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How the French and Portuguese territories had contrasting paths to merger with India

On December 17, 1948, the Indian National Congress at a committee meeting in Jaipur put out a resolution stating the imminent aim of the absorption of Portuguese and French colonies into the Indian union. More than a year after Independence, as the government of free India was continuing its consolidation of the princely states, the handful of colonies under European administration remained outside the map of India. “The continued existence of foreign possession in India becomes anomalous and opposed to the conception of India’s unity and freedom,” the resolution had noted as reported by the New York Times the following day.

“Therefore it has become necessary for these possessions to be politically incorporated in India and no other solution can be stable or lasting or in conformity with the will of the people.”

The Portuguese colonies in India included Daman, Diu, Goa, Ilha de Angediva, Nagar Haveli and Panikota. The French colonies comprised Pondicherry, Mahe, Chandernagore, Karaikal, and Yanon. The consolidation of these colonies took place after more than a decade of India becoming independent. As historians have noted, the process of decolonisation and merger with the Indian union was a fairly complicated one.

Historian Akhila Yechury in a 2015 paper asks the question that by the 1950s the Indian state had maintained that the absorption of French territories in India was inevitable, but then what about those who lived in these territories themselves? “The fact that there are still over 8,000 French citizens in India today suggests that not all French Indians were willing to be subsumed in the ‘onward’ march of history,” she writes. At the same time in Goa, a large-scale freedom struggle had been in existence since the 18th century.The eventual withdrawal of France and Portugal from India needs to be located in the formative years of India’s foreign policy.

Withdrawal of the French from India

The end of the Second World War had made it fairly clear to the British that their rule in India was nearing an end. For France, however, the post-war reconstruction of their nation meant that focus had to be placed upon renewed engagement with the empire. It was understood that the empire would play an important role in the newly founded Fourth Republic. Historian Jessica Namakkal in her essay, ‘The terror of decolonisation: Exploring French India’s ‘Goonda Raj’ (2016) writes that the Brazzaville Conference, held in French Congo in January 1944, served as an early site for discussions on the future of the French Empire. It was decided that the colonised must be given the voice to decide how to be governed. The Brazzaville Conference gave birth to the idea of federalism among the people governed by the French overseas and also coined a new term for the empire: the French Union.

Festive offer

The French Union was codified in the constitution of the Fourth Republic by 1946 and as per Article 27 of the Constitution, the people of the colonies had the democratic right to decide whether or not they wanted to be part of the French Union. Namakkal explains that while to many outsiders it became obvious that the French possessions would join India after the British left, for the residents of the territories, the French had established themselves as ‘good colonisers’. “They had brought the possibility of citizenship to French India in the 1870s, a fact that even M K Gandhi recognised and lauded when he visited the French establishments in the 1930s,” writes Namakkal. Further, many in French India spoke French and not English, which gave them the understanding that life in the French Union would be better than that in independent India which was linked to the British Commonwealth.

Also read | Unseen, rarely read but still present: The persistence of French writing by Indians

Tezenas Du Montcel, the inspector-general of the colonies, insisted that the French must take advantage of the resentment that people in India had towards the British and must also avoid the route taken by the Portuguese, who in 1946 had declared their intention to hold on to their Indian possessions indefinitely. Du Montcel’s report also noted how the Indian Press frequently lauded the liberal attitude taken by the French as opposed to an ‘authoritarian’ Portuguese. Rather the French must emphasise on the agency of the colonised and remind them of the advantages of being part of the French Union. “In independent India they would simply be incorporated into the whole: “in the mass of 400 million Indians, our350,000 French Indians would lose all their originality, all their importance – [they would become] a drop of water in an ocean’,” cites Namakkal in her work.

By August 1947, however, the anticolonial sentiment was running high in the French territories as well. Several groups had emerged within the French territories that actively sought the merger with the Indian Union. These included the Students Congress of French India, the French Indian National Congress and the Communist Party of French India. The month of August in fact saw several demonstrations erupting across the French territories. In Chandernagore for instance, the National Democratic Front (NDF) threatened to launch a satyagraha if the French did not come up with a plan on merger with India. A similar demand came up in Karaikal as well, while in Mahe the nationalist Mahajana Sabha threatened to set up a parallel government. Several petitions were submitted to the municipal corporation in Pondicherry to unfurl the Indian flag on August 15 as a mark of protest.

