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Decolonization of French India

Ajit K. Neogy


Texte intégral

French Settlements in India (Reproduced at the French Institute of Pondicherry from a map of 1951)

French Settlements in India (Reproduced at the French Institute of Pondicherry from a map of 1951)

1The second half of the 19th century witnessed a gradual awakening among the people of British India as a reaction to the repressive policy of the British Indian Government. They reacted against the racial arrogance of the white people, economic disparities, discrimination in the application of tariff regulations, denial of job opportunities to the educated Indians, muzzling of the press and above all political subjection. This awakening, born out of a sense of humiliation, was virtually confined to the educated urban people of the country and the vast multitude of people living in the rural parts of the country still remained unaffected. Nevertheless the struggle against humiliation, exploitation and deprivation continued unabated and numerous associations were formed all over the country to ventilate their grievances against the alien political masters who had been ruling over them. But the latter was unwilling to yield to the demands of the people thereby forcing them to wage an uncompromising struggle which culminated into a movement for the independence of the country from the yoke of British imperialism. While these things were happening in British India one would like to know the reaction of the people living in the French pockets of India. The five French settlements were located in different parts of the country and for a long time remained cut off from the political upheavals of the places which surrounded them with the exception of Pondicherry and Chandernagore.

2Political consciousness in the French Indian settlements was of slow growth. It has already been mentioned that the French pockets were located in different parts of India separated from each other by many hundred miles and there was no close contact among themselves. No identity of interests developed and the people of the French India had no common meeting ground. Hardly an ordinary French citizen of Mahe knew anything about Chandernagore or vice versa. Economically the French pockets were backward and bereft of any independent source of existence, they had to depend on India for their survival. With the exception of Karaikal, agricultural production was limited. Industry was non-existent. Regional industry had marginal effect on the economic structure of French India. Chandernagore was a tiny settlement and any major industry capable of offering job opportunities to the local inhabitants was totally absent. In order to eke out their living they had to search jobs in offices in Calcutta and in the adjacent mills and factories situated in British Indian territories. Rice, cotton, coal, petroleum, medicines, electricity were supplied from India to the south Indian French pockets. The scope of recruitment was limited because the French Indian administration did not have an elaborate bureaucratic machinery. The ports of Pondicherry and Karaikal did not have brisk trade. These isolated pockets were, in fact, more a source of weakness than strength to France. Life in the French colonial settlements was dull, gloomy and moribund. Education was colonial in character. It had no relevance with the pattern in vogue in the rest of the country. Public works were in a state of neglect. The British Government allowed the French settlements to survive as a matter of grace. Nevertheless, in one respect the people of the French colonies were a little ahead of those living in British India. With the establishment of the Third Republic in France a more vigorous policy was followed towards the French colonial possessions and an attempt, though later proved to be useless, was made to link the French colonies with that of metropolitan France. By a décret of 1 February 1871 the Republican Government of France granted, along with the people of other French colonies, to the French Indian subjects the voting right to elect a deputy to the French National Assembly in Paris. This décret of 1871 entitled the French Indian subjects to enjoy such a democratic right which was still a distant dream to the people of British India. But actually the democratic right granted to the French citizens of India was nothing but illusory as it was hedged with glaring elements of discriminations and reservations. Provisions for elections were also there for the Conseil Général (General Council of Pondicherry) and Conseils Municipaux (Municipal Councils). But elections in French India were always a mockery and during its long history from 1871 when it was first introduced to 1951 when the last elections took place, it had never witnessed any free and fair elections. Moreover, for several decades not a single Indian was elected to represent French Indian people in the National Assembly of Paris. The candidates for the deputy elections were actually selected in France in consultation with the local political bosses of Pondicherry who generally commanded social, political and economic influence. Moreover the democratic experiment in French India did not succeed due to the absence of any political party or parties. The political bosses did not bother about political ideology although they all swore allegiance to Republican France and gave such slogans as Vive la France! Vive la République! Vive l’Inde Française!. The political bosses were, in fact, election managers and if they had succeeded in getting their candidates elected their social position enhanced and with it the power to interfere in the local administration in a manner which proved very damaging. The elected deputies were French and although they were elected by the citizens of French India backed by local satraps, they were always absentees and seldom visited the places which elected them and rarely discussed or debated any problem of French India in the Chamber of Deputies. Men like Shanmugham Mudaliar, Henri Gæbelé, Pierre David –representing groups or sectional interests– had dominated the political scenes of Pondicherry and the settlements. Their rise and fall again depended on the amount of support extended to them by the Pondicherry administration. No healthy democratic tradition flourished because personality based politics could hardly rise above group or sectional interests. The French Indian government did not deliberately encourage party system and they themselves were responsible for the collapse of the democratic experiment which they had made in their Indian settlements long before the British had conceded any such rights to its Indian subjects. Slowly a feeling of resentment had been brewing in the minds of the people against the French authorities on the question of deputy elections which were always attended with large scale violence, intimidation and rigging under official patronage or indifference of the French Indian authorities. Elections to the local bodies also witnessed the same kind of irregularities.

