In Ari Gautier’s Le Thinnai (The Thinnai), the tiny fishing village of Kurusukuppam, lying somewhere beyond Pondicherry’s White Town, is portrayed as the proverbial ‘melting pot’ of cultures, identities, and ideologies. Paulin is a French national and colonial war veteran, while his brother is Indian and a communist. Paulin’s childhood friend Kaatannan hates the ashramites from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for sidelining local Pondicherrians, but Monsieur Michel welcomes these “spiritual immigrants” because their presence is the source of his wealth. Paulin won’t allow Lourdes, the domestic worker from the ‘low creole’ community, to speak her ‘corrupted’ French in front of the children but unreservedly welcomes the vagabond Gilbert Thaata into this home, presumably because he is white and speaks ‘real’ French. In Gautier’s fictional account, this motley crew is a window into present-day Pondicherry – not the quaint, orderly, colonial remnant town of travel brochures, but one populated by creoles, colonial war veterans, communists and paper Frenchmen. Their hybrid identities bear the unmistakable stamp of three centuries of French colonialism and postcolonial encounters in the wake of Pondicherry’s merger with India. Here, an anomaly of colonial inheritance finds two nationalities “rubbing uncomfortably against each other within the same family” as Gautier writes. The rarely-explored history and legacy of French colonialism in India that produced this ‘anomaly’ is the subject of Jessica Namakkal’s 2021 book, Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India.
The author casts a critical lens at the decolonisation of the former French-Indian territories – Pondicherry (now Puducherry), Karaikal, Mahe, Yanam, and Chandernagor (or Chandannagar). Using Pondicherry as the primary site of her enquiry, Namakkal digs into what she calls “minor archives” to excavate the “minor histories” that are forgotten, sidelined, or distorted in nationalist accounts of India’s anticolonial struggle. In recounting these histories, she throws into disarray the neat consensus of decolonisation as a “completed event”, achieved with the withdrawal of the French imperial government and the merger of these territories with postcolonial India.
Namakkal’s main contention is that the decolonisation of French India simply dispersed the power held by the imperial government to discrete institutions like Auroville and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram which then outlived colonial empires. To this end, her book investigates the ways in which colonialism “continues to shape the daily lives of the [formerly] colonized”. By looking through the lens of minor histories, Unsettling Utopia is able to uncover and challenge the mythmaking exercises of former colonisers, the blind spots of the anticolonial nationalist movement, and the complicities of the postcolonial nation-state.
There are three routes that Namakkal takes to argue that the decolonisation of French India cannot be read as a break from the colonial past. First, she revisits Auroville and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, not as the utopian, spiritual and apolitical projects that they are touted to be, but as extensions or outcomes of the French colonial mission. Second, she traces the tensions between local visions of decolonisation in the French-Indian territories and postcolonial India’s approach to it as a “bureaucratic process” that would preserve friendly relations with France. Third, she points to how the postcolonial nation-state that came into being through a history of anticolonial resistance, in turn suppressed dissent among French-Indians who opposed the merger with India or refused to conform to a homogenous national identity.
Compared to the vast body of work on British colonialism in Southasia, the history of French colonialism in India dwells in the gaps and silences. Namakkal’s intervention seeks to plug some of these gaps by introducing the reader to little-known accounts of the colonial and carceral borders between the French colonies and British India and their later-day uptake by the postcolonial Indian nation-state; the violent histories of decolonisation that go beyond the familiar narratives of Partition; the complicities of the anti-British and anticolonial nationalist movement with the French colonial regime, seen through the perspective of anti-French revolutionaries; and the complicated process of identity formation in the postcolonial period as border-crossings, changing nationalities, shifting positions in the anticolonial struggle and the possibility of imperial citizenship produced national subjects who rebelled against the Hindu upper-caste norm.
Unsettling Auroville’s utopia
This formidable project starts at the borders of Pondicherry, in the international township of Auroville. Departing from its popular understanding as a spiritual utopian project rooted in anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist principles, Namakkal unravels how Auroville was made possible by the presence of French colonial institutions. It was founded by the French-born Mirra Alfassa who came to India as the wife of a French colonial administrator and settled as the ‘spiritual partner’ of the Bengali, anti-British revolutionary Sri Aurobindo Ghose. Ghose himself arrived and settled in Pondicherry as a “political exile” from British India, setting up the ashram in the Ville Blanche (‘White Town’), so called because it was home to the white colonial settlers from France, segregated spatially and racially from the Ville Noire (‘Black’ or ‘Indian Town’) which housed the ‘natives’ and ‘mixed-race’ French Indians. With the visible support it received from the French colonial regime and its location in the White Town, the ashram is a demonstrable outcome of colonial backing, Namakkal argues.
