The French were late by six decades in India. As with other European colonists — British and the Dutch, the French too started their colonisation through commercial activities. The first French factory in India was established at Surat in 1668 and later one at Machillipatnam. But they were driven out by the Dutch and the British by 1720.
The French settlement in India began in 1673 with the purchase of land at Chandernagore from the Mughal Governor of Bengal. The next year they acquired Pondicherry from the Sultan of Bijapur. Both became the centres of maritime commercial activities of the French in India.
Like the British, the French decided to extend their area of influence taking advantage of mutual discord among Indian rulers. For this, they locked horns with the British to assert their economic and political fortunes in India. Joseph Francois Dupleix who was initially appointed as Intendent of Chandernagore in 1731, sowed the seeds of colonisation. The village, which hitherto was engaged in maritime commerce along with Pondicherry, got fortified by him. He developed friendly relations with the Nawab of Bengal much to the consternation of the British. In 1741 Dupleix was transferred to Pondicherry as Governor holding sway over the French areas in India.
During his governorship Dupleix extended his reign from Hyderabad to Cape Camorin through Carnatic wars. He besieged Madras in 1746 both by land and sea. He had absolute control over the Nizam of Hyderabad and Mohammed Ali, the Nawab of Carnatic. But all these were in vain because the British and France while fighting in Europe, changed their administered areas among themselves through various treaties. At the height of it, refusing to listen to the suggestions of Dupleix to increase the areas of influence in India, the French recalled him to France.
Finally, in 1816, following the Napoleonic wars, Pondicherry, Chandernagore, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam and the lodges at Machillipatnam, Kozhikode and Surat were returned to France. By this time, the maritime supremacy of Pondicherry and Chandernagore were eclipsed due to the growing influence of Madras and Calcutta (now Kolkata) by the British. Thereafter, with the French limiting themselves, successive Governors improved infrastructure, industry and education over the next centuries. French India was provided with an elective general council and elective local councils. The Governor stayed at Pondicherry and was assisted by a council.
Chandernagore, though a part of French colonies in India, was unique in many ways. It was very active in spearheading the freedom movement against the British. Due to its close proximity to Calcutta, it became a safe haven for freedom fighters of all hues. We may recall here that Pondicherry became a refuge for the National poet Subramania Bharathi who was persecuted by the British for his revolutionary writings. Even Aurobindo Ghosh who was one of the accused in the Alipore Bomb case of 1909, was acquitted unconditionally and after a short stay at Chandernagore moved to Pondicherry permanently to became a world renowned philosopher.
Since the partition of Bengal in 1905, Chandernagore was in the thick of activities of freedom fighters against the British and produced several martyrs including Kanailal Dutt. It became the focal point of subversive activities including arms trade for the revolutionaries. In spite of overt and covert moves by the British, the French were reluctant to intervene in the revolutionary activities.
In this book, Sailendranath Sen vividly describes the historical role of Chandernagore in the revolutionary activities against British and its ultimate desire to merge with the mainland Bengal. Just 30 km away from Calcutta, each and every group opposing the British was attracted to Chandernagore for its unending hospitality and this safe haven became the breeding ground for several martyrs under British rule.
But it is paradoxical that unlike the other French territories like Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam which were fighting over the years against French rule, Chandernagore raised its voice of protest only after the British decided to leave India by August 1947.
Sen’s book on the history of Chandernagore from 1900 to 1955 shows the numerous sacrifices made by the people of Chandernagore in toppling British imperialism closely followed by the French. As the British decided to hand over powers to the people of India by August 15, 1947, the people living under French rule in Pondicherry, Chandernagore, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam were eager to join their homeland in the Indian Union. But the French were yet to learn their lessons. They tried all the tricks in the book to avert this. Facing the onslaught from the people under their rule and the British and Indian rulers, the French declared Chandernagore as free city in 1947. In June 1948, they conducted a referendum in which a overwhelming majority of 97 per cent people opted for a merger with India. After so many legal hurdles, it became a part of India on October 2, 1955.
This book apart from describing the history of Chandernagore is also a compendium of freedom fighters who laid down their lives heroically fighting against the British. In that sense, this work will be a treasure for the students of history, more notably the history of the Indian freedom struggle.
CHANDERNAGORE — From Bondage to Freedom 1900-1955: Sailendranath Sen; Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar Commercial Complex, New Delhi-110009. Rs. 1150.