Unsettling Utopia. The Making and Unmaking of French India

Namakkal, Jessica
Columbia Studies in International and Global History
Anzahl Seiten
304 S.
€ 29,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Andy Davies, University of Liverpool

The formerly colonial territories of French India remain under-recognised as a subject of academic interest, especially in Anglophone writing. This is unfortunate given the distinctive ways in which colonialism played out in these territories, often in contrast to other parts of South Asia. French India was made up of five comptoirs, which were territorially and demographically small, and spatially dispersed across South Asia, with a “capital” in Pondicherry/Puducherry in South India. However, the French encounter with India and South Asia was qualitatively different, especially compared to the more dominant British.1 Jessica Namakkal’s excellent book uses this context to demonstrate both the fictions of “civilized” colonialism which were promulgated by the French authorities, but also to challenge orthodox histories of decolonisation more generally.

As Namakkal demonstrates, the comptoirs of French India, especially Pondicherry, provide more than another “case study” of decolonisation, but rather deserve to be studied as unique spaces in their own right. Whilst Pondicherry in particular is associated today with an upmarket and Europeanised tourism/heritage sector which commodifies colonial architecture alongside yogic retreats provided by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Namakkal’s book exposes the “unsettling” nature of both the lead up to decolonisation and the ongoing colonial tensions which manifest in the comptoirs. While the incomplete and partial nature of decolonisation is now recognised as given in much academic scholarship, Unsettling Utopia expands existing chronologies which view the anticolonial struggle in Pondicherry as something which began in the middle of the twentieth century and ended at the moment French India was incorporated into the Republic of India in 1954. This is never simply a parochial, small-scale narrative of a specific place. This “unsettling” challenges many of the temporal and disciplinary categorisations which mark colonial histories more generally, and mean that this book deserves to be widely read.

Following an introduction which sets out the broader context of both French India and the theoretical debates which inform the later chapters, the majority of the book is divided into two sections. Loosely chronological in order, but with significant overlaps, these sections chart respectively the “making” and “unmaking” of French India over the course of the twentieth century. Firstly, the three chapters of the “making” section explore the long lead-up to the formal cession of the French comptoirs into the newly independent Republic of India. Chapter 1 – “Carceral borders: Exile, Surveillance and Subversion” deals with the processes by which both the French and, more keenly, the British sought to securitise the borders of French India, gradually shifting from a porous boundary in the early colonial period, through to one which was more closely surveilled as various anticolonial revolutionaries sought exile in French India. This marks partially an increasing technical ability of the state to monitor populations as they moved across and between territories, but is also indicative of the “otherness” of French India as a space of difference to the rest of “India”.

Chapter 2 – “The Future of French India: Decolonization and Settlement at the Borders” turns to how decolonisation was envisioned as a diplomatic process, exploring the variety of different socio-political identities which were present in Pondicherry (for example, French Indians, members of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and the members of the Communist Party of French India) and the question of French India’s relationship to the emerging Republic of India at its borders. The new Republic under Nehru sought to integrate the comptoirs into its territories, whereas residents of French India argued for a range of formal relationships with metropolitan France or a complete break. Thus, the merger with India played out in complex ways depending on the variety of minor (drawing on geographer Cindi Katz2) subjectivities in Pondicherry. These complexities are also the core of Chapter 3 – “Making the Colonial Subject: Goondas, Refugees and Citizens”, where the language of democracy deployed by both pro-French and pro-Indian advocates existed in a relationship with Goonda-ism – where lawless groups and individuals were collectively seen to be the cause of tension and violence at the various borders which surround the small enclaves making up Pondicherry. These goondas were blamed for the eventual cancellation of a referendum on the future of French India, and provided a convenient scapegoat for both political sides which allowed the official moment of decolonisation/incorporation to be framed as “peaceful”, despite the lack of a democratic mandate and the spatial, epistemological and physical violence which the whole process entailed.

Part Two of the book deals with the changes which have largely occurred since the formal point of Treaty of Cession in 1954. Chapter 4 – “Decolonial Crossings: Settlers, Migrants, Tourists” is primarily concerned with the complex nature of citizenship in “decolonized” Pondicherry. French India has not been easily incorporated into the Republic of India. For example, the category of “French Indian” refers not to a unique or defined population grouping, but instead a diverse range of (often contradictory) subjectivities. The tensions inherent here are many, as French Indians in particular have been largely forgotten about by both the former French colonisers but also by the vast majority of Indians whose ancestry or cultural history is not drawn from such a minor space. As a result, questions of belonging and homeland remain difficult for many French Indians, especially those who have migrated to metropolitan France. Chapter 5 – “From Ashram to Auroville: Utopia as Settlement” brings the debates about decolonisation into the present, exploring how the Aurobindo Ashram and the intentional community of Auroville, located just outside Pondicherry’s borders, revisit and replay some of the same settler colonial logics which they are supposed to resist (the Aurobindo Ashram is a legacy of the Indian anticolonialist Sri Aurobindo, who settled into a life of spiritual retreat in Pondicherry after moving there in exile in 1910 to avoid arrest in then-British India). Here, Namakkal expertly weaves the narratives of ongoing colonisation into the various utopian impulses which animate both Pondicherry as a whole, but particularly the “city” of Auroville.

The above summary cannot come close to adequately describing the nuanced, rich, and, extensive detail which this book provides. This is by far and away the most scholarly, yet readable, account of the long twentieth century in Pondicherry/Puducherry. The range of sources drawn from archives on numerous continents, as well as the theoretical engagement with post- and decolonial scholarship alongside work on, variously, borders and territoriality, (post)colonial subjectivity and diaspora, spirituality and intentional communities, and more, makes this book an important addition to studies of decolonisation. Such breadth does mean that in very few places, it did feel like there was some unevenness – the discussions of French-Indian diasporas in Chapter 4 felt more fleeting than the other examples, largely, I think, because they are the most geographically distant from the core of the book, which is the city of Pondicherry itself. However, this is a minor point, as the book as a whole, in attempting to weave such diverse strands together, performs important work in decolonising the neat timelines of history, or borderlines of geography. This excellent book deserves to be read widely by historians, sociologists, geographers, political scientists and more.

1 See for example the range of resources available at https://frenchbooksonindia.com (14.01.2022).
2 Cindi Katz, Towards Minor Theory, in: Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14 (1996) 4, pp. 487–499.

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