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Decolonization of French India

Ajit K. Neogy


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1The idea of writing this book goes back to the days when I was working in the freedom movement project of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (New Delhi) a few years back. But writing a book on the topic I had chosen was not an easy task. No one with the exception of Georges Chaffard (Les carnets secrets de la décolonisation, Calmann-Lévi, Paris, 2 Vols. 1965-67) has written any thing on the complex problem of decolonization of French India. Chaffard has devoted 48 pages (vol. 1) on the last days of the French in India and has made a general survey of the circumstances leading to the withdrawal of France from her Indian colonies. A detailed study of the internal condition of the settlements which propelled the process of decolonization of French India was long overdue. Such a study was beset with many difficulties, the most important being the problem of availability of French documents. The French, at the time of their departure, had taken away with them the documents to France. These sources were beyond my reach. Some documents of 1948-50, i.e. monthly reports of the Indian Consuls general at Pondicherry, are available in the National Archives of India, New Delhi. The reports for the succeeding years have not been transferred to the National Archives of India for consultation. I do not know what stands in the way of making them available to research scholars when the French Government have thrown their own records open.

2The period I had taken up was of crucial importance. It was during this period that France had to pack up her bag and baggage from India. After the departure of the British and the integration of the princely states into the Indian Union, two foreign powers still retained their outposts in India. They were the French and the Portuguese. The latter does not come under the purview of my study. France, instead of gracefully following in the footsteps of Great Britain, tried to cling to her possessions in India and adopted various measures to perpetuate her rule over the settlements. The attitude of the Government of India towards the foreign settlements was clearly spelt on many occasions. France followed instead a different policy. At the same time there was a strong popular demand within the settlements for merger with India. The measures adopted by the French Government failed to satisfy the people of the French settlements. There was resentment and ultimately a movement for throwing off the French yoke was launched in Chandernagore, Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe and later in Yanam. The principle of holding referendum which was accepted by both the Governments as the basis of deciding the fate of the settlements was later found to be unworkable as free and fair elections were impossible in French India. Gradually the French Indian problem assumed a complicated shape. The Government of India exerted economic pressures on the settlements in order to force the French Government to transfer them without holding referendum. The demand for automatic transfer without referendum was further reinforced by popular agitation within the settlements. Repressive measures, suppression of civil liberties and coercion of the pro-merger parties and personalities by the Pondicherry administration failed to stamp out the movement. The relations between the two governments considerably degenerated. The deadlock was finally overcome by diplomatic negotiations. These have been discussed at length in the book. I needed to consult the correspondence between the Pondicherry administration and the French Overseas Ministry, letters exchanged between the French Ambassadors at New Delhi and the French Foreign Ministry as well as between the French Ambassadors and the French Governors of Pondicherry. I also needed to consult the letters and Aide-mémoire exchanged between the two governments during the period under review. But they are available only in the French Archives. I found it impossible to proceed. At one stage I thought of abandoning the project, but fortunately for me Professor Barun De, my former teacher in Calcutta University, helped me by suggesting that I should contact the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (Paris). The Maison des Sciences de l’Homme readily accepted my project and they invited me several times to do my work in the French Archives, bearing my living and housing expenses in Paris and Aix-en-Provence. I am grateful to the authorities of the MSH, particularly to Monsieur Maurice Aymard, its Administrator and Madame de Montfalcon for their kind and sympathetic considerations for me. I candidly confess that without the active help and co-operation of the MSH this book would never have taken shape. In fact the volume of moral support and financial assistance offered by the MSH cannot be gauged merely by words. To Dr. François Houllier, Director, French Institute of Pondicherry, Dr. Jackie Assayag, former Head and Dr. Christophe Z. Guilmoto, present Head of the Department of Social Sciences of the same Institute, I am immensely indebted. They, in fact, evinced keen interest about my book and agreed to publish it under the series of Publications du département de Sciences Sociales besides bearing a part of the expenses involved in its publication.