Namakkal digs into what she calls “minor archives” to excavate the “minor histories” that are forgotten, sidelined, or distorted in nationalist accounts of India’s anticolonial struggle.
Under her scrutiny, Auroville similarly emerges as an extension of the arrival and settlement practices begun by Ghose and Alfassa. In a replay of settler colonialism, the township was envisioned on purportedly “barren” land that in reality, was home to many Tamil villages. It was built by appropriating the land and utilising the labour of the formerly colonised. To this day, it is overwhelmingly inhabited by self-described ‘pioneers’ from the imperial centres of Europe, Australia, and North America who are able to settle there, in large part due to the power of their privileged passports. At the same time, the indigenous Tamil population are largely excluded from the space due to their “lack of material resources and a perceived spiritual incompatibility with the project”.
In Namakkal’s layered analysis, these migrations, settlements, and the racialised spatial segregation point to a “Western utopia on Indian (specifically Tamil) land” that reinscribes colonial hierarchies, displacement and dispossession. “Auroville is proof that the French colonial mission in India transcends both the bounded territory of French Indian possessions and the formal time of colonialism,” she writes. It created the space for colonial mobility and wealth to make its way back into the postcolonial world, a phenomenon Namakkal explains through the lens of “settler utopianism”.
Compared to the vast body of work on British colonialism in Southasia, the history of French colonialism in India dwells in the gaps and silences.
Her book also troubles the neat categories of coloniser, settler, foreigner, and anticolonial by casting a critical lens at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Belying claims of being non-political, the ashram emerged as a key mediator in negotiations between the French and Indian governments in the final stages of colonial rule, displacing the metis (mixed race) community in particular and the subjects of the French colonial regime in general. Moreover, as Namakkal emphasises, the support lent by Aurobindo personally and the Ashram to France’s offer of autonomy for the French-Indian territories within the French Union – which was effectively empire in disguise – was in sharp contrast to his anti-British stance. To local Pondicherrians, the ashram represented a foreign “colonial presence”, uncritical of France’s suppression of the anti-French anticolonial movement. While Aurobindo and other anti-British, anticolonial revolutionaries found refuge in French India as well as in the metropole, such recourse was seldom available to anti-French anticolonial agitators. Far from recognising them as anticolonialists, the imperial and the postcolonial state as well as Indian nationalists cast these agitators as ‘goondas’ bent on sabotaging the ‘friendly’ decolonisation of French India.
Unsettling colonial nostalgia
This against-the-grain reading allows the book to do two things. It recovers an aspect of colonial history that remains largely obscured, and simultaneously busts the myths that pervade the memory of this history. Chief among them is the positive memory of France as a ‘good coloniser’ in contrast to British atrocities next door. The reason Auroville continues to be mythologised as a postcolonial, utopian, spiritual project, despite its evident colonial continuities and affiliations, is because of the abiding nostalgia of “French India as a space of positive colonial existence”, Namakkal asserts. This is not a coincidence, but rather “a deliberate move” on the part of the French state by leveraging the mythology surrounding the French Revolution and, in 1881, offering citizenship to the colonial ‘natives’. The narrative spun by the French was bolstered, paradoxically, by the anti-British and anticolonial movement and later by postcolonial India keen on maintaining economic ties with France.
When anti-British, anticolonial revolutionaries sought refuge in French India to escape British capture, or Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi chose to praise French history and culture over advocating the independence of the French-Indian territories, they helped sustain the myth of France as the more humane and civilised coloniser committed to fairness and democracy, Namakkal explains. France, in turn, would use this image to suppress anti-French, anticolonial agitation in the French-Indian territories as well as the growing resistance movements raging in its overseas empire in Indochina and North and West Africa.
Through these contradictions, Namakkal points to a selective engagement with colonialism that normalises one coloniser while decrying another – a phenomenon she calls “anticolonial colonialism”. More crucially, she foregrounds a “messiness” produced by the multiplicity of colonial presence that remains overlooked in most accounts of Southasian history. The failure to contend with this messiness has meant that India’s anticolonial struggle has been archived and understood only in terms of opposition to the British Empire.
