Thursday, February 22, 2024

Vive La France

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While it is necessary to acknowledge the influence of English and European thought in India, let us not forget the French ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity, introduced in the Preamble of our Constitution

By Justice Kamaljit Singh Garewal

Histories of nations should not be written by foreigners. The British were here for two centuries, the history of that period was written mostly in their language which was foreign to us, understood by very few. Our own history was derived from various scanty sources in different languages, dialects, and bardic ballads.

The East India Company, being the most successful and dominant trading unit, spread from being traders in Gujarat to becoming administrators of Bengal, Bombay and Madras and to finally becoming masters of a gigantic empire which in 1930 covered present India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The British rule ended in 1947, but the domination of English continued for seven more decades. Therefore, no one can blame us if we grew up as Anglophiles. Sadly, this left little room for the French language and culture to thrive on Indian soil. But there is no harm in now accepting French ideas and incorporating them in our national life. 

One can understand that in the early years of our republic, our overuse of English was somewhat deliberate, for fear of a breakdown of administrative machinery, commercial intercourse and academic life. The British did not mandate this while granting us independence, but left us very dependent on them and their language. We were free and independent and should have gradually minimised the use of their language, common law and western culture and mores, and stopped being brown sahibs.

The switchover to vernacular languages, by giving importance to our own culture based on our own epics, legends, drama, poetry, folklore has been slow. Our post-independence generations have got by, steeped in English. It may already be too late to switchover. In the era of globalisation and technologic explosion, the use of English has willy-nilly become global and indispensable. This, even as France, Russia, China and Japan, which are powers, achieved great success without using English.

Englishness or Anglo-Indianness (for want of a better word) will not vanish by parliamentary decree. Although we are lately beginning to rediscover our past, which is a good thing, this is no reason to ignore our immediate legal and constitutional history, and the European history of the period 1750-1950. This period saw wars, revolutions and dissolution of empires and corresponds to the decline of the Mughals and the rise of the Company.

In 1858, India was absorbed in the Empire and covered by English common law. Reformation in England had led to the rise of the Whigs, liberalism and the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills and in India, reforms by Thomas Macaulay. At the same time, Europe saw the dawn of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment which led to the American Independence and the French Revolution and the call for “liberty, equality, fraternity” embodied in the Rights of Man. 

Therefore, it is necessary to acknowledge the influence of English and European thought instead of relying solely on our ancient wisdom, culture and heritage. Sadly, the recent tendency has been to begin from antiquity and stop at around 1192 AD when Muhammad Ghori defeated Prithviraj Chauhan. In doing so, the Muslim period, and later the British Colonial period, is missed out.  

What has all this to do with the French, one may ask. There are a few important French ideas in our national life. What shines out is the French revolutionary motto of liberty, equality, fraternity, introduced in the Preamble of our Constitution. Ours was a peaceful, non-violent struggle for freedom from the British, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. Likewise the French Revolution was inspired by thinkers such as Voltaire, Descartes, Kant and Rousseau. It was the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. Therefore, our republic has, by adopting the French motto, also accepted reason as its basic creed.

The Preamble to the French Constitution proclaims the French people’s attachment to the Rights of Man and the principles of national sovereignty as determined by the Declaration of 1789 and the Preamble to the 1946 Constitution. France is defined as an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic, which is based on the principle of “government of the people, by the people and for the people”, and the maxim “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.

The current Constitution of France, often referred to as the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, was adopted on October 4, 1958. It has been amended many times. It is the 15th Constitution in the long constitutional history of France since the first Constitution of September 3, 1791. Our Constitution has been in operation for 74 years, but we have not replaced the 1950 Constitution with a new one, although there are whispers about it. Nevertheless we have amended the Constitution 106 times. But our basic features are sacrosanct and cannot be amended.

The state power in France is divided into the legislative, executive and judicial branches. The legislative power is exercised by a bicameral Parliament consisting of the National Assembly, whose members are elected by direct suffrage, and the Senate, whose members are elected by indirect suffrage. The executive power is entrusted to the president and the government headed by the prime minister, who is appointed by the president. The judiciary is independent. 

So far, this is much the same as in India, but France does not have states as we do and no state executives, legislatures and judiciary to contend with, as in India. There are no Union, State or Concurrent Lists. France has 101 prefectures or administrative units. India has 28 states and eight Union Territories, containing of 806 districts, big and small, whose numbers keep rising as states keep carving out more districts. There seems to be no equivalence between our two administrative systems.

The French judicial system consists of criminal and civil courts, including commercial courts. There is also a separate administrative system to deal with disputes between the State and individuals. These systems are different and have their own hierarchies. A point to note is that French courts do not have the powers to issue prerogative writs and do not entertain public interest litigation. In our country, all jurisdictions are under the same judicial system. Administrative Tribunals exist only with regard to specialised subjects like service matters, customs, income tax, etc. But these cases finally land up in constitutional courts.

The French legal system belongs to civil law tradition, which evolved from the Napoleonic codes. The five original Napoleonic codes were the Civil Code, the Code of Civil Procedure, the Commercial Code, the Criminal Code, and the Code of Criminal Procedure. We follow the common law system as does the English speaking world eg the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and former colonies like South Africa, Malaysia and Singapore (about 50 countries).

