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Decolonization of French India

Ajit K. Neogy


Jacques Weber

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1 Under the leadership of Alfred Martineau, former Governor of the trading posts and tireless driving force of the Société de l’Histoire de l’Inde Française, historical studies of Pondicherry and its great figures, François Martin, Dumas, Dupleix and Bussy, flourished between the two World Wars, when the colonial idea was at its apogee. Then there was a long silence. During the period of decolonization, the empire builders fell into oblivion. A new era of historical studies began at the end of the 1980s, with the fine thesis of Philippe Haudrère on La Compagnie Française des Indes au XVIIIe siecle (1719-1795), which dusted off the old books of P. Kaeppelin, H. Weber and G. Conan; and with my own work on Les Etablissements français en Inde au XIXe siècle (1816-1914). After this, numerous publications appeared: I may mention Pondicherry, 1674-1761 by Rose Vincent, Dupleix by Marc Vigie, La Bourdonnais by Philippe Haudrère, and the collection of essays edited by me entitled Compagnies et Comptoirs.

2 It was indispensable for Indian historians to add their contribution to this edifice. Now, forty years after S. P. Sen, Professor Ajit K. Neogy has done this. While his illustrious predecessor dedicated himself to the 18th century and Franco-British conflicts, he has chosen the years 1947- 1954, which were marked by Franco-Indian disagreement about decolonization of the trading posts. Making use of an impressive array of documents, patiently gleaned from the Centre des Archives d’outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, the Archives du Quai d’Orsay, and the National Archives of India, as well as from French and Indian newspapers, and with his own characteristic sensitivity, Professor Neogy retraces in minute detail the tortuous process which led to the trading posts being ceded to the Indian Union. When some courageous researcher finally tackles the hundreds of boxes covering the years 1914-1947, which contain the missing link, the history of French India will at last be fully documented.

3 From 1945 onwards the rule of France over Algeria and Indo-China, where the first nationalist upheavals occurred, was under threat. The defeat of Churchill and the election of the Labour Party in July 1945 heralded the speedy liberation of India, about which Nehru had predicted in 1927 at the Congress of Brussels that it would be the prelude to liberation of all the colonized nations. The Gouvernement provisoire de la République française, feeling the wind of decolonization blowing, understood the need to jettison some ballast: on 23 August 1945, the date when it ended discrimination against Indian voters and proclaimed a single electoral roll, it inaugurated a policy which was continued by the three-party coalition, with the intention of according greater responsibility to the elected representatives and greater autonomy to the colony. But when the Union of India and Pakistan received their Independence on 15 August 1947, Paris had little intention of giving up its five tiny enclaves, and instead initiated numerous manoeuvres to delay the inevitable.

4 These prevarications, whose meandering Professor Neogy helps us to follow, are all the more surprising since the “poor and insignificant small towns” of India still under the French flag were furthering neither the interests nor the glory of France. The renewal which Pondicherry underwent during the Second Empire, when its port was redistributing the produce of the Indian Ocean, sending its famous guineas to the West Coast of Africa, its oil-grains to Marseilles and tens of thousands of coolies to the Mascareignes and the Antilles, was no more than a dim memory. Difficulties began to arise at the end of the 19th century, and were aggravated by the Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War. At the end of this conflict a few spinning mills were still operating, but most of the capital involved was Indian. The trading posts had no greater strategic importance than economic significance: even at the height of the war in Indo-China, Pondicherry remained a minor port of call. On the other hand it is incontestable that the government feared the repercussions that would ensue from cession of the Indian territories: this would constitute a precedent which the Viet Minh could not fail to invoke. It is clear that from 1947 onwards the fate of the trading posts was linked with that of Indo-China, and that they would at no price be given up before South-East Asia was decolonized.