Volunteers of the Pro-Merger Movement with India in the French Settlements, despite harassment by the French Police, are seen here going round convincing people to join in the struggle for liberation, when the movement gathered momentum in March, 1954. (Wikimedia Commons)

Finally on August 28, 1947, India and France issued a joint statement on the plan of decolonisation. Yechury in her essay notes that the two governments decided to resolve the issue in an amicable manner taking into account “the aspirations and interests of the people, historical and cultural links which unite them to France as well as the evolution of India”.

For the French government, whatever happened in India was to have its repercussions in their other colonies in Indochina and Africa. Consequently, their motive was to prolong the process of negotiation as much as possible. For the Indian government on the other hand,even though it agreed to examine the voices of the people, the way it perceived them, the French territories were simply a part of India, and an alternative was simply not an option. The perception of the Indian government was rooted in the fact that the French territories did not really form a cohesive unit. Rather they were spread out across the subcontinent and shared extremely porous boundaries with British territories. Linguistically and ethnically these regions had more in common with neighbouring British territories than with each other.

In 1953 a political pamphlet was produced by the Free India Publications which started by denying the existence of anything called ‘French India’. It called them “only four spots of territory” and that the only thing French about them was the fact that they were being governed by the French Colonial Office.

Meanwhile, in June, 1948, the French government held a plebiscite at Chandernagore, now a part of West Bengal. Namakkal in her essay writes that out of 12,184 registered voters, 7473 voted for India and a mere 114 votes went towards inclusion into the French Union. Interestingly, for weeks before the plebiscite officials of the INC spoke out publicly about the impossibility of the referendum being free and fair. They pleaded with the French government to hand over the territory to India without the agreed upon referandum.

In the other colonies, however, there was a section of society expressing anxiety against joining the Indian union. The Muslim League of French India, for instance, set out very clearly that separate electorates were a prerequisite for a fair referandum to take place. The Communists, although sure about the merger of French territories with the Indian Union, were fairly critical of the INC. Yechury cites a June 1950 article in the Tamil magazine from Karaikal called Velli which remarked that “India needed to look at its own policies before criticising the French for being intolerant of political diversity.” Several journal articles frequently pointed out to the INC’s dealing with the princely states to caution against merger with India.

Then there was also a lot of apprehension about a predominantly Hindi speaking government, located in the north of the country imposing an authority over the territories which were located in the south. The economic logistics was another argument drawn upon by the anti-merger groups. “The main argument was that the Indian economy was much weaker than the French economy and therefore disadvantageous to the interests of the French settlements,” writes Yechury.

Namakkal writes that the years between the referendum in Chandernagore and the French agreement to leave Indian possessions in 1951 were marred by violent encounters in the borders that separated French from Indian territories.

N V Rajkumar, in his 1951 book ‘The problem of French India’, notes the situation in Pondicherry: “It is well-known that naked rowdyism is prevailing in these areas obviously tolerated by the authorities in their own interest. People live from day to day in fear of their lives and possessions. I have not witnessed such abject slavery and such demoralisation even in the worst days of British rule in India.”

The fear of violence was soon taken by the INC as reason to assume that a fair referendum would not be possible in such a situation. Further, the Socialist Party, which was staunchest in its opposition for a merger, had emerged victorious in the municipal elections of 1948 and 1951. The Congress was wary of the sway the party could have on local opinions and consequently accused the French government of propping up the Socialist Party and violently intimidating the people to vote in its favour. The accusation was not completely uncalled for, since acts of violence against pro-merger groups in Karaikal and Yanam had indeed taken place.

The French on their part were also worried about the possibility of direct intervention by the Indian government. This apart the defeat of the French in Indochina in May 1954 too played a role in their decision to not press for a referendum. Yechury explains that up until this point Pondicherry was seen as a useful transit point and supply line for Indochina. Defeated and exhausted, the French government was fairly willing to give up on its Indian possessions.

Thereafter, the idea of a referendum was dropped and instead the elected representatives of French India decided on a merger with India. A meeting was held on October 18, 1954 at Kizhoor in Pondicherry, where out of 178 delegates 170 voted in favour of merger. The formal transfer of power took place on November 1, 1954 through a de facto treaty.