The civil law system largely covers the rest of the world eg continental Europe, Russia, China, Japan, entire Latin America and Francophile Africa (about 120 countries). The French are not obsessed with precedents; we unfortunately are because we adhere to the common law system which is so very precedent bound. It has been said that “Britain placed its emphasis on law under which independence was a status which could never be compromised”, “while France placed its emphasis on language and culture so that the link with the metropolitan power was never broken”. However, India becoming independent and yet remaining a part of the Commonwealth is a tribute to the long historical association between Britain and India, in spite of the many violent and brutal incidents during the freedom struggle. Credit for this must be given to the statesmanship of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Another feature of the two systems is that civil law is inquisitorial in which the judges have a participatory role in legal proceedings, examining witnesses and collecting evidence. Little or no reliance is placed on previous decisions of courts. Our common law system is adversarial in which judges hear evidence, but do not participate in finding the truth and often rely on an earlier judgment of courts.

This writer had a first-hand experience of working with a judge from France at the UN Appeals Tribunal. While dealing with a case a ruling of the House of Lords was cited by the common law judge. But the civil law judge, while agreeing with the decision, refused to incorporate the opinion. The matter was amicably resolved when both agreed to drop reference to any case law.

At the historical and cultural levels, strong French influence is present in Puducherry (erstwhile Pondicherry). This old city by the sea gives some a noticeable French feeling. Apart from this, the Mother of Auroville was French, born Mirra Alfassa in Paris in 1878. Her primary interest, however, was spiritual development. In Paris, she founded a group of spiritual seekers and gave talks to various groups. In 1914, the Mother came to Pondicherry to meet Sri Aurobindo, whom she at once recognised as the one who for many years had inwardly guided her to spiritual development. She passed way in 1973 after establishing a strong spiritual community in Auroville. 

The stamp of French impressionism is very pronounced in Chandigarh. Particularly in the Capitol Complex housing the High Court, the Secretariat and the Legislative Assembly, thanks to Monsieur Le Corbusier, a Paris-based architect, whom Prime Minister Nehru had picked to design the new city.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh had, in all, 52 European officers in his army—English, Spanish, Greek, Russian, German, Austrian and French. Out of these, 16 were French, the most notable being General Jean-Francois Allard and General Claude Auguste Court. These two officers along with the Italian General Jean-Baptiste Ventura were responsible for making the Maharaja’s Fauj-I-khas a crack battalion which had many successful campaigns to its credit, such as we know in history. The two French generals were former officers in Napoleon’s army who found themselves in India after the defeat of the French emperor.

In 1822, Jean-Francois Allard raised the Maharaja’s corps of dragoons and lancers. While serving under the Maharaja, he fell in love with Princess Bannu Pan Dei of Chamba, married her and had seven children. In 1835, Allard along with his Chamba princess and children returned to his hometown Saint-Tropez (now a fashionable sea-side resort near Nice). There he built “Pan Dei Palais” to commemorate their love; it is now a boutique hotel. A few years ago, a bust of the Maharaja was installed in Saint-Tropez with fanfare. All men of the Allard family sport well groomed moustaches, in memory of their ancestor and their association with Punjab. 

His compatriot from the same region in France joined the Maharaja’s service in 1827 and was responsible for training the artillery. He took part in the Battles of Peshawar and Jamrud. General Court also married a Punjabi lady, Fazli Azam, who accompanied him back to France. Some Frenchmen also found service with Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, Madhoji Scindia, Shuja ud-Daula, Asaf ud-Daula before the start of British rule. This led to the modernisation of the armies of these states and the transfer of military know-how and technologies.

Coming to the impact of Indian philosophy on French thought. Romain Rolland was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1915 for his work “Jean Christophe”. Rolland had received a strict Catholic education, but became a complete humanist when he embraced the work of the philosophers of India, like Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. Rolland was also strongly influenced by the Vedanta philosophy of India.

Albert Camus (Nobel Prize in 1957) developed the theme of essential futility, absurdity and utter incomprehensibility of life and death in his writings. Although completely ruffled by the consciousness of an ambiguous and silent God, he was not unaware of “that strange joy that comes from a tranquil conscience”, a perfect inner harmony one experiences on attaining true knowledge. Camus had read the Gita and attended talks by teachers of the Ramakrishna Mission in Paris. Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan very aptly says that Existentialism is a new name for an ancient method. Very much in the manner of the Existentialists, the Upanishads, aeons before, held man himself responsible for his actions.

No discussion of France-India relations can be complete without reference to the enormous contribution of the great French statesman, Andre Malraux, thinker, writer and culture minister under Charles de Gaulle. Malraux had met Nehru in 1936 at a Paris restaurant; they had been introduced by the philosopher-writer, Raja Rao. Malraux and Nehru developed a great friendship. Malraux immersed himself in Indian philosophy, studied Gita and Vedanta and declared that Indian spirituality shall lead the world in the 21st century. Raja Rao was then at Sorbonne. He went on to write an autobiographical master-piece, The Serpent & the Rope, which describes the intricate spiritual relationship between Indian and French thought. Malraux was awarded the Nehru Peace Prize for International Understanding in 1974, Raja Rao was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan.

French literature, music, art, culture was at the centre of continental Europe in the 19th century. Far richer than staid, conservative Victorian England. We certainly missed out on the French idea of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. It is not too late to make amends. Vive Le France.

—The writer is former judge, Punjab and Haryana High Court, Chandigarh and former judge, United Nations Appeals Tribunal, New York

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