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Jessica Namakkal. Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India

Cansu Gurkaya
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Jessica Namakkal. 2021. Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French India. New York: Columbia University Press. 328 pages.

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1In her debut book, historian Jessica Namakkal proposes a counter-metanarrative that challenges the notion of “decolonization as a completed event” (p. 5), instead offering a more nuanced understanding of its complexities and ongoing impact. The book covers the history of the twentieth century in the French comptoirs of India, although the case of Pondicherry remains the central focus throughout. Namakkal’s work is notable for its extensive use of sources from a variety of archives dispersed geographically (Aix-en-Provence, Paris, La Courneuve, London, and Pondicherry) and which primarily consist of archival materials in English, with a few exceptions in French. The book reveals how the French, in contrast to the British, successfully cultivated a positive image of colonialism in India. It sheds light on how projecting an image of France associated with the ideals of the French Revolution allowed the French Empire to shape perceptions of its colonial presence. Furthermore, it uncovers how both the Indian and French governments strategically promoted their friendship to portray their respective nations positively during the transition to the postcolonial era. Consequently, the process of decolonization is portrayed as resulting in a power shift that neglects the voices of the subaltern. Thus, in a similar vein to Cindi Katz (1996) and Penny Edwards (2010), Namakkal focuses on the colonial archives to uncover the marginal voices and trajectories of decolonization that challenge the dominant narratives surrounding it.

2In examining the distinctive form of colonialism that surfaced in French India and the discourses that emerged from the politics of friendship between France and India, Namakkal shares the same scholarly interest as William F.S. Miles (1995) and Ajit K. Neogy (1997). Aligning with Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan’s (1996) theory of the hyphen, she conceptualizes French India from the perspective of the borderland, using it as a framework not only to embody the spatial logic of state control and colonial domination but also to depict “French-India” as a “hyphenated space … neither purely French nor Indian” (p. 19). Hence, her book offers new findings that have less to do with the history of the French Empire and the comptoirs, and more with the complex and fluid subjectivities that arise from the context of French colonialism in India. The cover image displays a black-and-white photo from 1953 showing a French-Indian police officer standing on a borderline made of stones laid across a village to mark the division between French India and India. This image emphasizes the contradiction between the existence of borders and the reality of a culturally hybrid population that exhibits varying degrees of allegiance and resistance toward both states.

3The book’s success lies, on one hand, in highlighting the complicity of both the colonial and postcolonial states in suppressing and delegitimizing anticolonial movements of resistance in French India. On the other hand, Namakkal demonstrates that the decolonization of French India, while formally achieved in 1962, failed to dismantle the privileges of colonial mobility and wealth. She relates this to the case of Auroville, a utopian project conceived within the circles of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, the capital of French India. Namakkal provides evidence that the collaboration between the French spiritual figure Mirra Alfassa (1878–1973) and the Bengali anti-colonial revolutionary Sri Aurobindo (1872–1950), who together founded the Ashram in 1926, was portrayed as the embodiment of the friendship between France and India during decolonization. Approximately 10 km away from Pondicherry, Auroville was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa. It mainly attracted “settlers” from Western countries and northern India, some of whom were already residents of the Ashram. Land was purchased from poor Tamil farmers and small landholders to make space for Auroville, and in the process, this native population came to constitute a manual-labor workforce instrumental in constructing an ideal spiritual city from the ground up. Beyond the narratives surrounding the Ashram and Auroville that helped portray decolonization in French India as a peaceful period of transition, Namakkal proposes a reading of this history from the perspective of the subaltern.

4What emerges in the book is a reflection on how colonialism, nationalism, and utopianism can become intertwined and establish their own time and space on coherently organized projects. Namakkal’s perspective on utopianism is in line with that of Krishnan Kumar (1991) in that both scholars view utopianism as a Western construct. Like Karl Hardy (2012), her work aims to show the links between utopianism and settler colonialism, which entails the dispossession of native populations and the imposition of Western values and practices at the expense of their rights and interests. Throughout the chapters, Namakkal progressively builds her case, portraying Auroville as a phenomenon of “settler utopianism” (p. 3). The crux of her argument is as follows: “Auroville is proof that the French colonial mission in India transcends both the bounded territory of the French Indian possessions and the formal time of colonialism” (p. 3). Hence, she employs the concept of “settler utopianism” (p. 3) to highlight the pressures on self-rule that marginalized subjects of the colonial past continued to endure even after power was transferred from imperial centers to postcolonial nations.

5The book's first section, titled “Making,” comprises three chapters that reveal the tensions between the discourses surrounding and the reality shaping French Indian territories. Despite India regarding “French belonging” as a “utopian practice” on its territory (p. 116), Namakkal demonstrates that French Indian territories were also treated as “spaces of illegality” (p. 41). This perception masked the violence of colonialism and led to the criminalization of anticolonial resistance movements.