3Although universal suffrage was proclaimed by the décret of 1 February 1871, the entire electorate was divided into three categories and there were three lists of voters. The first list consisted of Frenchmen and their descendants. The voters of the second list were known as renongants, i.e. those who had renounced their personal laws and voluntarily placed themselves under the French Civil laws. The third list included the Indians who were called the natives. Women were denied voting right. The candidates to the local bodies, elected on the basis of list system, were, in majority cases, proteges of the local French administration. They were either local advocates or merchants and enjoyed administrative patronage. Elections to these bodies were far from fair. Any one who dared oppose the government-backed candidates had to face harassment, intimidation, physical assaults etc. The Republican Government in France was wedded to the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, but they had no meaning in so far as the French Indian colonies were concerned. Under the French colonial rule in India the elementary democratic rights of association or public speech or writings were denied. No association could be formed unless it was specifically mentioned in its constitution that it had no political objective. Actually French India was governed by an ordinance passed in 1840 under the French monarchy which virtually vested dictatorial power in the hands of the Governor who was nominated by the Minister of Colonies of the French Government. Under such a situation public opinion which shaped political consciousness among the people was virtually non-existent. Elections were rigged. Bandes were let loose by the election managers to control elections by way of threatening the voters. If such an obnoxious situation had retarded the growth of public opinion, the same situation had paved the way for organizing public resentment which, when articulated, assumed a powerful shape. But in French India it took many years for the people to organize public resentment and channelize it against the French Indian administration.

  • 1 Home Political A, May 1912, Nos. 28-29 (Secret Appendix). National Archives of India, New Delhi.
  • 2 Home Political A, Dec. 1913, Nos. 15-16. NAI.
  • 3 Ibid.
  • 4 Home Political Deposit, April 1910, No. 20. NAI.
  • 5 Jean Jaurès, Professor of Philosophy in the University of Toulouse. A committed socialist, he was s (...)
  • 6 Home Political Deposit, 12 March 1911, No. 12. NAI.

4The condition of the French Indian settlements, particularly in Chandernagore and Pondicherry, suddenly changed at the beginning of the century with the outbreak of revolutionary terrorism in Bengal. The British Government did not bother much about the internal condition of the settlements, but for many reasons they could no longer remain indifferent to what was happening in the settlements. Chandernagore, in the first decade of the century, was considered by the Bengal Government as one of the most dangerous spots.1 In a General despatch (No. 126, 12 August 1909) Chandernagore was referred to “as a centre of revolutionary party” and the British Government was worried because “the place situated as it is within a dangerously short distance from Calcutta, forms a safe and convenient rallying ground for conspirators”. There were also strong grounds for belief that arms and ammunitions were smuggled into Bengal from Chandernagore. The French authorities actually imposed no restrictions on the importation of arms into their possessions and the Bengal Government was of the view that traffic in contraband arms had gone up in Chandernagore.2 Apart from this there were proofs of certain newspapers, whose entry into the British territory had been prohibited, being smuggled into Chandernagore. Added to these were the activities of young revolutionaries who used Chandernagore as a safe haven. As yet they had no plan of action against the French authorities in Chandernagore. They were anti-British and the French administration was not interested to take any step against them “unless”, as Guysonnier, the French Administrator of Chandernagore, observed “positive proof of offence against French law was given to him”. The wave of political unrest which swept over Bengal in 1906- 1907 evoked a ready response in Chandernagore and gradually anti-European attitude began to thrive in which some students of the Collège Dupleix participated under the leadership of Charuchandra Roy. Some of them had acquired training in the manufacture of explosives3. This anti-European attitude manifested itself in several unpleasant incidents the most important being the attempt to kill Tardival, the French Mayor of Chandernagore, for his refusal to give permission to hold a public meeting in Chandernagore in which Bepin Chandra Pal was invited to speak. The Government of India no longer remained indifferent to what was happening in Chandernagore and put pressure upon the French Indian administration for flushing them out of the tiny settlement. But despite this Chandernagore continued to be a centre of the young revolutionaries of Bengal. Aurobindo Ghosh made a trip to Pondicherry from Chandernagore and Pondicherry, in the first decade of the present century, had become, in the opinion of the Director of Criminal Intelligence Branch (Government of India) “an altatia to which political and criminal offenders in trouble resort”.4 This port-town had become a headache to the British and the French authorities as well. It had become a centre for the distribution of seditious literature like Talvar, Bandemataram, Indian Sociologist, Liberation and Free Hindusthan which reached here from outside India. Since the early years of the century the French headquarters of India had witnessed a close contact with the “Jaurès”5 group in Paris, particularly with the Comité Radical Socialiste of rue de Valois (Paris). M. A. Vallabadassou, editor of Sri Soudajanaranjani, had links with the followers of Jean Jaurès and preached socialism in a subdued manner. Besides Aurobindo Ghosh, a number of prominent patriots and leaders had taken shelter in Pondicherry and the most important being V. V. S. Aiyar, Subramania Bharati and a host of young revolutionaries wanted by the British police in connection with the Ashe murder case. Anti-British activities began with renewed zeal when the whole press plant of India –a revolutionary journal– was transferred to Pondicherry after the Madras Government had cracked down on it. It should be borne in mind that the people who had taken shelter in Pondicherry after the ban had been imposed on India actually formed a nucleus known as “India Office Group”6 which had its office at 58, rue des Missions Etrangères (Pondicherry). With the advent of Aurobindo Ghosh to Pondicherry the political scenario of the place had changed causing headache to the British Government and the herding together of so many revolutionaries in one place broke the insulated character of Pondicherry. Hardinge, Viceroy of India, sought co-operation of the French Governor (Martineau) to check the circulation of the seditious literature. The Pondicherry authorities responded. Some revolutionaries or their accomplices were arrested and some journals like Sri Soudajanaranjani were muzzled. Meanwhile the outbreak of World War I had brought England and France closer together and as member of the Entente powers the Pondicherry authorities had to take strong measures to foil the efforts of the Germans and the Indian revolutionaries to carry on propaganda campaign by the circulation of the Ghadr in Pondicherry and Madagascar. No doubt a temporary check was imposed on the activities of the revolutionaries. But the most remarkable feature during the period under review was the growth of consciousness among the working class population of Pondicherry and Chandernagore, particularly in the former, where they were subjected to all types of exploitation. The condition of the labourers was miserable. Chandernagore had one jute mill and Pondicherry had three textile mills. The total working class population of French India was no more than a few thousands. They lived in squalor and they had to work daily for 10 to 12 hours under inhuman conditions. Their wages were abnormally low. They had no right to form trade unions and their grievances remained unredressed. Normally they were entitled to enjoy the benefits enshrined in the French labour code. But neither in Chandernagore nor in Pondicherry the mill owners extended those benefits to the working class people. The condition of the port-workers and that of the boatmen was equally pitiable as their wages were very low, having been fixed by a government order in the last century. These gave rise to resentment among the workers. They were poor and unorganized and therefore had to rot under the prevailing situation. Jawaharlal Nehru, during his visit to Pondicherry in October 1936, expressed surprise to hear that in Pondicherry there was no labour legislation worth the name.