Goa, Goa elections, Goa liberation movement, Goa freedom struggle, Portuguese in Goa, French in India, French colony in India, Pondicherry, Ponducherry liberation movement, Pondicherry freedom struggle, Nehru, Indian national congress, congress, India freedom struggle, British rule, Indian history, history, Indian Express Double barbed wire fence erected around the enclaves by the Indian authorities (1954).

Interestingly, while the French had agreed to transfer its territories to India in 1954, it took another eight years for the ratification of the cessation. “For eight years people in Pondicherry were completely confused about whether they were French or Indian,” says Ari Gautier, a Franco-Tamilian novelist who has authored several historical fiction novels about Pondicherry. “During this period the Indian government placed economic sanctions upon Pondicherry in order to put pressure on the French government to ratify the treaty at the earliest.”

Gautier says that the French were keen on retaining some amount of cultural presence in India even after the transfer of their territories. In 1962, for a period of six months, residents of the French territories were given the option to choose to retain their French citizenship, which many did. “However, not much awareness was created about this possibility,” says Gautier. “A lot of people regretted not retaining their French citizenship. Mainly the regret was due to the financial prospects that a citizenship of France brought to those who opted to retain it,” he says. “Even today there is a section of people in Pondicherry who believe that the region must be given back to France.”

The departure of the Portuguese

The case of the Portuguese territories in India was markedly different from that of the French. Goa-based writer Vivek Menezes explains there were continual resistances and rebellions from the 17th century onwards. “One of the first nationalist campaigns was the Pinto rebellion against Portuguese rule in Goa which took place in 1787 and was inspired by the French revolution,” says Menezes. The freedom movement in Goa in that sense was very old.

Yet another way in which the Portuguese Colony in India was different from the French ones is that Goa was part of Portugal from the early 19th century. “Goans substantially were voting for their representatives in the Portuguese Parliament from the 19th century,” explains Menezes.

A most renowned Goan nationalist leader of the 19th century was Francisco Luis Gomes, who represented Goa in Portugal as Member of Parliament. A ferocious anti-colonialist, he continually fought against the Portuguese dictates on slavery and racism. Gomes is known to have taken great pride in his Indian ancestry and was a staunch nationalist who believed in the right for Swaraj or self-governance for all Indians.

Goa, Goa elections, Goa liberation movement, Goa freedom struggle, Portuguese in Goa, French in India, French colony in India, Pondicherry, Ponducherry liberation movement, Pondicherry freedom struggle, Nehru, Indian national congress, congress, India freedom struggle, British rule, Indian history, history, Indian Express Bust of Francisco Luis Gomes in Margao, Goa. (Wikimedia Commons)

In an 1861 letter to his friend and the French intellectual Alphonse Marie Louis De Prat De Lamartine wrote: “I was born in India, once the cradle of philosophy, poetry and history, but now (under the British yoke). I belong to that race which created the mahavharata and invented the game of chess, the two conceptions of the intellect that bear in the, something of the Eternal and the Infinite, But this nation which formulated its legal codes in poetry and fashioned its politics in a game, is no longer alive. It survives, imprisoned in its own country, exhausted by its own fertility and eclipsed in the very splendor of its glory. This bird, fluttering against the irons of its cage, has lost its own feathers, on the wings of which it once soared above the Himalayas. Weeping over the freedom of which it has been despoiled and the light that has fled, this nightingale has forgotten its song, the strains of which once echoed in the heavens… I ask for India freedom and light…..”

Consequently, by the time the Indian nationalist movement against British rule had taken off in the 20th century, Goa already had an established culture of resistance and nationalism against Portuguese rule. Consequently, the influence of the nationalist uprising was felt very strongly in the Portuguese territories. Tristão de Bragança Cunha, who is celebrated as the father of Goan nationalism, had formed the Goa National Congress at the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress in 1928.

“On 18th June, 1946 the Indian socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, decided to break down the unnatural political boundaries between Goa and the rest of India by launching non-violent direct action to defy the unjust laws of the Portuguese government that denied the Goans their basic civil rights,” writes historian Seema S. Risbud in her thesis, “Goa’s struggle for freedom 1946 1961: the contribution of National Congress Goa and Azad Gomantak Dal” (2003).

