India-France ties: A historical perspective

Updated 25 January 2016
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India-France ties: A historical perspective

KOLKATA, India: The presence of French President Francois Hollande as the chief guest of India’s 67th Republic Day celebrations, marking the anniversary of adoption of Indian constitution, is expected to usher a new chapter in bilateral ties between India and France.

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.


Misk Global Forum: Panelists spoke about future skills, AI and social intelligence on the first day

Updated 15 November 2018
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Misk Global Forum: Panelists spoke about future skills, AI and social intelligence on the first day

  • Princesses and politicians, entrepreneurs, an Olympian and football legend joined forces to power a skills revolution

“What does the future look like, in a world where everything is changing?” This question rang out as a video montage played at the “Skills for Our Tomorrow” Misk Global Forum on Wednesday.

From the vantage point of  the third annual forum in Riyadh, the future buzzed with possibilities as more than 3,500 delegates were treated to sessions with political ministers, princesses, inventors, entrepreneurs and athletes. They had all assembled to share their vision of what is needed to deliver the skills that will be needed in future.

Weam Al-Dakheel, the first woman to anchor the main evening news on Saudi Arabian TV, introduced the forum’s executive manager Shaima Hamidaddin. “We want you to be inspired, not just by our speakers, but by your fellow guests,” said Hamidaddin, as she welcomed delegates. 

Hamidaddin asked for a show of hands from different parts of the world, showing that there were delegates from every continent except Antarctica — the forum would work on that for next year, she promised. She then asked for a show of hands for those under the age of 35 to demonstrate that this was the youngest Misk Global Forum yet.

She added that thanks to technology, we are already more connected than ever before, but urged people to interact with the speakers and guests from different cultures. “We must seize the opportunity for uniquely human collaboration,” she said.

As the moderator of the first session, “It’s All About Skills,” Arab News’ editor in chief Faisal J. Abbas began by holding up the morning’s newspaper: “Two years ago people used to read the news like this,” he said.

But as he pointed out, the news industry has changed drastically, with digitally connected audiences increasingly using online platforms such as Twitter.

With media tweeting out his comments, Abbas introduced his guests: Ahmed bin Suleiman Al-Rajhi, the Kingdom’s minister of labor and social development; Shaima Hamidaddin; Jayathma Wickramanayake of Sri Lanka, the UN Secretary-General’s envoy on youth and Sue Siegel, chief innovation officer for General Electric.

Abbas asked Al-Rajhi how the government was tackling the challenge of finding jobs for young people. “With Vision 2030 programs ... we have a lot of initiatives and there is potential,” the minister said. “We all need to work together and collaborate with the education system, employers who create the jobs and the ministry to give a clear direction of where we are going today.”

Arab News Editor in Chief Faisal J. Abbas hosted a panel on skills. (Ziyad Alarfaj/Arab News)

Asked whether job creation is considered to be an issue worldwide, the UN youth envoy said: “It is not a national or regional issue but a global one: Our world is younger than it has ever been before.” 

Wickramanayake said that by 2030, South Asia and Africa will supply 60 percent of the world’s workforce. “We have a large majority of young people who are working but still live in poverty,” she said, adding it is important to invest in them. “If we are serious then this is the time to make those investments to be productive citizens and employees and employers.”

A group that has been making just this sort of investment in Saudi Arabia is the forum’s organizer, the Misk Foundation, which. was founded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2011. 

Abbas asked the question that is on everyone’s minds these days: Are machines going to take our jobs? Siegel answered that while everybody looks at artificial intelligence and has this fear, actually AI will create new jobs and be used for more mundane tasks. 

AI was the topic of another session later in the day. Julia Glidden, general manager, global government industry for IBM Corporation in the US, said it is really important to know what AI is not. “It comes back to you and what you bring to your societies, which is your humanity, your passion, your vision and creativity, because machines will never replace that,” she said. 

Another panel on the topic of social intelligence stressed that technology could sometimes hinder people from interacting with the world around them.  Adeeb Alblooshi, the UAE’s youngest inventor, said it is important to develop social intelligence. 

He advised young people: “You have to start simple by understanding little things people do and that’s how you can gain experience. You don’t need to have the best equipment and the latest technology to develop. Just don’t give up ... always have faith.” 

Princess Reema bint Bandar, deputy of planning and development at the Saudi General Sport Authority. (Basher Saleh/Arab News)

The day wasn’t just about skills and intelligence. Athletes led the afternoon sessions, including a panel on the Future of Sport moderated by Princess Reema bint Bandar, deputy of planning and development at the Saudi General Sport Authority. 

Lubna Al-Omair, the first Saudi female Olympic fencer, interviewed Amir Khan, the Olympic medalist and light-welterweight world champion, who appeared wearing traditional Saudi clothes. He said that he hoped to help the next generation of Saudi boxers to become Olympic champions, and the only way to do this is by opening academies here. 

British boxing legend Amir Khan. (Ziyad Alarfaj/Arab News)

Khan said he believes there is a reason Saudis are good boxers: “Maybe it is in their blood — they are warriors.”

Winding up the day, Brazilian football legend Ronaldinho appeared on stage to a chorus of cheers and gave a talk entitled “The Discipline — and Fun — of Teamwork. ”

His advice for the audience? “Prepare yourself and help your colleague or team member,” he said. “Humility is important. Try to stay humble.”

He also said to train hard, read as much as you can and don’t fear failure. “I failed a lot of times,” he said. “Football is like that. You can’t always win. You have to seek lessons from the defeats and not lose hope.” 

Now retired, Ronaldinho is more concerned with giving back. “After I stopped playing, I have soccer academies. That’s what I’m proud of, and it has given me pleasure. To give something back (as a) thanks to football and everything it has given me.”

The forum was continuing at Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh at Kingdom Center on Thursday.

Brazilian soccer great Ronaldinho. (Ziyad Alarfja/Arab News)