5Throughout the 1920s and the greater part of the 1930s the problem of the labourers assumed a crucial shape and labour disturbances were very frequent. No attempt was made either by the employers or the Pondicherry authorities to remove the grievances of the labourers. Men like Subbiah, Doraissamy and Savarinathan came forward to articulate their grievances. In the 1930s France herself was passing through labour troubles. To tide over the financial deficit the French Government had imposed a cut in wages and there was a strong wave of protest. Dock and harbour workers in France organized strikes and troubles broke out in Brest, Toulon, Le Havre. Shops were closed and windows smashed. Following France, the Pondicherry administration too effected a 10 per cent cut in the salaries of all officials including the Governor during 1935-36. At the same time, French Indian officials were demanding a revision of their salaries. For a long time, the labourers of French India had been demanding a fair deal from the proprietors of the mills, but in vain. Numerous strikes were organized. Suddenly an explosion took place and the labour movement broke out with unexpected violence in June-July 1936. An attempt to evict the workers resorting to stay in strike by force on 30 July 1936 led to violence and shooting. 12 workers were killed by police firing and many more wounded and this happened when the Front Populaire had taken up the administrative reins of France. This incident of June-July 1936 had shaken the torpor. Senator Justin Godard, a labour representative, had been sent from France by the Council of Ministers to tour round all the French colonies in order to study the social, hygiene and labour problems. On the basis of the report submitted by him, a labour code, hailed as a charter of the working class people of French India, was finally passed in April 1937. But nevertheless it remained a live issue in the following years. Pondicherry textile mills witnessed repeated outbreaks of strikes paralysing production and aggravating financial difficulty. During the war years, the textile mills remained mostly closed due to shortage of coal.

6France came out of World War I not as a powerful country. Although she got back Alsace and Lorraine in Europe and the mandate of Syria, Togoland, Cameroon, her economy was weak and her politics was unstable. They had their effect in French India. The Governors of Pondicherry had brief tenures in office. Between 1919 and 1939 there were no less than 14 Governors. So was the position of the Administrators and the magistrates. The results were that French administration languished. No vigorous policy could be taken. Again neither the Governors nor the French Indian functionaries could discharge their duties fearlessly. The trend of politics in French India did not permit them to work independently. If a Governor or a functionary had declined to toe the heels of the deputy or the Senator they had to face transfer and quit the place. French India was, in fact, suffering from inertia and no long term step was taken to lift it up from the sluggishness to which it was plunged by frequent changes of Governors and functionaries.

  • 7 Consul general’s Monthly Report, 19 March 1945. F. O. 371/49186 (Public Records Office, Kew Gardens (...)

