary organs which were later going to develop subsequently were already present then in an embryonic stage. The territories felt the repercussions of the French revolutions, but their effect was transient. During the Third Republic, the public made its presence more and more felt in the decision-making process. At that time, there were three centers of power: the governor who was officially the repository of the power of the French Republic, the representatives of the people in the French parliament who through the intermediary of the Minister of the Colonies could influence the governor, and the elected councils of the Establishments whose powers increased progressively.19

  • 20 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 192.

46The picture became more complicated owing to the fact that the population was not homogeneous. The Europeans wanted to monopolize all the power for themselves, the French government did not want to alienate them as it was dependent on them for the maintenance of the French presence. It thus devised a system of lists giving the Europeans who made up a tiny minority more seats than to the Indians in the elected councils of the territory. But it did not want to tarnish in this discriminatory manner the parliamentary representation. The Member of Parliament was elected under universal suffrage where the vote of one Indian counted as much as that of one Frenchman. In this regard, the Indians, who had an advantage due to their greater numbers, had a Member of Parliament of their choice. This could have led to a clash between Indians and Europeans. But due to the inherent competitive nature of politics, Indians as well as Frenchmen both became divided; as a result, there were two camps, each one having some Frenchmen and some Indians. Hence, the confrontation between Europeans and Indians was avoided to give way to struggles between parties and their programs. The European population still had more advantages; but the situation subsequently evolved in favor of Indians due to two factors: the education of Indians and the emigration of Europeans. Universal suffrage without distinction of race or gender was introduced after the Second World War and a new political structure with a democratic format was put into place.20

47According to context, contemporary Pondicherry can have several meanings:

  • 21 William Miles, Imperial Burdens, p. 13.

48a) the Union Territory of Pondicherry, which consists of Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam, b) the Pondicherry region covering 179 villages as well as 7 communes and including the city limits of the town of Pondicherry, c) the Pondicherry municipality or city which also consists of the urban outgrowth on its borders in the last few years, d) the limits of the old town of Pondichéry which is primarily the contemporary White Town and was during the time of the French surrounded by four boulevards which separated it from its surroundings.21

49As has been pointed out in a previous chapter, according to Brigitte Sébastia, Pondicherry as the headquarters of the former French enclaves, has a very French appearance whereas the other enclaves have been completely Indianized. This is corroborated by the results of the questionnaire which I distributed to a random sample of the inhabitants of all the former French enclaves in the summer of 2003. The majority of the respondents in Karaikal, Mahe, Yanam and Chandernagore have stated that the traces of French culture are marginally visible whereas the residents of Pondicherry have said that the traces of French culture are readily visible.

50To sum up, according to me there has been an overall change in current terms due to nearly three centuries of French presence. Creolization has occurred in the following manner: after integration with India, the French influence decreased at an exponential rate. However, the vacuum left behind by the French was also filled at an exponential rate. This is characterized by the unique pan-Indian and cosmopolitan nature of Pondicherry and its specific economic, administrative and demographic status. Changes, largely in the form of economic development and population migration, are occurring at a hectic speed and due to the small size of Pondicherry, the changes are very visible. This conclusion applies primarily to Pondicherry city but to a lesser degree also to the Union Territory of Pondicherry. The issue of creolization in the enclaves of Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam is related to the changes in the economic, administrative and demographic spheres. There are migrations to Mahe from other parts of Kerala, to Karaikal from other parts of Tamil Nadu and to Yanam from other parts of Andhra Pradesh. There are frequent comings and goings of people to and from the four units of Pondicherry Union Territory. Hence, migrants to any of these parts get re-located to any of the other parts through work or family obligations. Due to the greater size of the city of Pondicherry, it is certainly much more pan-Indian than the other enclaves and certainly the only cosmopolitan one of the four units. There are hardly any Europeans or Frenchmen of stock in the other enclaves.

51Pondicherrian identity has a multiple significance. Links with Pondicherrians in Francophone territories and in France is one part of it. The other part is linked to its current union territory status whereby union territorihood makes the inhabitants of the union territory economically and administratively different from the neighboring states to which they are adjoined. When delving into the question of Pondicherrian identity, I became aware of how Pondicherry is, in a certain sense, a hub. It links the largest concentration of people of a certain Indian origin (namely Pondicherrrian) in a specific part of the world (namely France) with the most cosmopolitan town in India per square foot. Added to it, it is also probably the most pan-Indian town in India, at least per square foot. Hence, the keyword here is concentration which is symbolic of creolization.

52We can see the results of acculturation in the Francophone Franco-Pondicherrians as they have acquired considerable traits of French culture. We cannot really say that deculturation has occurred in their regard as they do retain many traits of their native culture also. I do believe that the interaction of heterogeneous cultural elements in them have made them creolized. For one thing, my extensive interactions with the Franco-Pondicherrian community led me to believe that the French speaking Pondicherrians who had acquired French nationality and links with France over several generations had a different perspective of Pondicherry and India from the non-Francophone, English speaking Pondicherrians.

53Even if French is still recognized as one of the official languages of Pondicherry, competition from English continues to remain the main obstacle to its increased prevalence even though more and more people want to learn French for, among other reasons, employment in the hospitality or tourism industries. But this trend is not Pondicherry specific but is rather true of the whole country. The unacceptability of Hindi as an official language to South Indians makes the reality of English as a lingua franca an irreversible trend and hence, a perpetual threat to French.

54My overall conclusion is that nearly three centuries of French presence in the former French territories of India has produced a new and unexpected reality given the initial circumstances. This makes the city of Pondicherry (and to a much lesser extent the other former French enclaves of Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam) unique and different from other parts of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and India. Chandernagore, as a former French enclave, is indistinguishable from West Bengal apart perhaps from its former French quarters which make that segment of Chandernagore only ornamentally French.


1 William Miles, Imperial Burdens, p. 172.

2 William Miles, Imperial Burdens, p. 45.

3 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, pp. 187-188.

4 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 188.

5 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, pp. 188-189.

6 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 189.

7 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 189.

8 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 190.

9 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, pp. 181-182.

10 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 182.

11 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 182.

12 Pierre Pichard, Indo-French Dialogue in Architecture: The Case of Pondicherry, pp. 1-2.

13 Pierre Pichard, Indo-French Dialogue in Architecture: The Case of Pondicherry, p. 8.

14 Pierre Pichard, Indo-French Dialogue in Architecture: The Case of Pondicherry, pp. 10-11.

15 Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, vol. 12, Introduction, pp. xxii-xxiv.

16 Diary of Ananda Ranga Pillai, vol. 4, Introduction, pp. xi-xiii.

17 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 191.

18 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 191.

19 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, pp. 191-192.

20 David Annoussamy, L’Intermède Français en Inde, p. 192.

21 William Miles, Imperial Burdens, p. 13.

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 249k

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2008

Conditions d’utilisation :

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search