Monday, August 15, 2011

August 15, 1947 in Pondicherry

What prompted me to post the text below is a recently declassified letter from Jawaharlal Nehru to Lakshmi Menon, Deputy Minister in the Ministry of External Affairs. 
It is dated August 27, 1958.
Nehru shockingly wrote that the Sri Aurobindo Ashram "has been very anti-Indian in the past". 
Nehru was clearly not aware of Sri Aurobindo's role in India's Freedom struggle.
Here is Nehru's letter.

My dear Lakshmi,
Your note about your visit to Pondicherry.
I do not think it is desirable for us to issue an ultimatum to the French Government about the date for de jure transfer.  That kind of thing will do us little good and may do us much harm. It will not, in fact, make much difference to Pondicherry. It is true that there is some uncertainty about the future and this comes in the way of certain political aspects of the question. But nobody is at all certain about Pondicherry continuing in India.
We made it quite clear that Pondicherry will not be absorbed in Madras State or interfered with in any other way unless the people themselves so wish.
The Aurobindo Ashram  there has certainly done some good work. They have very large resources to which they are continuously adding. Nevertheless, I do not consider the atmosphere generated in that Ashram as very desirable. No doubt they are pro-Indian now but they have been very anti-Indian in the past.  However, there is no reason why we should take advantage of what they have done.
About the other matters you have written to me, I am sending your note to the Foreign Secretary.
Yours sincerely,
Jawaharlal Nehru
A few years ago, I wrote a small book "Pondicherry: The last months before India's Independence — Perspectives of a British Consul General ".
The background of this research was the correspondence between the British Consul General in Pondicherry, Colonel Fletcher and officials in the Ministry of External Affairs and Commonwealth in Delhi.
I reproduce here the chapter about August 15, 1947 in Pondicherry.

The book is downloadable from my website.
I have posted the original footnotes between [ ].

[Extracts from Pondicherry: The last months before India's Independence]
A momentous change occurred on the sub-continent between the fifth letter in the series under study and the next. India became independent. Nehru as the first Prime Minister pronounced these words which have remained famous in history:
Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.
For our Consul General, the stroke of midnight did not change anything. Though technically he was not supposed to have direct relations with the Government of India anymore, he continued to write to the Indian officials in Delhi. His correspondence was not even renumbered. His Secret Letter dated August 17, 1947 bears the reference D.O. No. 176-II/14. It is in fact only the continuation of the previous letter (dated August 14, 1947) under reference D.O. No. 175-II/14.
In a strange diplomatic twist, he remained the Agent of British India which did not exist any more. Fletcher’s letter contains a translation of an ‘official précis’ of the speech of Governor Baron delivered on the August 15, 1947 to the heads of departments of the French India Administration as well as leading notables and leaders of political parties. During his speech, Baron pledged on behalf of his Government to respect the wishes of the people on two conditions: first that the Union of India should have its own Constitution and that it be a fully sovereign State.
On the 15th evening, the British Consul General held a reception at his Consulate to which more than a hundred people were invited. Amongst these were Baron, French officials and the leading political leaders as well as members of the British and Indian communities. Fletcher made a short speech; he proposed a toast to “the happiness and prosperity of the Union of India and Pakistan and to their peoples and their continued friendship with Britain”.
Fletcher took the opportunity to quote Lord Mountbatten’s speech at Karachi on the August 14 [Pakistan had become independent on August 14].
The Governor-General had referred to “two new sovereign States” becoming members of the Commonwealth. The Consul General to counter Baron explained to his audience that the Commonwealth was an association of free sovereign states. They were only linked together “by common interests with the Crown as a symbol.” He clarified that each Member State of the Commonwealth was entirely independent and sovereign; it was free to sign its own treaties; a Member State was not bound to declare war to a third nation, should Britain do so; and it was free to frame its own fiscal and economic policies. He also added that any Commonwealth State was at any moment completely free to leave the Commonwealth, if it wished so. This was the most important point to be remembered, he emphasized. What the British had offered India and Pakistan was complete independence.
He regretted that India should now be divided, though he hoped that the two parts would come together ‘before long’. Finally he reaffirmed that the British policy’s goal had always been India’s complete autonomy. The only disagreement between London and the Indian leaders had been over the rate of progress towards that goal. He concluded that on that day no one could any longer doubt the sincere intentions of the British.
Fletcher said that he had purposely made these remarks on sovereignty to contradict Baron’s morning speech and “to remove any misapprehension Barons’s remarks might have created”. He still believed that the French were playing for time and wanted to remain in India: “Why else should they spend so much money on a territory which has only a sentimental value for them?”
The same question could have been asked to the British who fought against India’s freedom movement for several decades before accepting to leave the sub-continent.
Fletcher reiterated that Paris feared repercussions for its other colonies (it was certainly true) and was keeping a foothold in India in case troubles developed. This question was: if these Settlements were only of sentimental value for France, why should they spend so much energy and resources to stay on?
The point so often repeated by Fletcher, that Baron believed in a disintegration of India, never appears in the French archives. In fact, since 1946 Baron had always pleaded with Paris to give French India, the largest possible autonomy.
Fletcher’s conclusions were that only merger with India could satisfy the local population and that they “will not be put off by quibbling about constitution and sovereignty.”
The British Consul remarked that the Archbishop of Pondicherry told him that he wished France was capable of making a gesture similar to the one made by the British. Another French official, Raboul who accompanied Baron to Paris, described by Fletcher as an intelligent and sensible young man, also thought that French India should merge with the Union of India. Raboul is supposed to have added that it was however unfortunate that the other departments including the Colonial Ministry, did not see the things in this light.
The Consul believed that most of the French were thinking that way. He added: “The French are a proud race and the average Frenchman would rather that his country left in a dignified manner than be compelled to go.”
There is a lot of underlying bitterness in Fletcher’s words. The British were leaving (or had left) and the French were hanging on.
He informed Delhi that he had been told that the loges [small enclaves or 'factories' inside the British India's (then India's) territory] would be retroceded on the September 1. He ironically commented: “The graciousness of the gesture is somewhat impaired by the fact that the French are really giving back something over which their claims to sovereignty have never been recognized.”
The day after the Independence several private functions were held in Pondicherry. Fletcher reported the details to Delhi.
One amusing fact was that the French Government flew the flags of the Union of India and Pakistan.
That day, the public buildings and the government House were illuminated.
The British Consul said that he himself “put a good display of flags on the well illuminated Consulate.” It probably means that the Pakistan flag was also hoisted.

