French historian and author Dr Jean-Marie Lafont says India and France shares a long military and social history that goes back to the 18th century. Dr Lafont is a French historian specialising in exchanges and mutual enrichments between civilisations, mainly between France and India.
What in your opinion is the most lasting impression of France’s historical presence in India?
Dr Lafont: France has always considered India as one of the oldest and best civilizations in the world, like the Egyptian Pharaonic civilizations, the Greek and Roman civilizations, the Chinese civilizations. This explains its decision, after the attempts of Dupleix to establish an “Indirect French rule” in Deccan in 1741-1754, not to colonize India, but, just as the French did in America during the Independence War of the USA, to protect its independence and help the Indian States protect (or recover) their Independence from British Colonial rule.
Another impact for India was the French Revolution, when the French got rid of the Ancient Regime and proclaimed the motto of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. All the Indian Freedom fighters, from sovereigns like Tipu Sultan or individuals, from Ram Mohan Roy to Shri Aurobindo, and even now so many people in India acknowledge the ideas of the French Revolution as international values.
For the French, they got immense intellectual benefits from their interest in Indian cultures and civilizations. One of the lesser known and the most important is the freedom from time: the French in old time, being most of them Christians Roman Catholics, believed that the universe was about 6000 years old. The Indians already knew that it was millions of years old. It took a lot of time for Europeans to understand that the Indians were right. The French also purchased many artisanal and industrial products from India through their Companies des Indes Orientales (we had successively 3 EICs, from 1664 to 1793, and we paid in gold and silver bullion for what we bought, thus increasing the richness of India). This led to develop the French taste, and it influenced the French mind through what we called the Indomania (17th to 19th centuries).
We kept in our Royal Libraries and Archives many Indian manuscripts in Sanskrit, Indo-Persian, Bengali, Tamil, and Telugu etc… which we started to collect from the 16th century onward, and French Indology was one of the most advanced in Europe by the 1830, when the French had been excluded from India by the British. Some of the best European scholars, even German ones like Max Müller, were trained in Paris before returning home or moving, like Müller, to Oxford and work for the British.
What inspired you to write your book – ‘Maharaja Ranjit Sing – Lord of the Five Rivers’
Maharaja Ranjit Singh had a crucial French connection: his fauz-e-khas, an inner cordon of blue-chip warriors dressed in trousers and crocheted jackets, was raised by Allard and Ventura, former officers of Napoleon. When I landed in Rajit Singh’s old capital Lahore in 1972, I learn that Allard had married a Hindu princess of Chamba and taken her to what is now a resort called St Tropez.
I found a 1836 painting of the general and his family possibly authored by the great French artist Eugene Delacroix. It was the Allard adventure that got me interested in the man who began it all, Ranjit Singh.
The book examines the achievements of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of the last great Indian state which successfully resisted British expansionism until 1849. The main emphasis is on the dynamism and energy of the Maharaja and the Punjabi people in establishing a state in the Land of the Five Rivers.
Ranjit Singh’s empire ultimately came to include Kashmir, Ladakh, and Peshawar, extending as far west as the Khyber Pass. Ranjit Singh respected the ethnic and religious diversity of the people of the Punjab and successfully forged a political, social, and cultural synthesis among them. He also introduced innovative administrative measures in the political, economic, and cultural spheres of his kingdom. His secular policy was matched by his modernising drive, seen most spectacularly in the military field where innovative measures were introduced with the help of French and Italian military officers who had served under Napoleon.
Among the most serious military challenges which the
British encountered in their century-long conquest of India (1757-1849)
occurred on the battlefields of Ferozeshah and Chillianwala. In addition to the
political, military and economic aspects of Ranjit Singh’s administration, the
book also throws light on some of the little-known yet fascinating cultural
achievements of his rule. These include the Imam Bakhsh Lahori school of painting,
the discovery of Gandhara art, and the exploration of the Himalayas, which are
presented here for the first time.
It is lavishly illustrated with 216 colour illustrations and six maps.
Does India have a positive historical memory of France as compared to British rule?
Dr Lafont: That is left to the Indians to assess the situation and reply to that question. But it must be clarified that there was never a French Colonial rule in India, for the reason I gave above. It was one of the many myths and excuses advanced by the English East India Company to justify at home its conquests of more and more Indian territories. There was only a strong French political influence in the Deccan (Hyderabad and Aurangabad) under Dupleix through his second in command, Marquis de Bussy, and that lasted only from c. 1741 to 1759.
What role has France played in designing India’s landscape?
Dr Lafont: The French in India had only five places called in French ‘Comptoirs’ (in English Settlements): Pondicherry, Chandannagar, Yanaon, Karikal and Mahe, plus a cluster of small ‘factories’ called ‘Loges’, essentially around Chandannagar and Mahe. But they did develop specific French taste and architectural habits in their Comptoirs. Most important was Pondicherry, being the residence of the French Governor General, and one of the most beautiful cities of India at that time, as it had been developed by Governors Dumas, and then Dupleix, (c. 1730-1754). Many Indian ambassadors and high ranking VVIPs came to Pondicherry to visit the city, the ramparts, the Fort, the artillery park and the Palace of the Governor. That is why the British razed the city, the Fort and the Palace when they captured Pondicherry in 1761. There is an interesting engraving dating 1763 showing the ruins of Pondicherry.
One of the distinctive aspects of French urbanism was the ‘bords de mer’, which we developed in Pondicherry and the ‘Riversides’, as we did in Chandernagor. Even in Lahore, during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the French Generals Allard and Ventura developed what they called ‘Le jardin du Soldat’ (The Soldier’s garden) along one branch of the Ravi River flowing near the Cantonments of the Fauj-i-khas, the elite brigade of the Punjab created and commanded by the former officers of Napoleon serving in the Punjab.