Formed in August 1946, the National Congress (Goa) accepted the Indian National Congress as a model organisation and provided a platform for Goans to articulate their demands for freedom against a despotic Portuguese rule. Eventually the NC (G) laid down its objective as the complete independence of Goa, Daman and Diu and its integration with the Indian Union through nonviolent means.

Risbud explains that along with the Gandhian ideology of non-violence, the resistance in Goa was also influenced by militant nationalism that had dominated phases of the nationalist uprising in India. Important to remember here is the role of the Azad Gomantak Dal (AGD), a revolutionary organisation that launched an underground resistance.

Unlike the French Republic, Portugal at this point in time was under dictatorial rule. António de Oliveira Salazar, who had come to power in Portugal in 1932, had, in the face of Indian Independence, maintained that Goa is an integral part of Portugal. He also claimed that Goans did not consider themselves to be Indians and rather deemed themselves to be Portuguese Goans with representation in the Portuguese legislature.

For Nehru, Goa was part of India in every was and was being ruled by a fascist and racist regime. He famously used the phrase “just a pimple on the face of India” to describe the region under the Portuguese. Despite his firm belief in the independence of Goa, however, the trauma of the Partition and the war with Pakistan meant that the Indian government was wary about getting involved in another conflict with an international community. “Besides, it was Gandhi’s opinion that a lot of groundwork was still needed in Goa to raise the consciousness of the people, and the diverse political voices emerging within should be brought under a common umbrella first,” writes Professor Rahul Tripathi in a recent article in The Indian Express.

Explained | What happened in the Goan liberation movement

Between 1947 and 1953, several diplomatic efforts were made by the Indian government to ensure a peaceful transfer of power in Goa, but Portugal refused to play along, thereby deteriorating relations between the two countries.

On August 15, 1954, a mass satyagraha was organised by the National Congress Goa, which was brutally suppressed by the Portuguese authorities. In 1955, the Communist Party of India sent batches after batches of satyagrahis to Goa who defied the Portuguese authorities and raised the Tricolour. They were fired upon and many were killed and arrested in the process.

Since by then Portugal had become part of the NATO, Goa too was considered a NATO territory making the Indian government more reluctant to react to the situation. In his 1955 Independence Day speech, Nehru was largely critical of the satyagraha movement in Goa. His stance on the matter had a demoralising effect on the different branches of the freedom movement that had emerged in Goa. At the same time, the Indian government also reacted to the firing incident upon the satyagrahis and snapped all ties with Portugal.

By July 1954, the Communist Party of India along with a few revolutionary groups forced the Portuguese out of Dadar and Nagar Haveli. However, due to diplomatic constraints they were not merged with the Indian Union, but functioned as independent enclaves.

It was only in 1961 that the Indian government finally proclaimed that Goa should join India “either with full peace or with full use of force”. On December 18 and 19, 1961, a full fledged military operation termed ‘Operation Vijay’ was carried out with little resistance and an instrument of surrender was signed.

The demise of the 451-years old Portuguese rule in Goa was a landmark moment in the history of Portuguese decolonisation. “The movement of Goans to liberate themselves from the clutches of Portugal’s dictatorial rule shattered the last remnants of European colonialism in India and at the same time heralded the freedom of African colonies such as Angola and Mocambique,” writes Risbud.

“The people of Goa definitely wanted freedom, but it did not happen on Goan terms,” says Menzes. “The big difference between French and Portuguese India is that in the case of the former there was a negotiated settlement with the Indian government. So the people of Pondicherry were never traumatised. In the case of Goa, since Salazar refused to give it up despite the freedom movement, it had to be annexed.”

Further reading:

Akhila Yechury; Imagining India, Decolonising L’Inde Francaise, c. 1947-1954; The Historical Journal, 2015

Jessica Namakkal; The Terror of Decolonisation: Exploring French India’s ‘Goonda Raj’; International Journal of Postcolonial Studies; 2016

D P Singhal; Goa- End of an Epoch; The Australian Quarterly, 1962

Seema Suresh Risbud; Goa s struggle for freedom 1946 1961: the contribution of national congress goa and azad gomantak dal; Goa University, 2003

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