The reason Auroville continues to be mythologised as a postcolonial, utopian, spiritual project, despite its evident colonial continuities and affiliations, is because of the abiding nostalgia of “French India as a space of positive colonial existence”, Namakkal asserts.
A large part of Namakkal’s enquiry also follows the trails of this messiness into the postcolonial era, holding up to scrutiny the colonial complicities of the Indian nation state. This is most evident in the Nehru government’s criminalisation of French-Indians who opposed the merger of the French colonies with the Indian Union, and the effective denial of dual citizenship to those who sought to hold on to their French nationality while remaining in India. This deliberate negation of the hybrid identities of French-Indians echoes Mahmood Mamdani’s assertion that at the core of the violence of postcolonial nationalism are contests over national belonging. The project of nation-building often involves forced homogenisation in which “every potential source of competing identity” must be wiped out in the interest of a unified and cohesive nation. For the former subjects of French colonialism in India, the spectre of postcolonial national unity led to a violent rupture, foreclosing their ability to find belonging in the “hyphenated space” – neither purely French nor Indian – that was their colonial inheritance.
These dilemmas are also at the heart of Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s 2017 documentary Two Flags which follows the collective journey of 4600 French-Pondicherrians who currently remain in India and retained their French citizenship at the time of the merger. As the director’s note to the documentary puts it, while their French citizenship entitles them to vote in the French presidential elections, the decision to reside in India leaves them grappling with “a self-identity that is lacking in the fundamental attribute of psychological sovereignty (the psychological sense of claiming or belonging to a homeland)”. Their legal homeland, France, becomes progressively mythologised and out of reach while their country of residence, India, at best offers a fraught inclusion and at worst treats them with suspicion.
As Namakkal puts it, decolonisation became a way to “erase the in-between spaces carved out by the subjects of empire” and swallow “centuries of opposition fomented by subaltern subjects, as well as hybrid identities”. It allowed majoritarian nationalist narratives to construct the Tamil-French community as ““nowhere people” […] looking to take advantage of the colonial generosity of France while distancing themselves from what was perceived to be the “true” identity attached to the idea of being Indian”. Her book is a reckoning with this narrative.
Centring the minor, destabilising the major
In her 2005 essay, historian Romila Thapar makes note of the “growing recognition that the past had to be explained, understood, reinterpreted […] and that such explanations could also help us understand the present in more focused ways than before”. She thus calls for a “critical enquiry” of the ways in which historical narratives were constructed and legitimised. Unsettling Utopia takes this critical approach. It embeds itself within “the larger project of decolonizing history” by centring the minor histories of “the people and spaces on the margins of the major”. Namakkal’s aim is not only to demonstrate how the lens of minor histories can destabilise the ‘major’, but also that the ‘minor’ is an integral part of the ‘major’. This is evident, for instance, in how anti-British revolutionaries use the minor colonies of French India to counter the British, or how the “minor” holding of Pondicherry becomes the site for global experiments with alternative world-making projects such as Auroville.
Part of the work of decolonising history is to ask, who gets to write the history of the colonised? Even before the French signed over Pondicherry to India in 1954, colonial records were packed up and sent home to the metropole, out of the reach of colonial subjects, Namakkal explains. Her book is dedicated to recovering and reclaiming these scattered, inaccessible, and forgotten archives. The alternate readings of decolonisation she offers are the outcome of extensive archival work that takes her to Pondicherry, Aix, London, Paris, Minneapolis in Minnesota, and Durham in North Carolina.
Through these contradictions, Namakkal points to a selective engagement with colonialism that normalises one coloniser while decrying another – a phenomenon she calls “anticolonial colonialism”. More crucially, she foregrounds a “messiness” produced by the multiplicity of colonial presence that remains overlooked in most accounts of Southasian history.
The narrative that emerges in the process proceeds thematically rather than chronologically, swinging back and forth in time and space, demanding both a patient reader and careful reading. Amid the jostle of ideas that the book must necessarily contend with, what remains somewhat buried are the beginnings of some excellent character sketches. It may take some piecing together on the part of the reader, but in the end, these sketches are as richly detailed as they are nuanced. The most prominent among them is Varadarajulu Subbiah, a French-Indian with British-Indian parents, a communist leader who agitated against both French and British imperialism, who advocated for merger with India before turning into a vehement critic of the Nehru government, and who at different points was targeted by the French, the British, and India for his agitation on behalf of students and workers. Equally compelling is the story of Raphael Ramanayya Dadala, a Dalit Catholic and member of the French-Indian gendarmerie in the former French territory of Yanam, who later became a pro-merger freedom fighter even as he took the Indian government to task for “genocide against the scheduled castes community”.
