As Pondicherry prepares for legislative assembly elections this spring, it brings to mind a neglected anniversary: over 225 years have passed since residents of this former French colony first sought the right to vote.
Pondicherry is full of signs of France’s colonial presence, which lasted from 1674 to 1954. Streets named after French officials, monuments to Indians who fought for France in the First World War, and the accents of French tourists who lounge in cafés all show that the heritage lives on.
But no monument acknowledges that Pondicherry was a cradle of Indian democracy, where Indians, facing off against an openly racist empire, first tried to participate in elections.
In the summer of 1789, the power of the French king collapsed and democratically-elected local governments sprouted across the French empire, including in Pondicherry. The white inhabitants of the colony, numbering only a few hundred (less than 2% of its total population), elected their own town government and excluded Indians from the elections. They claimed that the right to vote would be wasted on Indians, whom they described as too obsessed with caste prejudice to understand democracy. The French meant to have democracy all to themselves, while continuing to impose colonial rule on their Indian subjects.
Pondicherrians, however, not only understood the idea of equality, but were eager to put it into practice. Several communities pursued different kinds of political action to pressure the French government to recognise that Indians deserved the rights of citizenship.
Some of the most vocal protests came from mixed-race people. Before the French Revolution, they had widely been considered to be white, but now they found themselves denied the status of French citizens by a government increasingly concerned about skin colour. The town council voted that civil rights would be extended only to those children of French men and Indian women “who do not bear too visibly the marks of mixed blood”. French fathers refused to accept their darker-skinned children as fellow citizens.
Similarly affected were the Topas, a mixed-race community descended from marriages between Portuguese traders and Indian women. When they were denied the right to vote, they not only protested to the colonial government, but also sent a petition to the National Assembly in Paris, insisting that “the colour of the Topas must not exclude them” from citizenship. Unanswered and lost in the archives, their petition was only recently discovered by historian Adrian Carton.
Still more radical were the actions of the city’s Tamil population, which constituted the majority. At times members of the community took direct action against the colonial government. For instance, when the police tried to seize the goods of a bankrupt merchant who had been ruined by the government’s refusal to repay debts that it owed him, the Tamil community took to the streets to protect his property.
Tamil elites also used softer approaches, writing their own petition to the National Assembly. They claimed that they had “French hearts” and “honored themselves with the title of French citizens”, subtly drawing attention to the fact that they were not, in fact, treated as citizens. This petition, like that of the Topas, was ignored by the French government, and has long been ignored by historians.
In 1793, Pondicherry was invaded by the British, who brought the French Revolution in India to a sudden end. But even if the revolution was brief, it nevertheless provided an historic opportunity for Pondicherrians to show that they desired equality. In spite of French prejudices, they insisted that the rights of citizenship included all of Pondicherry’s inhabitants, regardless of colour. Their inspiring struggle for democracy deserves to be remembered.