6The first chapter, titled “Carceral Borders: Exile, Surveillance, and Subversion,” begins by focusing on the period between 1910 and 1940 and outlines in detail how colonial border-making practices shaped the ground reality in French India. The French never acquired much land in India, only five territories—Pondicherry, Karaikal, Yanam, Mahé, and Chandernagore—that were far away from each other. They all functioned as part of the “global network of carceral borders” (p. 62). The borders between French and British India were often lines drawn with stones that traversed villages, divided communities, and served the purpose of controlling the flow of “goods, people and land” (p. 65). After the 1930s, new legal distinctions separated French India from British India, putting further pressure on local populations through border policing and “the introduction of passports and custom checkpoints” (p. 48, introduction), as well as new techniques brought in through colonial networks. In Pondicherry in 1939, barbed-wire fences were built by the same Jewish contractor who was assigned to do the same along the Palestine-Transjordan border. French Indian territories were enclosed within colonial borders. Depending on their “relationships to the imperial states of France and England” (p. 48, introduction), colonial subjects could either find refuge or become targeted within and across these borders. The major contrast Namakkal introduces here is between the trajectories of Sri Aurobindo and Varadarajulu Subbiah (1911–1993). By the 1940s, Aurobindo's presence in Pondicherry as an anticolonial revolutionary, along with his spiritual association with the Ashram and Alfassa, earned the French territories the reputation “as a supposed site of exile” (p. 28) for the anti-British resistance. During the same period, Subbiah—who was of Indian-British descent and born on French land, and whose nationality was called into question by both the British and the French governments—was expelled from Pondicherry because he “allied himself with the Communist Party” (p. 56) and “attempted to unite all Indians in the struggle against colonial oppression” (p. 66). What Namakkal aims to capture here is not only the contrasting cases of Subbiah and Sri Aurobindo, but also how the Ashram’s existence paved the way for the further marginalization of anticolonial revolutionary groups because its positioning was portrayed as spiritual and apolitical. The next chapter delves deeper into the contrasting trajectories between the Ashram and its political others.

7The second chapter, “The Future of French India: Decolonization and Settlement at the Borders,” examines the period between 1947 and 1954 in order to convey the increasing violence and policing that occurred on the border separating French India from British India and later French India from India. In parallel, the chapter highlights how Mirra Alfassa, as the sole successor of Sri Aurobindo following his death in 1950, played a political role by promoting “an image of France as a gregarious and benevolent cultural friend to India” (p. 87). Namakkal stresses that, once India was liberated from British rule, the French colonial administration needed to ensure local support for France’s continued rule in India. Sri Aurobindo’s system of yoga was based on a synthesis between the East and the West. In this regard, the Ashram emerged as a resourceful ally celebrating both ancient Indian and modern French cultures. Post-independence, the Ashram’s presence became stronger in Pondicherry through land ownership and local industries as well as by spearheading educational and cultural projects while maintaining strong ties with both the French and Indian authorities. Mirra Alfassa gave long speeches about the fraternity between all nations that appealed to both the French and Indian states. The Ashram’s position promoting “a specific Indian mysticism [blended] with Western education, culture, and civilization” (p. 86) stood in stark contrast to the political stance of local organizations like the Communist Party of French India (CPFI). The CPFI strongly opposed the French so as to maintain their power in India following independence and condemned their use of “cultural institutions as a mask for perpetuating French Imperialism in India” (p. 91). The organization opposed the ideals of fraternity between nation-states—the very ideals Mirra Alfassa championed, which Namakkal understands as a counter political position. The CPFI used the term fraternity to refer to the common struggles of the working class in France and in French India, a notion that the French and Indian governments perceived as a threat. As independence unfolded, Pondicherry became more and more saturated with police and military troops as well as bans on public gatherings. Members of local organizations like the CPFI were heavily surveilled, silenced, and targeted. According to Namakkal, the Ashram’s position appeared ambiguous in this context due to Sri Aurobindo’s apparently anti-British profile, whereas Mirra Alfassa appeared to be pro-French. Namakkal refers to this ambivalent position as "anticolonial colonialism" (p. 103) and concludes the chapter with this central argument, which she later uses to examine the political implications of how Auroville came into existence.

