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Decolonization of French India

Ajit K. Neogy


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1The World War II came as a curse to people all over the world. Its consequences were devastating and it brought in its train immense sufferings to mankind. But nevertheless, it had some positive aspects. It generated a force of tremendous importance which moved on steadily setting aside all forces of reaction. This was the force of nationalism which was spearheaded by India in Asia. Burma was similarly in ferment and the south-east Asia too witnessed the upsurge of nationalism. India was passing through a crucial time. The Quit India movement had shaken British rule in India. Great Britain which had borne the principal brunt of the war found herself exhausted after the war. She had taken the lead in fighting the fascist forces. She now realized that the nationalist forces which were kept in check during the war years were going to reappear with a terrible prowess and her resources were not sufficient to grapple with the new situation in the offing. A policy of compromise seemed to her to be the best way. Attlee’s declaration paved the path for the foundation of a new India. In the midst of ravages wrought by war this declaration was a recognition to the forces of nationalism all over the world. This was no doubt a victory of the people fighting for throwing off foreign yoke. But this landed France in an embarrassing situation. French India and Free India could not co-exist in the same sub-continent.

2The development within India spilled over to the French Indian territories. Attlee’s declaration also inspired the French Indian people, who were discontented with French rule in India, to think in terms of freedom from French control and merger with Indian Union. France, instead of following in the footsteps of Great Britain, chose to tread a different path. She endeavoured to strengthen the bonds of the French Union by bringing the French Indian settlements within its orbit. France suddenly began to demonstrate interest in her Indian possessions by way of introducing administrative reforms which she had never done over the past decades. But these marginal administrative changes fell far short of the expectations of the French Indian people. Their demand for fusion with India mounted when India gained her complete independence in August 1947.

3For Free India, it was impossible to tolerate the existence of the French pockets which had become, to use the words of Léon St. Jean, “an impossible anachronism”. Nehru, an admirer of French culture, was inclined to solve the French Indian question by means of mutually accepted formulae. But for a variety of reasons for which both India and France were responsible, the French Indian problem bogged down and their areas of dispute widened without any apparent sign of solution. If India had acted in a retaliatory manner by adopting certain measures for safeguarding her economic interests, France behaved unwisely by resorting to repression, by denying civil liberties and by allowing electoral corruption which reduced the democratic institutions to a farce. The French Government was unstable. One ministry fell to be succeeded by the other. In the prevailing political instability in France a coherent and meaningful policy calculated to end the Indo-French stalemate could not be formulated. Ministers, bureaucrats and politicians shunned initiative and shirked responsibility in taking up any major problem affecting her prestige and interests. This delayed solution and complicated the situation.

4The French policy in French India was further plagued by the attitude of the two French ministries. The French Foreign Ministry and the French Overseas Ministry judged the French Indian problems from two different angles. Quai d’Orsay was more realistic, more pragmatic and more sensible than rue Oudinot which was conservative, colonial in temperament, possessive and reluctant to adjust to the changing world situation, particularly the changes in Asia and Africa. In totality the French Government suffered from lack of direction (although it was manned by some outstanding statesmen in the Foreign and Overseas departments), guidance and foresight. Indo-China problems and disturbances in North Africa placed her in an embarrassing situation. This again prevented France from giving due care and attention to the French Indian problems. So far as French India was concerned, they were, particularly the Overseas Ministry, fed with wrong information, incorrect reports and absurd proposals which had hardly any relevance with the actual situation. Grievances of the French Indian people were not correctly communicated and depth and intensity of the liberation movement was not properly gauged. Moreover, the Pondicherry Governor or the Commissaire de la République pour l’Inde Française and the French Ambassador in New Delhi lacked perfect understanding and one did not know what the other was doing or intended to do. Sometimes they worked at cross purposes. They were guided by their respective departments in France which again had imperfect understanding of French India –its people, its society and its politics. This seriously hampered diplomatic parleys. Both Daniel Lévi and Stanislas Ostrorog were able and efficient Ambassadors. Both defended the interests of France in a remarkable manner. Nevertheless, they differed in their approach and views. The former preached and propagated in favour of a condominium scheme for French India, the latter stood for packing up from India and disowning the Socialist Party of Goubert with which Pondicherry administration had identified itself in such a manner that the misdeeds committed by the party were interpreted as misdeeds committed by France. Like Baron, Ostrorog was misunderstood at home and he was criticized in French Parliament for his candid observations on French India. India, on the other hand was represented by Sardar Harbit Singh Malik. Indian policy towards the French Indian settlements was marked by consistency. Her repudiation of the June Agreement was prompted by the excesses committed by the hoodlums of the party patronized by the Pondicherry administration. It was this party which actually discredited France and defamed French democracy. Again, it was the defection of Goubert and his lieutenants which gave a new impetus to the liberation movement and quickened the process of merger of the French settlements into Indian Union. However, the Pondicherry administration realized the mistake when it was too late. Deserted by Goubert the chances of survival of France in India disappeared. But still it was not an inglorious retreat. The statesmen and politicians of the two countries gave proof of wisdom and sagacity by agreeing to reach an amicable settlement. Prime Minister Nehru, true to his adhesion to the principle of non-aggression, held patience in spite of provocation from within and without and time and again insisted on solving the vexed issue by means of dialogue. He saw some rays of hope when Pierre Mendès France appeared in the political scene of France. The latter was destined to pull out France from the Indo-China quagmire and India played a constructive role at the Geneva Conference to help end the impasse. Thanks to the leadership of India and France, the two countries averted the dangerous path of clash and conflict. They were spared from Casablanca, type riots or an Indo-China, like war. This was admitted by a person no less than Escargueil who, on the eve of his final departure from Pondicherry after the transfer of power, very emotionally said: “Nous avons évité l’effusion de sang. Nous n’avons pu empêcher les larmes de couler”. (We have averted blood-shed. But we have not been able to prevent tears from flowing). Pondicherry and the other French Indian dependencies had no economic or strategic importance. But their sentimental value was immense to France. However, the transfer of de facto sovereignty occurred in a peaceful manner and Indo-French relations founded on a basis which stood the test of time. Indo-French relations embarked upon a new phase leaving behind the years of mistrust and marching ahead for forging greater co-operation. Mendesism had the credit of ending the Indo-China War, liquidating the French Indian settlements and granting Tunisian independence. Indo-China had, in fact, flagged off the process of decolonization, French India gave it a momentum.

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