7Political situation in the French settlements in the 1920s and the 1930s centred round the deputy elections, elections for Conseil Général as well as municipal and mid-terms elections. There was dissatisfaction among the students of Pondicherry and other French pockets. There was also dissatisfaction among the merchants of Pondicherry over the introduction of the quota system which restricted the quantity of articles that could be transmitted from the French settlements of India to its surrounding communes as a Passe Debout. The Merchants’ Association of Pondicherry expressed strong resentment over the prevailing situation and a strike was observed in June 1936 to put pressure upon the government for the revocation of the quota system. Students of the Calve College went on strike again and again for the neglect of their grievances. A few years later even the students of Collège Colonial, always considered an elitist college where strict discipline was maintained, observed strike for the first time. A new consciousness was permeating among the students, workers and common people. There was a demand for electoral reforms, particularly the abolition of the existing two-list electorate system and the introduction of universal adult suffrage for men and women with only one list. Abolition of Sea Customs and reintroduction of land customs barriers, promulgation of laws giving freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of the pressmen as existed in France, introduction of laws regarding church and state as in France and introduction of compulsory primary education in French and in the mother tongue of the area concerned were strongly demanded.7 Open anti-French political activities were not possible, but the Harijan Seva Sangha popularized charka, khadi and organized Reading Rooms and acquainted the people about sanitation. The Harijan Seva Sangha resolved to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Indian National Congress as per programme chalked out by the Congress Committee. The youths of Pondicherry also formed the Bharatmata Association. By chanting the songs of Subramania Bharati they injected a kind of patriotism among the people. Already Gandhi had visited Pondicherry in 1934 and Jawaharlal’s trip to Pondicherry in 1936 had inspired the workers and leaders of Pondicherry.

8From the outset French Indian political life was dominated by a handful of powerful people. Shanmugham Mudaliar controlled the reins of French Indian politics well over 20 years. He was dethroned by Gaebelé and the Gaebelé party had uninterrupted sway in Pondicherry politics for another 20 years. A new party known as the Popular Party was organized in 1922 by R. Seilane Naicker, Joseph David and Thomas Aroul against the Gaebelé party which was replaced in 1928 by Sellane-David-Aroul combine. The Franco-Hindu party also known as David’s party was shortlived and a split occurred in the party owing to differences of opinion between Sellane and David on the allocation of certain budgetary provisions. The resultant effect was the division of the party into two factions –one headed by Sellane and the other by David; the former got the support of the Gabelé Party and scored a victory in the Assembly elections over their erstwhile friends. World War II saw the rise of the National Democratic Front, the Pondicherry Communist Party under the stewardship of V. Subbiah and the Socialist Party of Edouard Goubert, noted for his anti-communist stance.

  • 8 He also became Mayor of Pondicherry in 1935.
  • 9 Miles, William F. S. Imperial Burdens: Countercolonialism in Former French India, p. 160.
  • 10 Bonvin au Ministre de la France d’Outre-mer, 20 janv. 1939. Aff. Politiques, E20 (A. O. M.).
  • 11 Ibid.
  • 12 Baron au Commissaire aux Colonies, Lycée Fromention, Alger, 5 nov. 1943. Aff. Politiques, E22 (A. O (...)

9Just as the Gaebelé Party was challenged by the Franco-Hindu Party, similarly the Franco-Hindu party had to face stiff opposition from the Mahajana Party led by Marie Savéry, Doraissamy and Purushottama Reddiar. The rivalries between the two parties sparked off a trail of violence in Pondicherry and its environs. Political gangsterism, physical assaults and liquidation had become a common phenomenon in French Indian politics. David,8 President of the Assembly, had a major responsibility for creating such a lawless situation in Pondicherry. While in Chandernagore the revolutionaries were still active and shot dead Celestia Jules9 Commissioner of Police, on 9 March 1933, David had unleashed a reign of terror in Pondicherry by establishing a sort of personal rule. He controlled the entire administrative machinery of Pondicherry and whosoever refused to co-operate with him in his heinous deeds had to leave French India. A prominent person like Selvaradjalu Chettiar –a shipping contractor, dubash and stevedore– had to take shelter outside Pondicherry because of the hostility of David. From 1930 to 1938, five Governors had come and gone and a host of functionaries including magistrates who had refused to be his puppets had to leave Pondicherry unceremoniously and in all his misdeeds Philipon, Procureur Général, was his chief henchman. Persons owing loyalty to David were given lucrative position. Justice was twisted and difficult to obtain, and innocent people were hauled off in prison and, Pondicherry witnessed an orgy of violence. Trade and commerce stopped. Pondicherry port became idle. The French Governor himself admitted that violence was daily occurring in Pondicherry. In January 1937, a dastardly attempt was made on the life of David. He was fired upon and wounded. It reached its culmination when, on 17 December 1938, Selvaradjalu Chettiar was assassinated by an unknown person. This was followed by the murder of a bailiff in January 1939 whose dead body was found in a street of Pondicherry.10 The murder of Selvaradjalu created a terrible panic and a political crisis gripped the French headquarters. This gives a glimpse of violence which had shaken Pondicherry. Bonvin also brought to the attention of the Chef de Service de la Sûreté of Police the occurrences of such incidents in Grand Bazar, Ariacoupam and Modeliarpeth and he believed that had police been active such things could have been averted. In Karaikal too clash took place between the Police Commissioner and Taniyavelu, an officer of Ministère public.11 A few persons were also murdered in Mahe. In order to check this passion of vengeance and counter-vengeance –which was political in character– Mandel, the then French Minister for Colonies, had sent Baron to French India on a mission with the instruction to help the Pondicherry administration in the task of restoring order and effecting a reconciliation among the local politicians. Philipon, who was deeply involved in local politics and had been acting as a stooge in the hands of David, was transferred to Madagascar.12 During the tenures of Georges Bourret, Léon Solomiac and Crocicehia who had been successively Governors of French India, condition in Pondicherry had degenerated to such an extent that a large number of people had to quit Pondicherry for shelter in adjoining British Indian territory. Meanwhile the Front Populaire ministry ended in France. The communists and the socialists were excluded from the succeeding government. Louis Bonvin was sent as Governor of French India in September 1938. Since the communists were no longer sharing power in the new ministry, evil days befell the communists of French India. Bonvin banned the communist organizations and the press was fettered with restrictions. Subbiah was arrested and interned in the Vellore jail. On his release he returned to Pondicherry in 1940. The ban on the communist party was also withdrawn. To tide over the financial difficulties caused by the stoppage of any financial assistance from metropolitan France and the cost of the war, the Pondicherry authorities imposed new taxes. Land Revenue and Income Tax increased by 100 per cent. These caused real hardships to the French Indian people.

