Tamil Heroes of French India, 1870-1954: Their Role in Business, Social Reforms and in Netaji’s Freedom Struggle from Vietnam

JBP.More, Tamil Heroes of French India: Their Role in Business, social Reforms and in Netaji’s freedom struggle from Vietnam,  published by TLPMS  Ilakkya, Pondicherry, 2016, pp. 208

This book deals with the history and career of the members of a Tamil family of Pondicherry who had migrated to French Indochina (Vietnam). Darmanathan Prouchandy of this family was the first Tamilian to own and run steamers. He was born in Pondicherry on 13th February 1847. He had migrated to French Indochina in the year 1870 from Pondicherry.  He very soon became wealthy by indulging in business and floated a steam navigation line of his own in Indochina in 1891. He faced stiff competition from the French-owned Messageries Fluviales. He owned two steamers which plied passengers, goods and mail up and down the Mekong River from Phnom Penh to the South China Sea.

Darmanathan Prouchandy was the first Indian and Tamilian to attempt to run a passenger line by sea in the South China Sea from Saigon to Thailand in 1895. But permission was denied to him by the French colonial authorities of Saigon, Indochina to exploit this line. Tata had started a steamer line from Bombay to East Asia in 1895, which survived hardly for a year. But Darmanathan Prouchandy’s line withstood pressure, discrimination and competition from the French. He ran his steamers successfully for about a decade when he was forced to close down due to unfair competition.

Later we have the Si.Va. Company of Tuticorin which plied steamers from Tuticorin to Colombo since April 1906. It was forced to close down due to stiff competition from the British Indian Steam Navigation company. Very soon in October 1906, a Swadeshi Steam navigation Company was registered to ply steamers between Tuticorin and Colombo. This Company came into existence due to the efforts of V.O. Chidambaram, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Company.  Haji Fakir Mohammad Sait and Sons alone held 8000 shares of the Company out of the total of 40000 shares. However the Company’s steamers started running only from May 1907. Within two years the Company was closed down due to stiff and unfair completion from the British India Steam navigation Company. As the major share-holder, Haji Fakir Mohammad and Sons incurred the heaviest loss.

As far as south India is concerned, Darmanathan Prouchandy of Pondicherry was the first Tamilian to indulge in steam navigation business on his own since 1891, well before the Si.Va Company and the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company of Tuticorin.

Saverikannu or Saverican Prouchandy was born on 24th April 1870, at Bimlipatnam in British Andhra. The steam navigator Darmanathan Prouchandy was his uncle. He too migrated to French Indochina from Pondicherry. After struggling for several years, he finally established himself as a successful businessman, landlord and rubber estate owner in Vietnam, during the first decade of the twentieth century.  He was a great philanthropist too. Considering the services that Saverikannu Prouchandy had rendered to the development of colonial economy, the French Government knighted him in March 1914 and awarded him the title of ‘Chevalier du Mérite Agricole’.

He loved his mother country very much. When he fell grievously sick in Saigon at his residence at 76, rue Paul Blanchy (presetly Hai Bha Trung), he preferred to return to India and spend the rest of his days at his sprawling residence at No.4, Ananda Ranga Pillai street, Pondicherry, adjacent to the French Governor’s House, known as Villa Aroumé. He finally passed away in the Italian marbled main hall of this residence, on 12th October 1928. Presently this residence serves as the Aurobindo Ashram dining hall.

Later in the 1930s, his nephew Leon Prouchandy jjoined the Civil Disobedience Movement of mahatma Gandhi.  When Gandhi gave the call to Indians holding responsible positions to relinquish their jobs as a sign of protest, Léon Prouchandy was probably the only Indian and Tamil in Indochina who actually gave up his lucrative job in French credit bank. The news about his giving up the job actually appeared in a Franco-Indian journal of Pondicherry called L’Inde Illustré.


Dress Reforms initiated by Prouchandy:

Having renounced his job following the call of Mahatma Gandhi, one would probably think that Léon Prouchandy would follow the footsteps of Gandhi in every way. Prouchandy definitely admired Gandhi’s objective to eradicate untouchability in Hindu society. He seems to have even contributed to the Harijan Sevak Sangh fund, founded by Gandhi.5

Prouchandy did not take to any of the usual social reforming activities of Indian stalwarts like widow remarriage.  Instead, he felt the need for the Indians to modernise themselves. So in the year 1933 he boldly launched what he called as the ‘Dress Reforms’ among the Tamils in Saigon. Léon Prouchandy himself personally contacted the various Indian Tamil groups living in Saigon  and asked them to get rid of their chomins or dhotis and kailis (lungis) and take to wearing European dresses at least when they go about in the town and also cut off their kudumis (tuft of hair on the head) in the interest of hygiene. He called upon the Tamils to emulate the Japanese and Chinese in this respect.6

He implored the prominent Tamil personalities of Saigon like Mr.J.M.Mohammad Ismail, Chief of the Congregation of the Muslims and Administrator of the Saigon mosque, Arunassalam Chettiar(President of the Association of Nattukotai Chettiars), Kumarappa Chettiar, Chief of the Congregation of Hindus, Somasundaram Chettiar, Administrator of the temple of Nattukottai Chettiars, Karpanapillai, Chinnasamy Vandayar, Kishnasamy Devar, Subramania Pillai, Subbaraya Pillai, Administrator of the temple of Mariamman, and Kathiappa Devar, proprietor, Appa Pillai, banker as well as the Pondicherry Tamil Christians to take to European dresses. Prouchandy thought that this would contribute to the good name of the Indian ethnic group and to their social progress. The Franco-Tamil journal L’Inde Illustré was the first to come out in favour of Prouchandy’s dress reforms. Most of the preceding personalities of Saigon came out in support of the dress reforms of Prouchandy.7

In pursuit of his objectives, Prouchandy wrote personally to a number of his friends and journalists in India asking them to support them in his efforts. It seems that they had strongly encouraged him to pursue his path. He issued a fervent appeal to the Indians of India to take to his dress reforms. He even expected Mahatma Gandhi and the southern social reformer Periyar E.V. Ramasami to come out in support of his reforms.

