History of Tamil Culture & Pondicherry

Two realities of “renunciation” in India

Sâdhus an Sâdhvis

The idea of « renunciation » can cover two separate realities in Indian culture. The first one is referring to a minority of people, known as « Sadhûs » (or « Sâdhvis » for women), choosing to renounce to the world by moving away from society, and, by the practice of meditation, who dedicate themselves to reach high levels of spirituality. Renunciation is thus regarded as a ritual that should enable a (wo)man to free (her)him-self from the rebirth cycle.

The "Renonçants"

But there is another -more political- meaning, linked to Indian history. It is generally less known than the spiritual meaning of « renunciation » described above. All those who renounced their Indian Nationality during French colonization in South India, 'renonçants' as they are known in French (there is no English word for these people, so we will use the French word), are also part of a form of « renunciation ». They do not renounce to society as a whole, but they renounced to their personal status (Hindu or Muslim) in order to get the French nationality.

The French settlement of Pondicherry

Pondicherry was a French settlement from the end of the 17th century to mid-20th. During the 19th century, the city was provided with the first school of the French Empire (the « Collège Royal », in 1826) and the first Law school, in 1838. It was also given representatives (deputy and senator) and  local councils (as in France). But for all those elections, there were two lists : one was the French and Creole (a large minority), the other was the one of All Indians (the biggest majority). The new graduates started to claim the right to become assimilated to French and Creole (all the more so a part of Creole population was actually illiterate). This is how the French government of then worked up to the promulgation of the decree about « renunciation », on September 18th, 1881./p>

This one-off decree in French history gave the opportunity to the -over 21 years old- natives of French Settlements (Pondicherry, Karikal, Chandernagor, Mahé and Yanaon), whatever their sex, religion or cast, to “renounce to their personal status” and to place themselves under the authority of the French Civil Code. They would  abandon their status of French “subject” to become a French “citizen”, and the act would “definitely and irrevocably” commit themselves with their whole line of descent (family and children). The “renonçants”, as they are called, were also asked to take a French name, which would be passed on over generations.

The act of renunciation opened the door for new rights to Indians, as for instance the opportunity to work in public service, which was once an exclusive area of French administration. It was also supposed to give them all civil and political rights that French people had.

This subtle attempt of assimilating populations finally met very limited success.
First, only a small minority of Indians decided to “renounce” to their status. The “Renonçants” and their families accounted for max. 3500 persons in Pondicherry, and there was almost none in the four other Establishments. About 3700 out of a population of 283 000 inhabitants, they finally accounted for not more than 1,3% of the population.

Then, regarding the « composition » of these « Renonçants », we can note that they were mainly Catholic Indians -closer to the Civil Code- and low-cast people, called « pariah » or « outcast », who did not have to renounce to any status as they did not have one. But most of Hindu or Muslim Indians did actually not renounce, trying to preserve their cultural traditions -in particular regarding weddings- and to avoid any friction with the other part of the population, subjected to English authority :

For all Indians, renouncing to their personal status would inevitably lead to the breaking of any social or familial relations with « English subject » Indians; they could not, as it was practiced then, go find spouses or marry their daughters with their neighbors anymore; and commercial exchanges would also suffer »1.

As a result of this, the decree does not really meet French expectations. He is regarded by a lot as “favoring the political influence of the pariah, whom renounce with ease to a personal status they don't care about, contrary to Hindu families remaining attached to their old traditions and to their personal status which is the guarantee of these traditions”2. Scared to find themselves “drowned” in an Indian mass, in particular the poorest and the less instructed, the French governors decided to protect themselves and to exclude the “renonçants” from politics : therefore, although they did get the French nationality, they were classified on a separate list, different and less important than the “French and Creole” one, during the elections. This classification aroused anger and protestations among the population, and was actually at the start of an important movement of migration towards Indochina, where French status would be regarded with greater consideration. This movement becoming more and more extensive, the French government will try to stop it in 1910.

The case of the “Renonçants” have finally been treated with very little consideration in India.  And when, after the Second World War, De Gaulle decided to give French nationality to all Pondicherrians (because Pondicherry was one of the first colonies to rally to the “France Libre” -the movement for the liberation of France during the war-), they were almost forgotten. In 1954, seven years after the proclamation of independence of India, France finally left its Establishments. In 1962, a “right of option” is given to the population of the former settlements : they have six months to opt for French nationality if they want to. Those who used the “right of option” became definitively French, others remained Indians. More than 5000 Tamil families have opted on that time. Today, we count around 7000 “Tamil” French in the Union Territory of Pondicherry, hence the undeniable “French touch” of this area!...

However, the situation for the “Renonçants”, those people who switched for French nationality many years ago, is actually turning to drama, as in 1962 no one -not even politics- is remembering anything about these people. Regarding themselves as French, an important part of them is not using the “right of option” offered by De Gaulle. And as a result, without their knowing, just like that, they will loose their French nationality and become Indian... Aberration of French political history, the concept of renunciation disappeared in 1962.
A movement of protestation emerged in the 1960's but it does not come off.

The situation is now quite controversial : on the one hand, the « Renonçants » having opted in 1962 have, like others, become French while preserving their personal status (Hindu or Muslim for instance); on the other hand, the « Renonçants » who forgot to opt became Indian but they are still subjected -themselves and their children-  to the French Civil Code, as they “definitely and irrevocably” committed themselves by signing the act of renunciation...


  1. WEBER J, Les Etablissements français en Inde au XIXème siècle (1816- 1914), 1988
  2. WEBER J, Les Etablissements français en Inde au XIXème siècle (1816- 1914), 1988
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