  • 13 Bonvin à France (Confidenliel), 20 janv. 1939. Aff. Politiques, E20 (A. O. M.).
  • 14 Bonvin aux Administrateurs de Karaikal, Chandernagor, Mahé et Yanam, 9 sept. 1940. Aff. Politiques, (...)
  • 15 Bonvin au Consul Général (Confidentiel) 31 oct. 1940. Aff. Politiques, E20 (A. O. M.).

10Bonvin inherited a bankrupt and debased politics –a brand of politics devoid of principles, ethics, morality and honesty for which the French Indian Government could not escape responsibility. His first task was to restore political peace in the settlement and to effect a reconciliation among the Pondicherry politicians. Municipal elections were avoided and nominated municipal bodies created in some places. But this move faced with a strong opposition from Balasubramanian and David.13 Bonvin had instructed the Administrators in all the settlements to follow a policy of caution and co-operation with the British Government.14 World War II had already commenced. The French record in the war was not satisfactory. A vanquished France had to accept the humiliating treaty of armistice of 25 June 1940. The government was riddled with Nazi agents. But French India refused to accept the armistice. It also refused to recognize the Government of Vichy and its decrees. But in Pondicherry and in other French settlements there was a good number of pro-Vichy elements and French India was, in fact, divided between pro-Vichy and pro-de Gaulle factions. De Gaulle had given the call to fight for freeing France in the middle of June 1940. The French Indian authorities observed that they did not get the communication on time. It was brought to their attention by the British Consul General of Pondicherry on 18 July 1940. It was not before 7 September 1940 that Bonvin officially announced French India’s adhesion to de Gaulle and accordingly, on 9 September, the Administrators of Karaikal, Mahe, Yanam and Chandernagore were informed. Since then all correspondence with the Vichy Government was totally avoided. Bonvin had taken much time to rally French India round the liberation struggle (France combattante) spearheaded by de Gaulle. The Pondicherry Governor was actually vacillating between Pétain and de Gaulle for some time and, at one time, he seemed to be tilting in favour of the former. But fear of the British Consul General compelled him to change his political choice. However, Bonvin wrote to the British Consul General intimating to him the intention of French India to work in close collaboration with the British Government of India and assured that anything damaging to British interests would not be allowed to happen in French India.15 He declared that he would be on the side of the liberators. Hard realities, he declared, induced him to fully collaborate with the British Indian Government. Cut off from metropolitan France and deprived of financial support, French India had to totally depend on British Indian support –economic or otherwise. The French Indian Governor, during the war, actually ceased to function independently and he had to bring all matters of French India, however trivial they might be, to the attention of the British Consul General of Pondicherry. French consulates of Calcutta, Bombay and other consular agencies of Madras, Karachi etc. were closed by a short letter from the Consul General of Pondicherry.

  • 16 Cypher telegram from the Secretary of State to the Govt, of India (External Affairs Dept.), repeate (...)
  • 17 Cypher telegram from Foreign Office to Sir Miles Lampson, Cairo, F. O. 371/28327, File No. 57 (PRO, (...)

11The Free French Movement in India was weak and it never developed into a strong platform for rallying the French citizens of French India round de Gaulle. It suffered from teething trouble from the moment it was formed and without the support of British Indian Government even its paper existence would have been impossible. For quite some time Bonvin was in two minds and chose to follow a non-committal policy and finally committed himself to de Gaulle movement. However, the loyalty of Bonvin having been established beyond doubt, de Gaulle, who was the head of the London Committee, instructed him with the mission of representing Free France throughout India. This naturally brought all other committees in India under his direct authority. But trouble soon appeared in October 1940 when General de Gaulle appointed as his representative an apparently objectionable individual, Quiribet of Bombay, without consulting Bonvin. De Gaulle had already given General Catroux who was head of the Cairo-based National Committee of Free France (Comité National de la France Libre) general supervision over certain areas and French India fell under his zone of influence. De Gaulle was actually maintaining direct communication with Free France Committees abroad and such a correspondence he was maintaining with the Bombay Committee headed by Quiribet as well as the Pondicherry Committee of Bonvin. This resulted in helpless duplication in the control exercised by de Gaulle and Catroux over the activities of Bonvin and Quiribet. This created a lot of confusion and the hostility between de Gaulle and Catroux was responsible for this. Quiribet’s Bombay Committee was associated with persons who were “disreputable”. As against the Quiribet Committee another Free French Society emerged in Bombay under L. Mosse. Mosse’s Society was associated with “honourable and prominent personalities”. General Catroux complained about his interference to General de Gaulle. He also informed de Gaulle that he had instructed Bonvin to curb the activities of Quiribet and his undesirable supporters. Upon this de Gaulle had instructed Quiribet to fuse his committee with that of Mosse’s16 and instructed Bonvin to restore unity among the French in Bombay.17 But Quiribet and his followers, instead of rectifying themselves, cast aspersions on the sincerity and loyalty of Bonvin and the Free France Movement headed by him. They claimed themselves as the only representatives of General de Gaulle.

