French History @IHR: Akhila Yechuri on the French Borderland in India

Date & Place: Monday 18th February, in the IOE Bedford Way, Room 784.

Speakers: Dr Akhila Yechury (St Andrews)

Paper Title: Rethinking Imperial Sovereingty: The French Borderland in India 1815-1947

Akhila Yechury offered a rich and engaging insight into the ways in which French India was far from a colonial backwater, but instead a unique lens through which to view the development of both colonization and the modern Indian state. Her exploration of the multiple geographic configurations of French India offered an insight into international law, colonial administration, and strategies of everyday resistance, moving through layers of intricate detail to find human stories that illustrated these colonial conflicts. The legacies of the East India Company meant that blurred boundaries and divisible sovereignties were the norm, and that hybrid claims of legitimacy between the competing imperial powers often tested relations, especially between Britain and France. This was most evident in the borderlands, and spaces where French and British claims to sovereignty rubbed against each other created illuminating accommodations, and the dominant colonial power was forced to moderate engagement in the domestic policies of its colonial neighbours.

The French colonial administration considered India a land of lost opportunities, as Yechury highlighted using a report from 1905. This report framed a narrative of the French presence in India that accentuated their parity with the British and the Dutch at the moment when initial deals were made with various local elites in the 17th century. The decline of French interests thereafter was attributed to British perfidiousness in the early 19th century, and “intergenerational dishonesty” thereafter. These disagreements largely revolved around whether Britain inherited the sovereignty of former rulers, or whether this ought to be determined by norms of international law. Essentially, the French vision of sovereignty was Westphalian, based on language and political rights and the notion of equal nation-states, whereas the British relied on their dominant position on the ground and pointed instead to commercial norms around private trade which conferred normative sovereign rights to them.

The sparks for these ardent discussions of sovereignty tended to arise from small plots of land. Yechury discussed how criminal prosecutions could lead to these sorts of discussions, telling the story of how some Indian men had tried to take advantage of clashing regulatory regimes by producing bootleg alcohol in French territory, and then transporting it to be sold in British territories. When the British moved to arrest the bootleggers in French controlled territory, the French administration protested strongly. So, in an example of the messy, pragmatic, and petty way that divided sovereignties function, the British released the men and their vehicle from custody, before promptly re-arresting them as they were now on British territory. Other examples looked at issues of smuggling and the parcel post, and even the circulation of nationalists absconding from British to French territories, all of which created conflicts of jurisdiction and authority between imperial police-forces. One particularly telling argument surrounded the emergence of new islands created by upstream erosion and silt deposits in a river in Puducherry in the 1870s. The French claimed the island, supported by arguments that it was closer to their territory and could be reached by foot from their side of the river, whereas the British required a boat. The case was never simple, however, and arguments about where fluvial borders lay, whose maps held authority, and who operated tariffs on the shells collected on the tiny island all animated French and British administrators for more than half a century more. The irony of the piece was that the erosion which created the island had been caused in large part by the British damming the river upstream, meaning that not only were rival visions of imperial sovereignty at stake, but that the outcomes of notionally modernising imperial projects were also drawn into play.

By taking a long-term view of the negotiation of divided sovereignty, Yechury provided a fascinating look at how the French presence in India sketched out the fault-lines between empires. These conflicts and discussions sketched out the boundaries of international law, and also showed ways in which Indian people could play off the ambitions of these competing empires. The French stress on sovereignty was a way of protecting imperial pride dented by British predominance in the territory, and French reticence did frustrate the extension of British hegemonic power in theory and fact. These small spaces of judicial ambiguity were made important by their broader significance, and were created not by separate structures, but by the contest between two independent legal and political regimes for clashing visions of sovereignty.

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