5 It was difficult to claim to be defending the interests of the colonists. In 1952 there were only 676 Europeans and 4,600 French speakers in the capital. But perhaps humanitarian and sentimental considerations provide the main explanation, above any strategic considerations, for the attitude of the governments and the representatives. Since Pondicherry was founded in 1674, Indians in the trading posts had always shown loyalty to France, offering their wealth and their lives in conflicts against the Dutch and the British. From 1870 they had been electors, designating without distinction of caste or creed a deputy, a senator and members of municipal, local and general councils. For Paris there could be no question of abandoning without consulting their populations that had been French for three hundred years and had enjoyed citizenship rights for eight decades. Moreover Article 27 of the Constitution of the IVth Republic clearly stipulates that “no cession, or exchange, or annexation of territory is valid without the consent of the populations concerned

6 Paris felt that a referendum would be the right card to play, except in Chandernagore, where the French presence had long been no more than symbolic. In the four southern territories, on the other hand, the populations were relatively calm: although in 1948 there were only 672 men in arms, 652 of whom were Indian junior officers and sepoys, order was never seriously endangered. Of course there were many demonstrations in favour of a “merger" in Pondicherry, and serious events occurred in Mahe in October 1948, but these were partly due to external elements. The Commission of neutral observers reinforced the convictions of the Government when in August 1951 it placed on record its “profound conviction” that the inhabitants of the southern trading posts, with the possible exception of Mahe, would prefer continuation of the status quo. Businessmen, whose taxation would be increased, workers who could not be sure of enjoying in India any social legislation comparable to that they had won with great effort in 1937, and Muslims, who in these times of communal strife enjoyed a relative degree of security under the tricolour, had no wish for the French to leave in a hurry –even though the achievement of Indian Independence had filled them with pride. And the peasants, who had been left to stagnate in ignorance, probably cared little about matters they did not understand.

7 As for the political and administrative elites, their deepest wish was undoubtedly for autonomy, which would maintain the special Indo-French characteristics of this micro society, as well as their own hold over it. They could envisage this autonomy within the French Union just as well as within the Indian Union, the important thing being that these enclaves, which language, religion, customs and economic interests linked with India, should conserve the special character they had gained from their long contact with French culture and law. What was essential was that their own privileged position should be maintained. The main consequence of the introduction of universal suffrage and representative institutions into a colony that was unprepared for them, had in fact been to enable some small cliques, well-equipped for electoral strife that normally led to bloodshed, to do what they liked in the colony. Chanemougam, the incomparable “master forger” was the first to become “king of French India” by grace of republican institutions. He had several successors, including Henri Gœbelé and Joseph David in the period between the Wars. The last in this line was Edouard Goubert, whose ideal was to exercise power and make as much out of it as possible. He remained pro-French as long as the French position was strong and the Indian customs barrier enabled him to make money from smuggling. He became the champion of “merger" in 1954, when the blockade that was asphyxiating Pondicherry became a threat to his own fortune and political future.

8 It remains to be discovered why the Ministry for Overseas France invented Goubert just before the 1948 elections, which were crucial since the municipal councils appointed by them were to be responsible for organizing the referendum. Was it because of uncertainty about the real feelings of the people? Or fear that the count might be tampered with by Congress activists? In a country where no election had ever been fair, victory always went, as Paris knew from past experience, to the party whose goondas were most effective in gaining control of the voting booths and spiking the ballot boxes. Whatever the reason, a great error was made: on one hand the image of France was tarnished in the eyes of the young Indian democracy; and on the other, India was enabled in 1952 to reject a referendum which it had accepted in principle in 1948although perhaps even at that time it was not really welcome.

9 Nehru was sincere in accepting the principle of a referendum. Local Congress workers on the other hand already had their reservations. “Why ask Indians whether they want to be Indian?” was the substance of their response to those who favoured consultation. After the Indo-Pakistan war of 1948, the idea of a referendum lost ground in Indian government circles. The resolution adopted by UNO on January 5 1949 provided fora free and impartial plebiscite” in Kashmir, where 77 % of the population was Muslim. Thereafter, holding a referendum in Pondicherry would create a precedent which could be exploited by Pakistan and the Muslims of Kashmir, a land which Nehru considered “part of his own body”. The scandalous manoeuvres of Goubert enabled Delhi to back out of the 1948 accord in 1952. No referendum was ever held, in either Pondicherry or Kashmir. One did take place in Chandernagore, where the outcome was never in doubt, since this town had long been outside the sphere of French influence. It took place on 19 June 1949 and was carried out peacefully under the eyes of international observers who, according to Paris, would be equally competent to guarantee the fairness of a consultation in the southern territories.