  • 18 Consul general’s report for Oct. 1943, 9 Nov. 1943. F. O. 371/60041. File NO. 138 (PRO, London).
  • 19 Le Maréchal des Logis Govindaradjou, Commandant le poste de Gendarmerie auxiliaire Indigène de Mout (...)
  • 20 Circulaire (Confidentiel) d’un personnel civil et militaire des cadres métropolitains, 3 juin 1941. (...)

12Like the Calcutta Consul who had been repatriated for his pro-Vichy leanings, the French Consul of Bombay was loyal to Vichy. The British Indian Government did not hesitate to take strong measures to curb their activities. The British authorities had given strong support to Bonvin and refused to entrust Radio transmission centre of Kirkee (Bombay) to the Quiribet group. Besides, 300 volunteers from among the French Indian citizens were put at the disposal of the British authorities for transporting them to Sudan. In addition to recruitment of volunteers, Bonvin collected a good amount by means of lotteries, theatrical shows and displays together with house to house collections.18 The collection of money for the Resistance Movement within France had been going on at an even greater pace and by the final date, i.e. 11 November 1943, Bonvin telegraphically informed Algiers that 5 lakhs of rupees had been subscribed. This was even three times the figure of $110,000 he had set out to get and incidentally represented 192 million French francs. However, Quiribet was sidelined and Bonvin survived the conspiracy. But a large number of French officials and a sprinkling of French citizens swore allegiance to Vichy. In Pondicherry there were people who gave slogans like Vive Hitler, A bas Churchill. Strong steps were taken against the pro-Vichy officials.19 Either they were repatriated to Algiers or Saigon or detained in Yanam where a detention camp had been set up.20 French functionaries like Silvie (a judge) and Garnier La Roche, Administrator of Karaikal, had no faith in Free French Movement. They had to be repatriated. Gaudard was suspected of having sympathy for Vichy. Bonvin also suspected Aupiais, former President, Tribunal supérieur de la magistrature. Jouveau-Dubreuil, Professor of Collège Colonial, refused to side with de Gaulle despite persuasion. Again, there were rabid Gaullists like Massoutier who was Administrator of Chandernagore. Further, while Bonvin, with the support of the British Consul General, took prompt steps against those opposing Free French Movement, he had developed a kind of allergy against some of the prominent promoters of the de Gaulle Movement in French India. They were Baron, Monod-Herzen, Hackim etc. Bonvin was suspicious, jealous, intolerant and vindictive. In his correspondence with the British Consul General and de Gaulle, he had lodged a series of complaints against them and tried to paint them as conspirators who wanted to dislodge him from Pondicherry by joining hands with Quiribet. Not that they were faultless, but Bonvin had actually indulged in personal vilification against Baron and spread canards against others.

  • 21 Consul general to the Under Secretary to Govt, of India (External Affairs Dept.), 11 Jan. 1941. F. (...)

13Referring to the real status of the Free French Movement the British Consul General of Pondicherry wrote to the Secretary of State that the movement which required “a practical, constructive and active organization” was in utter shambles.21 He observed that the French officials were “appalled at the unbusinesslike muddle which have (been) brought to the notice of the Government of India”. He concluded observing

  • 22 Ibid.

whatever happens it is impossible to contain in this maelstrom of vague and confusing telegrams, which are sent both by de Gaulle and by Catroux to the Governor. Four French officials on separate occasions, have described the Free French movement in French India [...] as a “PAGAILLE”22 (mess).

14Free French movement in India was woolly and disorganized. It had seeds of dissension within it and it could never develop into a powerful force.

  • 23 Consul general’s report for February 1943, 21 March 1944. F. O. 371/60041. File No. 138 (PRO, Londo (...)
  • 24 Ibid.
  • 25 Bonvin au Commissaire aux Colonies, Lycée Fromention, 5 nov. 1943. Aff. Politiques, Inde E22 (A. O. (...)
  • 26 Consul general’s report for February 1943, 21 March 1944. F. O. 371/60041, File No. 138 (PRO. Londo (...)

