India-France ties: A historical perspective
India-France ties: A historical perspective
This is the fifth occasion, the maximum from any country so far, when India rolls out the red carpet to a French leader amid glittering display of cultural heritage and military might at Rajpath, the majestic ceremonial boulevard in India’s capital New Delhi.
And the event assumes greater significance with a 130-strong contingent of French troops marching alongside their Indian counterpart, which is a first in the parade’s history.
Indeed, a common liberal democratic tradition, fairly similar worldview, historical linkages and cultural affinity has drawn the two nations closer and evoked a widespread admiration for each other.
In the words of former French President Jacques Chirac, both India and France cherish the democratic values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity that their people fought for at different stages of history. And both nations are founded on the principle of secularism, which promotes tolerance and unity among the various ethnic communities residing within their geographical boundary.
As rightly pointed out by President Hollande, the relationship between France and India is deeply rooted in common history, which morphed into a robust strategic partnership with passage of time.
Besides, so profound was the relationship that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wanted the former French colony of Pondicherry to remain “an open window to French culture.”
In fact, France foresaw India’s critical role in global geo-political and geo-economic matrix and predicted the South Asian giant’s elevated position in the comity of nations in a fast evolving world order, including permanent membership on the UN Security Council and elite G-20 group.
The French leadership, across all ideological spectrums, sought and maintained sustained strategic dialogue with India, which was not destabilized by events like the nuclear tests of May 1998.
France’s relations with India date back to the second half of 17th century, as the first French factory in India was established by the French East India Company at the western Indian seaport city of Surat in 1668 and another one was later commissioned at Machillipatnam in south India in 1669.
However, long before the French established trade relations with India, physician-cum-traveler Francois Bernier served as the personal physician to Mughal prince Dara Shikoh and Emperor Aurangzeb.
The French controlled around 510 square kilometers of Indian territories, including Chandernagore in the state of Bengal, Mahe on Malabar Coast of Kerala and Pondicherry, Karikal and Yanaon in Tamil Nadu province till as late as 1954.
The legendary Napoleon Bonaparte’s effort to establish a strong French foothold in the Middle East was actually inspired by his desire of aligning with Tipu Sultan, the ruler of South Indian Kingdom of Mysore.
The French settlement in India began in 1673 with purchase of land at Chandernagore from the Mughal Governor of Bengal Nawab Shaista Khan.
An expanded sphere of influence, including the Nawab’s court, led to increased trading activity in the region.
In 1674, the French acquired Pondicherry from the Sultan of Bijapur and both these places turned into primary centers of maritime commercial activities of the French in India. Interestingly, both Chandernagore and Pondicherry have a significant place in India’s freedom movement.
While the sub-divisional town of Chandernagore was a premier center of anti-British imperialist struggle, Pondicherry became a refuge for revolutionaries like national-poet Subramania Bharathi and Aurobindo Ghosh, who transformed himself into a world-renowned philosopher.
So deep-seated is the cultural connections between the two nations that a glimpse of French culture can be inevitably found on the platter of Indian history.
From the 19th century onwards, French culture provided an alternate space for cultural discourse and negotiations to Indian elites who were trying to assimilate and manufacture an independent modern identity.
French, being perceived to be a modern, liberal culture par excellence of the time, was appropriated in no time leading to rapid progress of French language in Indian educational institutions by the end of the 19th century. And the trend continues even today with French being the most preferred foreign language among Indian learners.
Moreover, during this period cultural and scientific exchanges were in full bloom between the two nations through the good offices of Indian diaspora and French intellectuals, collaborating actively with the key architects of Indian reformist movement.
In this context, the relationship between Nobel Prize winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore and France is of particular importance especially because Tagore’s talent had attracted the imagination of French luminaries like poet-diplomat Saint-John Perse and spiritualist-explorer Alexandra David-Neel.
Nobel laureate Tagore’s relationship of mutual adoration with French novelist Romain Rolland paved the way for a historic awakening and mobilization of world intellectuals behind a subordinated India’s cause.
Tagore, in fact, was a regular visitor to famous philanthropist businessman-cum art patron Albert Kahn’s residential place La Maison Autour Monde. Renowned French scholar Sylvain Levi played a crucial role in the establishment of Tagore founded global university Visva-Bharati and became the institution’s first visiting professor in 1921.
French musicologist Alain Daniélou served as a director of Visva-Bharati’s music department.
It is his intimate relationship with France that played a pivotal role in the incarnation of Tagore as a painter, with his first ever exhibition being held in Paris’ Galerie Pigalle in 1939. Moreover, a young French East India Company soldier Anquetil Duperron published “Oupnekhat” in 1801-2, which is one of the earliest foreign translation of religious scripture Upanishad.
On the economic front too there is a history of shared legacy. J. R. D. Tata, one of the most admired Indian industrialists, was born and raised in France and had even served in the French Army.
Significantly, 26 Indians from Chandernagore fought for the French in World War I and got commemorative medals, including one Croix de Guerre for outstanding performance.
Therefore, further deepening of bilateral ties in vital sectors of mutual interests on the basis of shared values and cultural synergy is a foregone conclusion.