10 After October 1952 there was no longer any doubt about integration with India. Delhi only had to increase the pressure. It is a remarkable fact that even during this period of tension, there were very few exceptional eruptions of violence in the colony, and dialogue was never broken off at the highest levels. After three centuries of living side by side, French and Indians understood and appreciated each other well enough to avoid any such painful event as the armed intervention of India which took place in Goa in December 1961. Despite some ruffled feelings on both sides, the older French democracy and the young but already well-established Indian democracy were able to undo the Gordian knot of the trading posts in 1954, without sacrificing local interests and features. It could not be otherwise between two nations linked by many affinities, as Goumain, one of the last administrators of Chandernagore, pointed out: “The same lively intelligence, the same flexibility, the same sense of humanity and of the primacy of spiritual values, which other European nations, more dogmatic and practically experimental, possess to a lesser degree.” Nehru admired French civilization too greatly, and the French leaders were too aware of the stature of the Indian Prime Minister and his moral and political standing in the Third World, for either of these two countries to have allowed themselves to take any irreparable step.

11 At last the Franco-Indian accords of October 1954, signed a few weeks after the Geneva agreement, guaranteed to the former French territories a status that some had recommended as early as 1947, and that could have been ratified at that time had the destiny of this colony not been intimately linked with that of Indo-China. The autonomy of the Union Territory of Pondicherry was welcomed by the local people, who disavowed Goubert at the municipal elections of 1955, giving a large majority to the People’s Front, which stood for protection of its special local characteristics. The treaty of cession of 28 May 1956 provides for maintaining French cultural and scientific institutions and fulfils the wish expressed by Nehru on 27 August 1947: “Pondicherry is a window through which France and India could communicate”, he said. “We will value this window onto France as a way of developing our cultural relations with that country. We have looked at the world through British spectacles for too long. We want our youth to acquire a more universal intellectual training that only French culture can give us.” The Lycée Français, which unfortunately receives too few Indian students, and the Institut Français de Pondicherry, which opens a window onto Indian culture for France, remain today as the finest fruits of the French cultural presence in India.

12 France, after the seven years of prevarication described by Professor Neogy, agreed to de facto transfer in October 1954, but delayed de jure transfer for another six years. The demand of French “patriots” for double nationality, which met some response in the National Assembly, the untiring activities of the “Pondicherrian lobby", and the sympathy of General de Gaulle for a population which had very promptly rallied to Free France, were all obstacles to ratification of the treaty of May 26 1956. Only after the Indian intervention in Goa and the Evian accords of 18 March 1962 was this ratification, when it could no longer be postponed, finally passed, on 12 July 1962. Just as the de facto transfer was decided in the heat of the decolonization of Indo-China, the de jure transfer was an outcome of the decolonization of Algeria.

13 Under the 1956 treaty of cession, residents of the former territories were to become “nationals and citizens of the Indian Union”; but they had six months, counting from 16 August 1962, to opt for French nationality. Deprived of a referendum, they were offered instead the opportunity to make an individual choice.

14 By the fateful date of 15 February 1963, 4,944 adults had chosen France. Almost all were descendants of Indians who, under a decree of 21 September 1881, had renounced their personal status to enrol themselves under the “Code civil”. At the time when the “Pieds Noirs” of Algeria were on their way into exile, Nehru’s India set an example of tolerance by accepting on its soil a population of Indian origin that had chosen the former colonial power.

15 Professor Neogy has performed the great service of opening up a complex and little understood period, and of initiating discussion of the decolonization of French India. No doubt other historians will continue this debate by systematic investigation of the voluminous and sometimes still “sensitive” French archives for the period after 1940, which Professor Neogy has been the first to pry open.

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