As the Indian diaspora from around the world gathers in New Delhi this week for the 12th edition of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, as usual the limelight would be on the diaspora members from Australia, NZ, the US, Canada, Britain and Southeast Asia. But few people realise that nearly 20 percent of all delegates participating in the event hail from the Francophone world – the French-speaking nations around the world which number over 55.
Numbering over 1.5 million and spread in regions as diverse as the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, Africa, Europe and South East Asia, the Francophone Indian diaspora has perhaps had the most tumultuous history.
Most of their ancestors were taken by the French government and traders to replace the black workers on plantations, at the end of slavery in the mid-19th century. Upon reaching the French colonies, they discovered that not only their contractual terms were not honoured but even their most basic rights were violated by the French.
They were obliged to convert to Christianity and take Christian names, abandoning their Hindu culture and traditions as well as losing their language as their new masters forced them to learn French and to ‘unlearn’ their Indian languages.
Over a 150 years later, this disconnect with their roots is still hurting the Francophone diaspora.
“When we compare our situation with those of our neighbours right next door in Trinidad and Tobago, we realise how difficult life must have been for our ancestors. The Trinidadians have more or less kept their Indian traditions alive and their biggest advantage was that they could keep their religion, their names and their languages. So, even generations later, they found it rather easy to stay abreast with all that is happening in India.
“In contrast, we here in the Guadeloupe have lost touch with India completely and have begun rediscovering our Indian roots only about five years ago when we first visited India,” Michel Narayaninssamy, a resident of the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and the president of the GOPIO Guadeloupe, told IANS.
Nearly 13 percent of Guadeloupe’s 300,000 people are of the Indian origin.
In the Reunion Island, another French territory, but located in the Indian Ocean, the situation is only marginally better.
More than 35 percent of Reunion’s population is of Indian origin and like Guadeloupe, most of them hail form southern India, mainly Tamil Nadu. While they too were subjected to the same conditions as the workers in Guadeloupe, Reunion’s relative proximity to India has helped.
With the recent development of direct air connectivity to India, the Reunion Indians have started visiting India, a very important visit for most.
“When we went to India, it was like a pilgrimage…It was so poignant. Today, it is our duty to pass on this heritage to the next generation. The development of economic ties with India makes it easier for this interaction with the land of our ancestors. We must become a bridgehead between the two countries — France and India,” says Suzy Marimoutou and Leon Camalon, an old Tamil couple living in St. Andre in the Reunion.
Over the past few years, ashrams and schools for learning Tamil, dance and Indian music have blossomed on the island. Statues of Mahatma Gandhi have also been erected at many places and even a prominent boulevard in Saint Denis was named after India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has also come to recognise the significant presence of the Francophone Indian diaspora. Each year during the PBD Jan 8, a special meeting – Francophone Evening – is organised.
The importance of this small gathering, organised by Media India Group, a Paris-based media company along with Gopio International and the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, is not lost, neither on the government nor on the participants.
“It is unfortunate but I have not been able to devote as much time as I would like to the Francophone world. I assure you that this is not due to any lack of will but sometimes the schedules do get very difficult to keep,” says Minister Vayalar Ravi.
“They are a very courageous people who have kept the Indian culture and Indianness alive in that remote part of the world even after over 150 years. I also know that despite the geographic and historic distances, there have been regular delegations to attend the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in India every January,” he adds.
Mahyendra Utchanah, president of Gopio International, says: “…the Francophone Evening is a very crucial event as it allows us to ask questions that matter the most to us in our language and also to have an immediate response from the government and the minister in French. Without this interaction, our participation in the PBD would be incomplete.”
“Minister Ravi recognised the importance of this engagement and that is the reason he urged us to create a special Francophone Gopio International, which was launched at PBD in Kochi last year,” Utchanah, a former minister from Mauritius, whose 750,000-strong Indian diaspora is also Francophone, told IANS.