By Aindrila Chakraborty
The French colonized territory of Pondicherry was formally ceded to India in 1962. Today, there are Pondicherrians in the union of independent India who are French nationals, exercising French citizenship rights. This essay engages with the French nationals of Pondicherry who are fragmented among their national, ethnic/cultural and territorial identities. An attempt has been made to situate them in diaspora discourses and to understand their ideas of home and host, through an ethnographic study.
Miles notes, “If empire building is a haphazard affair,…imperial deconstruction – that is, decolonization – can be no less untidy.” In 1956, a treaty of cession was signed between India and France, with the de jure transfer of power of Pondicherry to take place in 1962. The treaty provided an option for the colonized French nationals to retain their French nationality, notified through a written document, within a period of six months from the transfer of power. The treaty exempted all Pondicherrians, who were under French employment and/or were outside of Pondicherry during the transfer from giving up their French citizenship, and were eventually repatriated to India as French nationals. Furthermore, any minor, who was born to a French national parent would be born a French citizen; however, at the age of 18 years, the person could choose to remain French or attain Indian citizenship. Similarly, those who were minors when they became Indian citizens had the choice to remain Indians or choose French nationality after attaining the age of 18 years. A probation period of 50 years was provided to implement such choices.
The French nationals of Pondicherry are majorly ethnic Tamils (with a small proportion of Malayalam and Telugu speaking groups) who exercise their political rights as French citizens. However, their cultural belonging lay in the territory of which they are alien citizens, registered as Overseas Citizens of India (OCI).
Most of the respondents interviewed boasted of generational associations with France and its colonial expeditions. Members are from families that served the colonial army or administration or inducted into the French missionary. Almost all the respondents seem to have echoed a single response, “We had come to Pondicherry after 1962 and we were French.” France extends certain pensions to families of those who served the army, and the pensions that are extended depend on the rank that the members of their families held in the French colonial army. The French citizens are registered as OCIs and have the right to reside in Pondicherry or parts of India, having education and work permits with certain restrictions. The community exhibits a strong sense of ethnic and linguistic belonging to the larger Tamil society in Pondicherry. Despite having a strong sense of belonging to their ethnic location which forms a part of their identity, they have an undisputed sense of belonging to the nation of which they are citizens, wherein they identify themselves not as mere citizens of France, but as French. This community tends to reside in their ethnic homeland as diasporas do in their hostland.
The term diaspora has been increasingly associated with the dispersal and movement of communities from their place of origin to another land wherein they tend to settle. Scholars of diaspora have, in ways, tried to provide a theoretical framework for studying the diaspora. However, who comprises a diaspora is contestable. William Safran enumerated the characteristics of a community which can be categorized as diaspora. According to Safran, diasporas are communities with characteristics wherein, a. They (or their ancestors) have been displaced from a specific origin “center” to “peripheries” or foreign lands, b. They retain a collective memory or a myth about their homeland, c. They feel they are not and cannot be completely assimilated into the hostland, feel alienated from and insulate themselves from the hostland, d. They consider their place of origin as an ideal place to which they or their descendants should eventually return to, e. They believe that they should be collectively responsible for the maintenance and restoration of their original homeland, f. They continue to relate to their homeland through cultural or ethno-communal consciousness, defining their solidarity. This community’s residence as a diaspora community is more closely linked to their present state of residence in their ethnic homeland than due to their migratory history.
An attempt has been made here to engage with Indian French national’s ideas of homeland and hostland, as found in their oral narratives and in their identifications. Most diaspora communities are subjected to an identification, wherein they are looked upon as outsiders in the larger society that they inhabit. Such communities either take it upon themselves to integrate into the larger society or insulate themselves from it, holding onto their belonging to their homeland, and onto an imagination of their eventual return to that homeland (more often than not, their ethnic or cultural nation that they have left behind, than the territorial nation-state of their origin). If the oral narratives of the French Tamils of Pondicherry and their ideas of homeland and hostland are taken into account, a clear binary cannot be gauged. From the majority of the oral narratives, a reference to France as their homeland, rather, their motherland, a place from which they derive their collective identity can be witnessed. In diaspora studies, the homeland narrative of the diaspora is usually marked by the reimagination of a glorious past of the homeland, wherein they once resided and would eventually return to.
This community posits the narratives of their past in France (or its former colonies, where most of them have travelled to), while they also claim to essentially belong to Pondicherry. They seem to be rooted in both, deriving their identity from both the locations. It appears that they consider both France and Pondicherry their homelands, situating Pondicherry closer to France than to mainland India. Their narratives are marked by an idea of putting their homelands, which are not just territorially, but are also racially, ethnically and culturally apart, together. The manner in which they posit themselves, it seems more like an identification with the nation, considering themselves a part of the imagined community (Anderson) of France. While they (some of them, who have been to France) face the treatment that a diaspora community in France would face, in terms of racial and cultural differentiation, and may just be considered what Frantz Fanon has called ‘honorary citizens’ of France by the French. However, in their narratives there is a subtle negation of the fact that no matter how assimilated they are and how ‘French’ they claim to be, they will invariably be excluded from the racial, cultural or ethnic location of France, as diasporas usually are. Through the repetitive practices of their collective spaces, celebrating the French national day, marking their protests when prohibited from voting in the French elections (happened very recently, in 2017), their demonstration of the French language and so on, they reproduce the imagined enclaves of France.
While being ethnically and culturally Tamil includes them in the larger Tamil society of Pondicherry, their French citizenship contests this inclusion. This subtle sense of exclusion can be noted if the statement of a respondent who is a Tamil Pondicherrian (Indian citizen), when talking about a French Tamil is taken into account, “Oh, this guy is French, no (?). It can be understood from the way he speaks Tamil. These French do not speak Tamil very well. Their language and culture are different.”
Communities such as the French Tamils of Pondicherry present an interesting case of postcolonial liminality. They disclose a lesser-known past of the region which continues to reflect on its present. Transnational identities such as these often remain in the margins of territorial or nation state oriented arguments. Moreover, given the situation of the nation-state of India under the present regime, there is a growing and problematic assertion of national belonging and identity, with citizenship being increasingly associated with the social locations of belonging like caste and religion. It is followed by a process of systemic exclusion, wherein there is a stronger demand for a complete and exclusive belonging to the nation-state. Furthermore, from their responses, it can also be noted that many of them migrate to France and emigration is an ever-aspiring characteristic of this community. With growing anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments in France, it would also be interesting to further analyze how their narratives of belonging are reshaped among those Pondicherrians who are French citizens residing in Metropolitan France. Under such circumstances, the existence of an in-between community and their present complexities may only seem to increase in the near future.
Aindrila Chakraborty completed Masters in Global studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is currently a first year Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University at Albany, SUNY.
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