Unfortunately, reality was very different from appearances, and French India came to epitomise the failure of the French colonial project rather than illustrate its success. The first twenty years of universal male suffrage in French India were, in fact, the most dramatic for Republican theory.

The beginnings of the ‘Goonda Raj’

The introduction of universal male suffrage in India was not without repercussions for the colony. In the absence of appropriate preparation, it brought to light major divisions in the French Settlements and resulted in Pondicherry suffering decades of a veritable ‘Goonda Raj’, a ‘government of hooligans’.

An incident in 1873 exposed the weaknesses in the new system. An Indian advocate, Ponnoutamby, entered a courtroom wearing shoes, and thereby became a source of embarrassment to the colonists. He had transgressed the customary law of Mamoul, the traditional Hindu law whose implementation Dupleix had promised to all Indians. Covering the entire gamut of social customs, it laid down the basis of judgement for Indians under the caste system.

However, according to the French Napoleonic Code, with its stress on equality under the law, no crime had been committed. The most embarrassing aspect for the colonists – and for Indians of high caste – was that Ponnoutamby appealed under French law and publicly renounced caste customs, thereby placing himself outside Indian society and taking refuge in the arms of France. What is more, he invited Christian Indians, out-castes as well as low castes, to do the same, and in this way founded a party, called by the colonists Les Renonçants.

Governor Trillard tried to play down this renunciation. ‘I doubt, Honourable Minister,’ he writes to Paris, ‘that there are many Indians who would have recourse to this option – maybe, a few rare Christians who dream only of innovation and assimilation, but as for the pagans, I can declare loudly and clearly that they will be the last to renounce.’

The majority, who were primarily Hindu, felt their identity and position, as well as their customs, threatened. The Party of Les Renonçants, which at its height numbered no more than 2,000, although it claimed to have 4,500 members, demanded an extension of political rights through a revision of the electoral lists. Until 1880, there were two electoral colleges, one for the Europeans which, in spite of its smaller numbers, carried more weight than the one for the Indians.

Les Renonçants, who claimed to be Franco-Indian, sought to gain entry into the first electoral college. The Europeans were at a loss, but Paris relished this evident commitment to France. ‘French Government policy has always been to try and respect the customs and beliefs of Indians, but never to impose this on them, if they wish to deviate from them.’

For the Metropolitan Government, the incident represented the progress of its policy and it approved the change, even though Les Renonçants were much smaller in number and sometimes less French-speaking than they claimed to be.

How the Indians fought back

The Indians were prepared to use the weapons that France had given them with admirable skill, and not only in one direction. Chanemougam, a prominent citizen described by supporters as ‘deeply religious, almost mystic’, a man endowed with remarkable intelligence, sought to impede the assimilationists.

First, he took advantage of the two elections with universal suffrage, the legislative and the senatorial. It is he who struck a deal with the French journalists who announced their candidature in the national elections. Pierre Alype was at that time editing Le Journal des Colonies, a small newspaper, and Jacques

Hébrard’s brother was the editor of Le Temps, the Third Republic’s most influential newspaper. They had the mission of defending, by hook or by crook, the ideas of Nadou Chanemougam. As for the elections, they were mere formalities; they were rigged in advance and thanks to generous libations of kallu, the local coconut alcohol, the turnout of voters rose swiftly. Alype remained a deputy for over sixteen years and Chanemougam made use of his influence to undermine the hopes of Les Renonçants in Paris.

Although this did not happen without some resistance, French India gradually disintegrated into a country of electoral scandals, a process which continued right up to the Second World War. In 1884, an important and heated exchange took place in the press concerning the Right to Renunciation and the need to settle it once and for all. Victor Schœlcher himself was the author of a decree which divided the electoral body into three colleges, which was hardly satisfactory to anyone.

Chanemougam continued his campaign, increasing his electoral majority by the same methods. The political atmosphere became ever more oppressive, and elections turned into nightmares. Each party, and indeed the administration itself, was prepared to use the most violent means to achieve its ends.

Finally in 1893, the colony crumbled under the weight of serious riots which, when reported in France, sounded the death knell of the doctrine of political assimilation. In 1906 the Journal des Débats wrote: ‘Universal suffrage in India is a tumour that resists all remedies. There is but one surgery which can be effective – pure and simple elimination of the right to vote, consenting to which has been a terrible mistake.’

Colonial representation from India, the West Indies, Africa and Cochinchina, was rejected wholesale. Instead many people supported the idea of association, or the idea of fundamentally separate ways of development, and with it the complete suspension of democratic institutions in the colonies.

In fact, such a change of policy did not take place, but the French Government, it is true, did not pursue the establishment of any more assimilated colonies until the attempt to save the Empire with the French Union in 1946.

Within the colony the status quo was maintained, mostly because the French oligarchy in Pondicherry, led by the industrialist Henri Gæbelé, managed to regain control over most of the political institutions between 1906 and 1914. He was Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, Mayor of the city, Chairman of the Local Assembly and finally Senator of French India. His allies had total control of the port and the boatmen of Pondicherry were used as the new shock troops of the French party.

Around 1918, the last political adversaries openly talked about his nepotism. They were weak no doubt but not yet disarmed. They raised their head again in the 1920s: a Franco-Hindu party bringing together those most hostile to legal assimilation, continued to demand one common electoral list and finally succeeded in dethroning the old leader in the 1928 elections.

An evaluation of this first ‘Goonda Raj’, however negative it might have been for Republican institutions in French India, does indicate, nevertheless, some progress and change in the nature of political debate. The question at issue in Chanemougam’s struggle had been the pre-eminence of Indians over Europeans and Les Renonçants. At a later stage, each group divided further in a process which offered new opportunities for compromise, alliance and agreement, thereby making the political scene infinitely richer, although unfortunately no less brutal, during elections.

Excerpted with permission from Pondicherry, That Was Once French India, Raphale Malangin, Lustre Press/Roli Books.