3I am grateful to the staff of Archives Diplomatiques (Quai d’Orsay) for having extended to me facilities for consulting the documents. In the Archives d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence I received full co-operation. There are many dossiers non communicables, but I must thank and thank profusely Monsieur Jean Favier, Membre de l’Institut, former Directeur général des Archives de France for having permitted me to consult them. To be able to work in the Archives d’Outre-Mer is a pleasure and here I got help and encouragement from Mlles. Dominique Taffin and Lucette Vachier –the former having a thorough knowledge on French Indian documents and the latter a charming attitude for helping scholars working here. Madame Simone Ménager was always ready to help. I owe my gratitude to the library of the French National Assembly for allowing me to read the procès-verbaux. To the Dargent family –Monsieur Michel Dargent and Madame Luce Dargent (both teachers in Aix-Marseille University I)– with whom I accidentally came into contact in Aix-en-Provence in 1989 and who became very good friends of mine, my indebtedness knows no bound. After a week-long hard work in the Archives they used to take me every week-end to their country house in St. Julien Le Montagnier where I enjoyed their warm hospitality and discussed with them many problems of France in the aftermath of World War II. They were in fact closely connected with the book from the very beginning. Another person to whom I am indebted and who took keen interest in the progress of the book was Monsieur Hubert Gerbeau, Directeur, Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches sur les Sociétés de l’Océan Indien (CERSOI) and maitre de conférence à l’I. E. P. et à l’Université d’Aix-Marseille III. I do not like to embarrass him by offering a ritualistic thank for giving financial support for the publication of the book. I also thank the staff of the Public Records Office (Kew, London) for offering me facilities to study the documents concerning French India.

4In India I had to consult documents in the National Archives of India (New Delhi), the Tamil Nadu Archives and the Pondicherry Archives and I take the opportunity to thank all who helped me. I am grateful to V. Subbiah of Pondicherry who is no more with us. He had played a prominent role in the political scenario of Pondicherry and I had the opportunity to discuss with him, freely and frankly, the trend of Pondicherry politics, the role of the French India Communist Party and other parties and personalities until the liberation of the settlements. He expressed his views, I drew the conclusions. But the person who has been a monumental source of inspiration to me is Jean Deloche –a noted historian and former head of Centre d’Histoire et d’Archéologie, Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient (Pondicherry). During my frequent visits to Pondicherry I made many unscheduled inroads into his valuable time for clarifying obscurities in the French documents. He never disappointed me. I also thank Dr. Jacques Pouchepadass, former Director of the French Institute of Pondicherry, for the interest he showed in my work and for the valuable suggestions given by him. I am indebted to Madame Saraju Gita Banerjee, now teaching French in my University, for explaining to me the intricacies of the French language. The Filliozat family of Pondicherry –Pierre and Vasundhara, Mononmani and Bhamati– evinced keen interest in my work ever since I took up the project. I carry a pleasant memory of their hospitality in Paris and Pondicherry. My Costa-Rican friends –Monsieur Eric Chacon and Madame Claudia Saucy de Chacon– were also connected with the book and I have reasons to be grateful to them for helping me in many ways. 1 also thank Kanakendu Ghosh, a retired diplomat of the Government of India, for his interest in the subject I was dealing with.

5 I shall be failing in my duties if I do not acknowledge the cooperation I received from the Visva-Bharati University. I thank the Visva-Bharati authorities for sanctioning the leave I needed from time to time for doing work abroad. I am grateful to Dr. G. Subbiah, Professor of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology, Visva-Bharati University for having read the manuscript and rectified certain mistakes which eluded my eyes. To the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations and the Indian Council of Social Science Research, I record my deep sense of gratitude for providing me with air-tickets in 1989, 1990, 1992 and 1994.

6Lastly, I am thankful to Mrs. Nilanjana Majumdar of Santiniketan who had taken pains of computerizing the manuscript with a remarkable zeal within a surprisingly short time as well as to Monsieur Jean Louis Léonhardt, Directeur du L. I. S. H.-C. N. R. S., for permitting me to work in the Salle de Micro Informatique. Words fail to express my gratitude to Monsieur Roland Clodion (L. I. S. H.-C. N. R. S.) who had actually given a final shape to the book. I take this opportunity to thank the All India Press (Pondicherry) for publishing the book. I have tried to be faithful in interpreting the documents and making an objective study of the problem which was both delicate and sensitive. I am alone responsible for the errors contained in the book.

7Ajit K. Neogy

8Parc Jourdan


1022 May 1994.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1997

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