15If the Free French movement had brought to the surface the disunity of the French in India and degenerated it to the level of personal rancour and platform for taking revenge and retribution against those whom Bonvin disliked or despised, the Combat movement further widened the breach and a vicious situation developed in the French Indian settlements. Combat was an anti-fascist resistance group and such resistance group were formed in different names in occupied France. In Pondicherry the Combat owed its origin to Adicéam who had arrived in Pondicherry from Algiers on a special mission in early February in 1944.23 Adicéam was originally a native of Pondicherry who had left the place in early 1920s after a brilliant studentship. He concluded his education in France (University of Aix-en-Provence) and was Professor of History at the Lycée of Oran (Algeria). For his good work in the resistance movement in France including 22 trips from French North Africa, since the Armistice of June 1940, he was placed on a special duty to visit his native place and organize a Combat group in French establishments in India. However, by his single-handed efforts he formed a Combat in Pondicherry in February 1944. But the people of Pondicherry was somewhat astonished to learn that V. Subbiah, the local communist turned labour leader, had been elected President with Commandant Ange, the O. C. Police and Troops, as Vice-President and Lambert Saravane as Secretary. Ladies, school teachers, doctors, students, merchants, congressites, communists, French High Court Judges and magistrates became members of the Combat24 whose office was located in the house of V. Subbiah (7 rue des Vellajas, Pondicherry). Adicéam also organized a Combat in Karaikal and Bonvin was requested to become the Honorary Patron, the object was to show that it was not against the French Indian Government in any way. The Governor rejected the request. He did not think that Combat was suitable for French India. His deep-seated hostility for Subbiah and the communists was again reflected in his expulsion from Pondicherry (April 1944). Bonvin’s hostility to the Combat came to the surface when Adicéam was in Mahe. He received a telegram from the Governor forbidding him to form Combat groups in Karaikal, Mahe and Pondicherry and in fact warned him to take legal action in case of non-compliance. The Governor did not stop at this. He dismissed Commandant Ange and ordered him to proceed forthwith to Bombay for repatriation which he did. Bonvin’s opposition to the Combat stemmed from his hostility for Subbiah who was elected President and who did not speak French. Bonvin also feared that Combat would become a toy in the hands of the communists on the one hand and rehabilitate David on the other whose political career suffered a terrible jolt after his recent defeat (17 September 1943) in the hands of Jeevarathinam to the election for the Provisional Consultative Assembly at Algiers.25 Soon after this he died and the Franco-Hindu Party disintegrated. He also apprehended that the Combat might launch an extreme type of nationalist movement in Pondicherry of which Lambert Saravane was the chief spokesman. His relations with Subbiah had reached the lowest ebb. He also suspected whether Adicéam was a genuine person as “he was working (or being worked) by some local disgruntled French Indian politicians...”. Moreover, Adicéam incurred his wrath and displeasure because he was the cousin of David –an inveterate enemy of Bonvin. It was this David who had unsuccessfully entered into a conspiracy for Bonvin’s recall from Pondicherry.26 Thus

  • 27 Ibid.

Pondicherry was in a state of animated suspension with one time ‘best friends’ now cutting each other dead or so on.27

16It was roughly since 1944 that the communists made a dent in Pondicherry politics. Despite this discordant note Combat existed in fact but in a form different from its real intention of drawing all French subjects together against the common enemy –the Germans. The British Consul General of Pondicherry was perhaps correct in his assessment of the Combat. He observed

  • 28 Consul general’s report. Letter no. 80-VII/7, 1945 Feb. 1945. F. O. 371/49186 (PRO. London).

the Combat or Resistance Movement in Pondicherry is not looked upon in the same way in Pondicherry as in France. Here it is definitely communist and is not necessarily pro or anti united France.28

  • 29 Bonvin au Ministre des colonies. Directeur des Affaires politiques, 1 mars 1945. Aff. Politiques, I (...)

17Bonvin also wrote in the same vein. According to him, Saravane and the Combat members had no role to play in the resistance movement of French India. To him Combat was mainly dominated by the Indian communists and it was receiving directives from the central committee of the party at Bombay.29

  • 30 Consul general’s report, 21 July 1945. F. O. 371/28383 (PRO. London).

18There was talk of a change of Governor from early 1945. The Combat group was tired of Bonvin while the Muslims, the managers of the mills, the manager of the Bank of Indo-China, prominent business men and local residents –Europeans and Indians– were in favour of his retention. But as yet there was no official announcement. This uncertainty continued for some time. Jeandin who held charge during Bonvin’s visit to France was made Acting-Governor in July 1945. It was during his tenure as Acting Governor that one of the outstanding grievances of people was removed. The separate electorates were abolished and a single list of voters was enforced in French India. Jeevarathinam piloted it. Jeandin also amended the wrongs done to the members of the Combat. Tetta, an Indian Christian and an indirect partisan of the Combat, who had been transferred by Bonvin as Administrator of Yanam, was brought back to Pondicherry as chef du service des contributions, otherwise called the Head of the Assessing Department.30 Lambert Saravane, who was dismissed by Bonvin because of his alleged involvement in the students’ strike in Collège Colonial, was reinstated. Jeevarathinam, who was elected to French India delegation for the Provisional Consultative Assembly at Algiers, was also elected a member to the National Constituent Assembly in France.

  • 31 Consul general’s report for the period 1 April –7 June 1946. 11 June 1946. F. O. 371/60041. File No (...)