8The last chapter in this section, “Making the Postcolonial Subject. Goondas, Refugees, and Citizens,” highlights how “the Indian government continued many policies of the British Raj in French India” (p. 28) following independence (1947). The category of goonda is the central topic of investigation. This category was mobilized by both the French and Indian states to criminalize their political opponents. Its emergence in the media and state documents was consistent with increasing threats to “the stability of the states, both colonial and postcolonial” (p. 109). Continued employment of the term during the decolonization of French India justified measures to increase border enforcement and policing. The goonda here was not simply used to refer to individuals involved in crime. As the French Indian and Indian territories became intertwined after independence, the goonda emerged as “the illegitimate other to … the citizen” (p. 110). While not explicitly used to refer to non-citizen criminals, the category of goonda became associated with resistance against both colonial and postcolonial powers. The citizens of French India were depicted as ethnically hybrid communities with “strong ethnic, racial, and cultural ties to India” while simultaneously being “accustomed to the democracy of the French Republic” (p. 116). The goondas were depicted as dangerous “brown men” (p. 121) who were not loyal to either the Indian or the French state. The racialized and criminalized category of “goonda” was appropriately detached from its political essence during the state-led decolonization of French India. This allowed both states to conceal the violence inherent in colonial relationships by attributing it to a distinct category, “ultimately constructing a narrative of the peaceful decolonization of French India” (p. 138).

9Anticolonial movements led to radical ideas of self-determination, including “boycotts, work stoppages, … suicide bombers and ammunition”—all of which had the potential to disrupt “the hegemonic power of empire” and the idea of “democracy as nationalism” (p. 137). Namakkal stresses the significance of the goonda category, highlighting how it challenges the postcolonial nationalist premise that the end of the empire would be democratic and nonviolent. Her investigation of the category in French India also creates new ways of understanding the history of Partition “beyond Britain, India, and Pakistan” (p. 111). It deconstructs how nationalist agendas promoted the idea of peaceful decolonization in French India while simultaneously criminalizing the anticolonial movements. Later in the book, this allows Namakkal to highlight how Auroville’s promotion of human unity appeared as a politically attractive slogan from the perspective of both Indian and French states during decolonization.

10The second section of the book, titled “Unmaking,” focuses on the period from 1954 (when the French agreed to leave) to 1962 (when Pondicherry merged with India as a Union Territory) and covers the years when Auroville was created up until the death of Mirra Alfassa (1973). Namakkal’s analysis of the events leading up to the foundation of Auroville highlights the significance of two historical threads: the successful portrayal of French India “as a space of positive colonial existence” (p. 177) and the association of Pondicherry with both Aurobindo’s anti-British nationalism and the French belonging of Mirra Alfassa’s as a spiritual personality called the “Mother.” She argues that these granted legitimacy to Auroville as a utopian project celebrating postcolonial global citizenship, which was disconnected from the ground realities of decolonization.

11Chapter 4, “Decolonial Crossings: Settlers, Migrants, Tourists,” first establishes the context in which French and Indian authorities negotiated the drafting of the Treaty of Cession in the 1950s. As the idea of holding a referendum took shape, the French authorities grappled with the issue of to whom to grant French citizenship based on reports produced by their officials in India. Namakkal presents archival evidence to demonstrate how they exclusively considered French Indians of mixed race to show true allegiance to France and its democratic values, while the rest were deemed too different “by race, language, religion, customs, and traditions” (p. 147). Granting citizenship exclusively to those of mixed race was portrayed as “the ‘humanitarian’ path to take” because they were the only ones “who had the financial means and were ready to accept the idea of leaving India for France” (p. 147). The overwhelming majority of colonial subjects in Pondicherry were excluded from the referendum as they were considered to belong to India, their “true homeland” (p. 148). The drafting of the Treaty of Cession in Delhi was grounded in an overarching interest on both sides to ensure that negotiations were conducted peacefully. The practical implications of this meant that the majority of former subjects of French India were sidelined from ever obtaining French citizenship.

12In comparison, Namakkal draws attention to the Ashram’s foreign residents who “felt that they belonged there, that India was their true spiritual home” (p. 152) despite having no real ties to India. She argues that this postcolonial ideology disregarded the overall experiences of the formerly colonized subjects. The promotion of national cultures coexisting harmoniously in a postcolonial world granted the legitimacy to prepare for their next venture, Auroville. Additionally, Namakkal highlights that this postcolonial vision resembled the ideals of the hippie movement of the 1960s. Settled in various Ashrams in India, the hippies, with their foreign currencies, also claimed to belong to India due to their spiritual inclination. It was not a coincidence that they were drawn toward Auroville’s utopian dreams.

13Namakkal’s arguments revolve around a theory of racial difference in terms of colonial and postcolonial experiences, serving as the lens through which she further develops her arguments about Auroville. Highlighting the Ashram’s foreign residents’ efforts to establish new lives in India through Auroville, she argues that this allowed them to claim their belonging to India while retaining privileges tied to their race and nationality. This enabled the creation of Auroville as a celebration of postcolonial belonging linked to privileges encompassing "physical appearance, language, and life experience" (p. 171), while simultaneously dispossessing and disenfranchising the native Tamil population to make space for it.