[This did not amuse the Indian government for long: the Indian Consul General would soon complain to the Centre about what he perceived as a mischievous action. He wrote to Delhi: “Since August 15, it is the practice of the French to fly the Tricolor together with the flags of the Indian Union and of Pakistan on all government buildings every day.
In my opinion this practice has certain objectionable features. In the first place, the impression created on the public is that India has been divided into two new Dominions. I believe this practice is carried out in order deliberately to create this impression since the French are very happy over the communal situation according to my information from Lt.-Col. Fletcher, Mr. Marsland, some inmates of the Ashram and others.
The relations between India and Pakistan are the same as the relations between India and Australia, Canada or any other Dominion and if the French fly the Pakistan flag they might as well fly the other Dominion flags as well. But to fly the Pakistan flag alone together with the Indian flag is, I believe, mischievous and intended to confuse.
I also object to the flying of the Indian Flag even by itself beside the Tricolor. This practice is to give force to the “dual nationality” theory under which the French hope to remain in India.”
The French propaganda line and policy is apparently to give the local population the impression that for all intents and purposes Pondicherry is already a part of India and the small vestige of French sovereignty is not worth bothering about. Thus they hope to lull the public into inaction and acceptance of the present situation.”]

For this he received the help of the Electrical Engineer of the French Public Works Department, who participated “whole-heartedly into the arrangements”.
The Sri Aurobindo Ashram also participated. They provided flour and bread free of cost for the refreshments “as there is a famine of these commodities here”.
Later, Fletcher wrote officially to the Ashram to thank them and say that he considered it “a gift to the Union of India”.
It is necessary to clarify here the position of Sri Aurobindo and his Ashram. Sri Aurobindo, who had been the first Indian leader to advocate purna swaraj (or complete independence) from the British in the early years of the 20th Century, had taken refuge in Pondicherry for his personal sadhana. However, he kept in close touch with the political development of India’s political struggle. The best proof is his intervention when Sir Stafford Cripps visited India in 1942 with a proposal to give Dominion status to India. Sri Aurobindo thought it should immediately be accepted by the Congress leaders. Unfortunately, it was not to be so!
Sri Aurobindo always believed that Pondicherry was to return to the fold of Mother India, though he hoped the French could leave behind them a cultural institution such as a university to manifest “the window of French culture” mentioned by Nehru in 1946. We have already seen the stiff British opposition to the scheme who politized the issue to serve their personal agenda.
August 15 was also Sri Aurobindo’s birthday. On the occasion, he published a message about five dreams he had for Mother India:
The first of these dreams was a revolutionary movement which would create a free and united India. India today is free but she has not achieved unity...
Another dream was for the resurgence and liberation of the peoples of Asia and her return to her great role in the progress of human civilisation...
The third dream was a world-union forming the outer basis of a fairer, brighter and nobler life for all mankind...
Another dream, the spiritual gift of India to the world has already begun. India's spirituality is entering Europe and America in an ever increasing measure....
The final dream was a step in evolution which would raise man to a higher and larger consciousness and begin the solution of the problems which have perplexed and vexed him since he first began to think and to dream of individual perfection and a perfect society.
It has often been alleged that the Mother was a ‘colonialist’ for the simple reason that her brother Matheo Alfassa was a senior official in the Ministry of Colonies [he was at one point in time, the Governor of Congo], but nothing is further from the truth. When in early 1948, P.A. Menon, the Joint Secretary in-charge of Pondicherry [and boss of Rahman]  came on a fact-finding mission, he had a long interview with the Mother who first refused to speak about ‘politics’. Finally, when she was pressed to give her opinion, Menon was quite flabbergasted to hear that she thought that the French should leave ALL their colonies, including Vietnam. He had been receiving erroneous reports (most of the time bazar gossip) from his officials (particularly the first Indian Consul General) to the contrary.