19The political excitement which stalked Pondicherry consequent on the murder of Selvaradjalu was kept under check by Bonvin. Soon a new wave of political excitement came to the surface arising out of the deputy election in November 1946. A year ago, Jeevarathinam had been elected a member to the French Constituent Assembly. Now Lambert Saravane contested the election as a candidate of the French India Socialist Party. Party politics in French India had considerably changed after the death of David in 1944. The Franco-Hindu Party disintegrated and a splinter group headed by Goubert founded the French India Socialist Party under the patronage of the Governor. Among the contestants there were, apart from Saravane, Annussamy (NDF), Jeevarathinam (MRP), Armand Gallis Montbrun (URD) and Savarathinam (PRL). Saravane got full support from the communist dominated labour unions of Subbiah. He was elected by a huge margin. Subbiah supported him because of his communist leanings. The French Governor had an important role in his election. He had friendly relations with Saravane. He tactfully dissuaded Jeevarathinam from contesting the election by offering him a post in the local administration which he had accepted. Balasubramanian also yielded to the persuasion of the French Governor not to oppose Saravane.31 The French Governor supported Saravane hoping that he would abandon Subbiah once he was elected with his support. Saravane did not have any fixed political standing. At one time he was opposed to the integration of the settlements with Indian Union. Later he changed his stand. He broke both with Subbiah and Goubert and strongly advocated the merger of the settlements with India. Saravane also developed close relationship with André who was his relation by marriage and who supported his brand of politics.

20Jeandin did not hold office for long and he was succeeded by Baron as Acting Governor of French India. A staunch Gaullist, he had a romantic affection for India and an intellectual interest in Indian philosophy. A socialist in his political conviction, he had a shrewd political sense and was influenced by the political situation in France and the political party in power.


1 Home Political A, May 1912, Nos. 28-29 (Secret Appendix). National Archives of India, New Delhi.

2 Home Political A, Dec. 1913, Nos. 15-16. NAI.

3 Ibid.

4 Home Political Deposit, April 1910, No. 20. NAI.

5 Jean Jaurès, Professor of Philosophy in the University of Toulouse. A committed socialist, he was sometime leader of the Socialists in the French Parliament and there was a phenomenal growth of the Socialist Party under the leadership of Jean Jaurès and Jules Guesde.

6 Home Political Deposit, 12 March 1911, No. 12. NAI.

7 Consul general’s Monthly Report, 19 March 1945. F. O. 371/49186 (Public Records Office, Kew Gardens, London).

8 He also became Mayor of Pondicherry in 1935.

9 Miles, William F. S. Imperial Burdens: Countercolonialism in Former French India, p. 160.

10 Bonvin au Ministre de la France d’Outre-mer, 20 janv. 1939. Aff. Politiques, E20 (A. O. M.).

11 Ibid.

12 Baron au Commissaire aux Colonies, Lycée Fromention, Alger, 5 nov. 1943. Aff. Politiques, E22 (A. O. M.).

13 Bonvin à France (Confidenliel), 20 janv. 1939. Aff. Politiques, E20 (A. O. M.).

14 Bonvin aux Administrateurs de Karaikal, Chandernagor, Mahé et Yanam, 9 sept. 1940. Aff. Politiques, E20 (A. O. M.).

15 Bonvin au Consul Général (Confidentiel) 31 oct. 1940. Aff. Politiques, E20 (A. O. M.).

16 Cypher telegram from the Secretary of State to the Govt, of India (External Affairs Dept.), repeated to Embassy, Cairo. 16 Jan. 1942. F. O. 371/28327, File No.57 (PRO, London).

17 Cypher telegram from Foreign Office to Sir Miles Lampson, Cairo, F. O. 371/28327, File No. 57 (PRO, London).

18 Consul general’s report for Oct. 1943, 9 Nov. 1943. F. O. 371/60041. File NO. 138 (PRO, London).

19 Le Maréchal des Logis Govindaradjou, Commandant le poste de Gendarmerie auxiliaire Indigène de Mouttalpeth à Mons. Le Commissaire de Police de Mouttalpeth, 5 June 1941. Aff. Politiques, E21 (A. O. M.).

20 Circulaire (Confidentiel) d’un personnel civil et militaire des cadres métropolitains, 3 juin 1941. Aff. Politiques, E21 (A. O. M.).

21 Consul general to the Under Secretary to Govt, of India (External Affairs Dept.), 11 Jan. 1941. F. O. 371/28327, File No. 57 (PRO, London).

22 Ibid.

23 Consul general’s report for February 1943, 21 March 1944. F. O. 371/60041. File No. 138 (PRO, London).

24 Ibid.

25 Bonvin au Commissaire aux Colonies, Lycée Fromention, 5 nov. 1943. Aff. Politiques, Inde E22 (A. O. M.).

26 Consul general’s report for February 1943, 21 March 1944. F. O. 371/60041, File No. 138 (PRO. London).

27 Ibid.

28 Consul general’s report. Letter no. 80-VII/7, 1945 Feb. 1945. F. O. 371/49186 (PRO. London).

29 Bonvin au Ministre des colonies. Directeur des Affaires politiques, 1 mars 1945. Aff. Politiques, Inde E23 (A. O. M.).

30 Consul general’s report, 21 July 1945. F. O. 371/28383 (PRO. London).

31 Consul general’s report for the period 1 April –7 June 1946. 11 June 1946. F. O. 371/60041. File No. 1351 (PRO. London).

Table des illustrations

Titre French Settlements in India (Reproduced at the French Institute of Pondicherry from a map of 1951)
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