14In Chapter 5, titled “From the Ashram to Auroville: Utopia as Settlement,” Namakkal delves into the question of why she considers Auroville “a key site for understanding how colonialism … has continued well past decolonization” (p. 29). For Namakkal, French India is not a geographic space that once existed. It still exists, as “the nostalgia for the colonies continues to circulate—through the promotion of tourism” (p. 29). She argues that the Ashram and Auroville continue to actively generate positive memories of French-Indian colonial history in Pondicherry, where they represent the main tourist attraction sites. She builds a case for understanding their common history of perpetuating colonial power structures. In the case of Auroville, this occurred by benefiting Western utopian dreams at the expense of the native Tamil population. While the association of Auroville with socialist utopian ideals distinguished it from colonialism, it still involved settlers acquiring native lands that they perceived as “empty and available for experiments” (p. 184). Aligning with Lucy Sargisson’s (2007) idea that the feeling of estrangement is integral to utopian dreams, Namakkal further sheds light on why the initial settlers in Auroville, primarily from Europe, North America, and Australia, were drawn to the project to break free from their home countries. Yet, their discourses arising from initial contacts with the locals they hired for manual labor resembled those of settler colonial societies. Here, Namakkal does not assert that Auroville is a settler colonial society. Instead, she emphasizes that Auroville exhibits similar dynamics of disenfranchisement and dispossession as the continuation of its utopian dreams not only shapes the perception of the region’s colonial past but also continues to shape its future.

15The final chapter concludes that the effects of French colonialism in India still persist, although largely unacknowledged, primarily due to its stark difference from the effects of Partition. According to Namakkal, decolonizing French India “was not a liberatory act but instead an opening for reformulated acts of colonial settlement” (p. 8). As Auroville's utopianism relies upon universal spiritual ideals that are primarily self-serving, it successfully diverts attention away from the “ongoing struggle for liberation” (p. 204) that is endured by the native Tamil population.

16Namakkal’s reflections on present-day Auroville are informed by the perspectives of K. Wayne Yang and Eve Tuck, as introduced in “Decolonization is not a Metaphor” (2012). In this essay, which received significant academic attention, the appropriation of the term “decolonization” is criticized as an “attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity” (Tuck and Yang 2012:3). This critique stems from a lens focused on settler colonialist societies, emphasizing the ongoing need for “the repatriation of Indigenous land and life” (Tuck and Yang 2012:21). It is noteworthy that, as demonstrated in the recently published book by Suryamayi Aswini Clarence-Smith (2023), private property is not permitted for the residents of Auroville. Since the introduction of the Auroville Foundation Act in 1988, all land and infrastructure belong to a statutory body under the Indian Ministry of Education. As a historian, Namakkal's extended arguments about present-day Auroville disregard this reality. Her arguments also fail to adequately reflect the hybrid categories of Aurovilian, Indian Aurovilian, Tamil Aurovilian, and Tamil workers. Therefore, Namakkal’s book only offers a limited understanding of how Auroville's internal dynamics of race, ethnicity, class, caste, and religion, and its external relations with the state, intersect with the ongoing struggles of the local Tamil population.

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Clarence-Smith, Suryamayi Ashwini. 2023. Prefiguring Utopia: The Auroville Experiment. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

Edwards, Penny. 2010. “A Strategic Sanctuary: Reading l’Inde Française through the Colonial Archive.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 12:356–67.

Hardy, Karl. 2012. “Unsettling Hope: Contemporary Indigenous Politics, Settler-Colonialism, and Utopianism.” Spaces of Utopia: An Electronic Journal 2(1):123–36.

Katz, Cindi. 1996. “Towards Minor Theory.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 14:487–99.

Kumar, Krishnan. 1991. Utopianism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Miles, William F. S. 1995. Imperial Burdens: Countercolonialism in Former French India. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Neogy, Ajit K. 1997. Decolonization of French India: Liberation Movement and Indo- French Relations, 1947–1954. Pondicherry: French Institute of Pondicherry.

Radakrishnan, Rajagopolan. 1996. Diasporic Meditations: Between Home and Location. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Yang, K. Wayne and Eve Tuck. 2012. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1):1–40.

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Electronic reference

Cansu Gurkaya, Jessica Namakkal. Unsettling Utopia: The Making and Unmaking of French IndiaSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 13 December 2023, connection on 18 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Cansu Gurkaya

Centre d’Études Sud-Asiatiques et Himalayennes, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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