At the other end of the spectrum from Dadala is Arthur Annasse, a member of the French-Indian diaspora in Indochina, who served in the French military and believed that French India had not been colonised but “adopted” by France and bestowed with certain rights that separated them from “Indians in the surrounding areas”. Then there is Emile Appavou, a Pondicherrian of Tamil ethnicity, born of French national parents, who epitomises the dissonance and dislocation felt by French-Indians forced to choose one citizenship over another. Even the relatively better-known characters, such as Edouard Goubert, the former mayor of Pondicherry and its first chief minister who initially supported the antimerger movement but later espoused an anti-French position, are lent a complexity that is missing from the standard profiles. Namakkal’s retelling is mindful of the contradictions and flaws, restoring to them a hybridity that is inextricable from their lived reality.
Ultimately, Namakkal’s revisionist history aims to retrieve these minor identities and their minor histories from the hold of imperialist and nationalist frameworks. In this, Unsettling Utopia is part of a body of work that has similarly foregrounded the alternate histories (albeit by deploying different methodologies) that remain overshadowed by the hegemonic narrative. There are formidable precedents, to name only a few, in the form of Shahid Amin’s Event, Metaphor, Memory (published in 1995) which uses local and familial memories to revisit the Chauri Chaura riots of 1922, or Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India from 1983, where the author warns against reading peasant and indigenous insurgencies through a “political grammar based on mid-twentieth century nation-state political forms”, as James Scott writes in the foreword of the book. More recently, Manan Ahmed Asif’s The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India, published in 2020, revisits the Tarikh-i-Firishta – a monumental history of the subcontinent written by Deccan historian Muhammad Qasim Firishta in the seventeenth century – to undo the distortions of this work by colonial historians. Namakkal joins these authors in writing with a decolonial spirit, against the normative strictures of history as a discipline and the tide of dominant narratives.
Part of the work of decolonising history is to ask, who gets to write the history of the colonised?
The book comes at a time when claims to national belonging in India, under Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, have coalesced around a violent and exclusionary Hindu upper-caste identity, and the space to articulate alternative ideas of ‘Indianness’ has radically shrunk. Efforts to rewrite history to suit a Hindu nationalist ideology have become more blatant in recent years, with the government removing chapters from history textbooks that refute the Hindutva worldview and including others that peddle its myths. What’s more, the legacy of Aurobindo that Namakkal dissects in this book is further complicated by attempts by Modi and other BJP leaders to appropriate this anticolonial revolutionary-turned-spiritual guru as an early proponent of the Hindutva ideology.
On the heels of this book has come a polarising controversy surrounding Auroville. Since late last year, some township residents have been protesting a road development project championed by the Auroville Foundation, even as others argue in its favour. The foundation has been under the jurisdiction of the central government since 1988, and the close links of its recently-appointed secretary with the Modi administration has once again brought to light the insider-outsider ruptures that have underpinned Auroville since its inception. Many residents – including, but not only, the Global North and northern Indian settlers of Auroville – blame this latest discord on the foundation secretary who is seen as the ‘outsider’ imposing these decisions on them. It is interesting to note how the understanding of who is construed as an Aurovillian and who is an outside influence is continually reproduced and reconfigured. And yet, in these various permutations of belonging and non-belonging, the foundational exclusions of Auroville remain uniformly and conveniently forgotten.
Against such wilful amnesia, deliberate erasures, and sustained distortions, interventions that centre alternative histories, especially by attending to sources other than those proffered by the coloniser and the postcolonial nation-state, are crucial. This is precisely the work Namakkal does in this book. By calling into question the terms on which decolonisation of French India was achieved, Unsettling Utopia points to the need to destabilise the colonial and nationalist narratives that advance their own particular versions of history. It re-reads, critiques, and rewrites one part of this narrative to highlight the multiplicities within which history dwells and foreground the people who dwell in the “history of the margins”.
Sohel Sarkar is a freelance journalist, editor, and feminist researcher-writer. Her cultural critiques, reviews, and personal essays have appeared in Bitch Media, Whetstone Magazine, and Color Bloq, among others. Find her on Twitter @SohelS28.