[On June 14, 1949, a few days before the Referendum in Chandernagore, Nolini Kanta Gupta told a an A.P.I. (Associated Press of India) correspondent: “Sri Aurobindo feels certain and has expressed it more than once that the different parts of India, whoever may be their present rulers, are bound to join the mother country and that India, free and united, will become a dynamic spiritual force bringing peace and harmony to the war-scarred and suffering humanity in general.”
When asked if this meant that Sri Aurobindo desired Chandernagore, Pondicherry and the other settlements in India to join India, Nolini said: “Certainly so. He has prophesied that these small foreign pockets in India would sooner or later become one with India and India would become the spiritual leader of the world.”]

To come back to the Independence celebrations, Fletcher informed Delhi that many flags of the Union of India were flown in the town. Morning and evening processions were organised. In the evening, a demonstration jointly organized by the Congress and Communist parties counted a large number of women; the participants sang Indian patriotic songs and shouted slogans in honour of Nehru and other leaders. Some banners called the French “Imperialists” and asked them to leave India: “White man, get out”.
Fletcher reported that he had heard “rumours of a clash between the Socialists and some passers-by and that some of the Ashram buildings were stoned.”

[The person who was murdered was a man called Mulshankar. He had come to the Ashram in the thirties and was also one of the attendants of Sri Aurobindo. Apparently that day, Mulshankar was stabbed in the neck, though no one actually witnessed the stabbing. He was bleeding profusely when he reached the Ashram main door, and he could not be saved.]

He even said that one unconfirmed report mentioned that one member of the Ashram had died as a result of injury inflicted by a stone.

[The recently-posted Indian Consul General, Rashid Ali Baig reported to Delhi: “The hostile demonstrations, culminating in the murder of an inmate, that took place on August 15 at the gates of the Ashram were directed against her [The Mother] and not against Shri Aurobindo whom everybody seems to respect but pities for being ‘hen-pecked’ without the benefit of the matrimony.” Nothing was further from the truth, but Baig’s reports continued to feed the gossip mill. This was one of the first in a series of outrageous reports which Baig poured on Delhi. Finally he was reprimanded more than once by Nehru himself who had to remind him that he was the Consul General of India.]

We have seen that Roux had informed Nehru of the decision of the French Government to hand over the loges on September 1. A letter to this effect was sent by the French Prime Minister (Président du Conseil) to his Indian counterpart on August 12. For some reason, the letter of George Bidault  was misplaced and received by Nehru only on September 22. This delay is rather strange in view of the importance of the content.
The French said later that they had misplaced the letter; in any case the fate of the French Settlements was not the No. 1 priority of Delhi when North India was burning.
Nehru answered Bidault on 30 September 1947: “The Government of India welcome and accept the decision of the Government of the French Republic regarding the renunciation of the historic rights which France has exercised in the areas known as the French loges in India, in favour of the Dominion of India. Owing to the late receipt of your letter, it was not possible for the ceremony of the transfer to be held on the date you proposed. I am, however, arranging with your Embassy here for a convenient date in the immediate future.”
Nehru, who had asked Paris for this first gesture of goodwill as early as April, expressed “on behalf of the Government of India my sincere appreciation of this friendly gesture which will help to strengthen the cordial relations existing between the Governments of the French Republic and India.”
Finally, the loges were formally ceded to the Indian Union on 6 October 1947.
It has to be pointed out that this cession was not entirely according to the French law by which the Government could not take such a decision without the assent of the Parliament. But as we have seen, it was more a symbolic gesture to put the relations between the two countries on a firmer base.

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