February 17, 2006
For a long time, there was an intense interest about India in France. French philosopher Pierre Sonnerat wrote: ‘Ancient India gave to the world its religions and philosophies: Egypt and Greece owe India their wisdom and it is known that Pythagoras went to India to study under Brahmins, who were the most enlightened of human beings.’
Then we find what French journalist Roger Pol Droit calls L’oubli de l’Inde, the forgetting of India, which was mainly due to the influence of Christian missionaries, whether Catholics in Pondicherry, or Protestants in the rest of India. India was wiped out of philosophical treaties and became what Pol Droit calls ‘helleno-centrism’ (Greece-centered) education, which means that France (and the West) believed that all philosophical systems started with Greece and that there was nothing worth the name before them.
Did you know that at one time, the whole of India could have been French? Dupleix, the brilliant governor of France, by intrigue or alliances, managed to take over Madras, Hyderabad, the whole of the Deccan plateau and had his eyes set on Mumbai, when he was recalled by King Louis XV, who had no interest in India. The French Indian empire collapsed and only Pondicherry, Karaikal, Mahe, Chandernagore and Yanaon remained in French hands.
The handing back of French territories was much more harmonious than the British and the Portuguese. France and India came to an agreement where an important cultural French presence would remain in Pondicherry and it has been so. A French alliance, a college, a research institute, a huge consulate and a whiff of France in India, remain to this day in Pondicherry.
Why is French President Jacques Chirac’s visit to India on February 19-20 important?
Firstly, because there is indeed a natural attraction between the people of India and France, even, if there is a mismatch. The average French man or woman are much more knowledgeable about India than, say the average American, who is often very ignorant, to the point that he or she does not know where India is situated geographically.
There is also in France a natural sympathy towards India: France is the only country which did not condemn India at the time of its nuclear tests (though France had just conducted her own in the Pacific) and we find in France an understanding of India’s political emergence. Whereas in the US again, India is still often seen as the land of poverty, or at best of fakirs and maharajas.
Secondly, and most important, we need a multipolar world, now that the Soviet Union has stopped balancing America’s hegemonic hold over the world. Unfortunately, there is an obsession with the US in India. This goes across all barriers. Talk to some of the RSS leaders, Congress, or BJP and you will find that at least one of their children has gone to the US to study (and will stay there in 99 per cent of the cases).
The Congress party, however pro-Iranian, is also obsessed with the US. George W Bush’s visit in March has monopolised the attention of the government and the media and pushed the French president’s visit to the back page.
Experts have also said that India’s military nuclear programme is being neutralised by the India-US nuclear agreement crafted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In the face of the Chinese and the Pakistani nuclear threat, is it a wise thing to do?
This is why it is essential that India pays a little more attention to the French visit. An official of the French embassy, who prefers to remain anonymous, has told me that they have literally had to run after the external affairs ministry for Chirac’s programme.
The Prime Minister’s Office has shown very little interest in the visit. In fact, requests for an interview with La Revue de l’Inde, the only French magazine that deals exclusively with India and is read by most of France’s decision makers, including Jacques Chirac, were not even acknowledged by Dr Sanjay Baru, the prime minister’s media adviser.
Does India really want to buy all its weapons from the US? As it happened after its nuclear tests, Washington will freeze weapon delivery or withhold spare parts and India will be strangled. Yes, France is a weapons manufacturer, but it has a friendly attitude towards India. If vested interests want to torpedo the Scorpene deal, it will set a bad precedent and French weapons manufacturers will just shun India as an unreliable customer.
Finally, it is also true that France has to make an effort towards India. I feel that France could show its goodwill in two ways. Firstly, the French government has officially recognised that Tibet is part of China, even though it is known that the Chinese have perpetrated an unprecedented genocide in Tibet.
France also implicitly recognises that the claim of China over Taiwan is justified. Why not also recognise that Kashmir has been a physical, cultural, and spiritual part of India, instead of always saying that ‘it is a dispute between Pakistan and India and France does not wish to interfere?’
India is a democracy, a huge country with an enormous economic potential and Pakistan is a small unstable Islamic country, always at the mercy of a dictatorship, whether military of Islamic. It would not cost France anything and earn her tremendous gratitude here, for France will be the first Western nation to do so.
Secondly, if the US can flout the nuclear international norms and craft its own civil nuclear agreement with India, why can’t France do the same? Up to now the French government has always repeated that it wants to abide by the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, but when France conducted its nuclear test in the Pacific, it braved the ire of the entire world and got away with it.
And lastly, France has to be a little more patient, I would even say humility towards India. Most French officials come to Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore, for a few days and think they have seen and understood everything. India is a complex country and it is not as easy to do business here with all the rules and red-tapism still in place here. But it is the future of Asia, a democratic, pro-Western, liberal nation, which is a bastion of freedom in an Asia torn by Islamic fundamentalism and the shadow Chinese hegemony. India is the best bet for France and the Western world in Asia.