exotic lands

Postcards from Pondicherry: When French ideas of égalité encouraged Dalits to assert their rights

Snapshots from an era of colonial pride.

Pondicherry, known today for its Aurobindo ashram and street signs in French, was once the pride of French India. At times, however, it might have seemed as if the French public did not know much about the Indian colony, which is perhaps where these postcards, printed between 1890 and 1930, come in.

Their images capture a brief period of French colonial enthusiasm between the city's economic decline at the end of the 19th century until its eventual integration into India.

The drawings might seem stiff to a modern eye, but in their time, they were a part of a larger lobbying campaign in France to stir nationalistic pride and bring approval to fresh military missions in Europe and colonies across the world. The postcards, it would seem, were to make the colony familiar to residents of distant France – and with that bring a sense of ownership over it.

The lobbyists were members of the Colonial Party, comprised largely of industrialists and journalists who very often had commercial interests in keeping colonialism alive. The party recruited members from intellectual families. Significantly, it had no electoral ambitions, but had members important enough to influence national policy. The party championed the cause of promoting explorers and expanding the French empire. As with their contemporaries, they spoke grandly of their duty to wean “natives” from superstition to French-style scientific thinking.

This and more is explained in Pondicherry that Was Once French India, a book by Raphael Mulangin. Mulangin, a teacher at the French Lycée in Pondicherry and long-time associate of INTACH Pondicherry, draws together a comprehensive illustrated history of the city, of which the postcards are a small part.

A quick history

Pondicherry was among France’s first settlements in India. France got the official right to settle in the town in 1672, on the agreement of the ruler of Pondicherry, at the time a representative of the Bijapur sultanate. But by the closing decades of the 19th century, the author wrote, Pondicherry became something of an “old family heirloom that one does not want to part with”.

At the time the Colonial Party rose, Pondicherry was at the tail end of a severe economic decline. Though it was hotly contested by the English and French through the 18th century, by the 1800s, the region was unable to compete with the global market then dominated by the United States and Britain.

Though the French retained Pondicherry as a symbolic site of their ambitions to build an Indian empire for several decades longer, it faced other problems – that of assimilation. The French, unusually high-minded for a colonial empire, granted universal male suffrage to all its citizens across the world in 1873, even as it upheld upper-caste Hindu laws for the residents of Pondicherry.

Since Napoleonic France was founded on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, and the people of Pondicherry were ostensibly equal to native French, this led to clashes when Dalits began to legally assert their rights, and in some cases renounce the caste system altogether to take shelter in French laws.

These issues did not seem to concern the Colonial Party, which was more interested in portraying the colonies as idyllic refuges. Their strategy did indeed influence a great race for colonial expansion, supported by German Chancellor Otto Bismarck.

But by the beginning of the 20th century, public focus shifted away from colonies, particularly after the death of Jules Ferry, a French politician who had been a vociferous promoter of colonial expansion. By the First World War, the party’s influence declined entirely.

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