Besides, Prouchandy also worked for the unity of the Hindus, Muslims and Christians of both French and British India settled in Indochina. Prouchandy was particularly interested in the fate of Hinduism and the expansion of Islam in India, especially in south India. He was also quite annoyed about the existence of caste in south Indian Christianity.

Political Martyrdom of Léon Prouchandy:

But all this was in for a change, with the Japanese becoming more and more powerful in East Asia, threatening the colonial interests of the ‘white’ western powers. The Tamils settled in Indochina and Malaysia too seems to have come under Japanese influence. Saigon Indian Tamil personalities like Léon Prouchandy  in the popular Indian paper Saigon Dimanche praising the Japanese for their achievements. As we have seen earlier, Prouchandy had called upon the Indians to emulate the Japanese.11

Subhas Chandra Bose, a leading Congressman disappeared from India in early 1941. He made his way to Tokyo along with Abid Hassan in February 1943 from Germany. In Tokyo, he sought the cooperation of the Japanese in freeing India from the British.15

On 4th July, Bose accepted the Presidency of the Indian Independence League in Singapore. On August 8, he assumed the command of the Indian National Army.

Earlier on 9th August 1943, Bose had flown to Saigon and conferred with the Japanese Ambassador Matsumota. He was greeted with open arms by many members of the Indian/Tamil community of Saigon. It was then when he drove down in an open car in one of the main roads of Saigon, leading to Hotel Majestic, that Léon Prouchandy of Pondicherry ascended the car and garlanded Bose with a gold necklace. Bose even addressed a rally of some 1000 Indian (mostly Tamil) residents of Saigon. Leon Prouchandy eventually became one of the principal financers and supporters of the Indian freedom struggle in Saigon.

During this period, the General Secretariat of the Indian Independence League (I.I.L.) of Saigon, was established in the spacious residence, situated at 76, rue Paul Blanchy (Hai Bha Trung presently), belonging to the Prouchandy family of Pondicherry. Actually, Léon Prouchandy, who as we have seen was active in Indian Tamil circles since the 1930s, had given this residence free of rent so that it can serve as the branch office of the I.I.L. in Saigon. Three flags – Indian, Vietnamese and Japanese – flew atop the residence. A soldier of the Indian National Army stood guard at the entrance.

Leon Prouchandy wanted to drive the British from India. He contributed profusely to the Netaji War Fund – gold, jewellery and cash, sometimes against opposition from his own relatives. It appears that threats were handed out to him by pro-French supporters, that in the event of Japanese defeat Prouchandy’s properties in Indochina and Pondicherry will be confiscated by the French. But such threats did not seem to have deterred him from supporting the Indian Armed Struggle.

On 6th and 9th August, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed out of existence. On 15th August 1945, Japan capitulated. On 16th August, Bose flew to Bangkok with some of his comrades like Colonel Habibur Rahman Khan.. On 17th August 1945, Bose flew with some of his close comrades to Saigon. He dissolved the I.N.A. and said: “The roads to Delhi are many and Delhi still remains our goal”. It seems that Bose held his last Cabinet meeting in the branch office of the Provisional Government of Free India. As a matter of fact, it seems quite evident that Subhas Chandra Bose held his last discussions and Cabinet meeting at the Secretariat of the I.I.L. which was Prouchandy’s residence. Major General Kiani states in his memoirs that Bose spent the night in Saigon at the I.I.L. Secretariat and the following day he had discussions with his compatriots and the Japanese representatives of Field Marshal Count Terauchi’s headquarters in Saigon. From Saigon, he flew to an unknown destination along with Col.Habibur Rahman and two suitcases loaded with gold and jewellery. The plane finally crashed in Taipei on takeoff on the 18th August. Subhas Chandra Bose did not survive. His body was cremated two days later and the ashes taken to Tokyo by Tatsuo Hayashida.

Subhas Chandra Bose flew to his death from Saigon on 18th August 1945. Much is talked of his death. Much has been written about his death. Some even claim that he did not die in the crash. But hardly any historian seem to worry of what happened to those Indians or Tamils who had followed and supported Netaji till the end. There is not a single book written about them and the difficulties that they encountered after Japanese defeat and Netaji’s death and the sacrifices that they had made for the cause of Indian independence.

When the Japanese were defeated and the war was over, one afternoon probably towards the end of September 1945, a colonial military jeep approached the villa of Leon Prouchandy at 76, rue Paul Blanchy in Saigon, which until then served as the Secretariat of the Indian Independence League. Some soldiers brought down the three flags –Indian, Vietnamese and Japanese – that still flew atop the residence. They arrested Léon Prouchandy from his villa and took him away to an unknown destination. This happened in front of all the helpless family members including Léon Prouchandy’s wife and her children. All family members wailed and cried when Prouchandy was taken away. Some anti-Japanese Pondicherrians were also present on the occasion. It was said that it was they who instigated Prouchandy’s arrest. The family was in total disarray, with the arrest of its head, who was only 45 years old then

About three months later Léon Prouchandy returned home. But he was no more the same lively young man. He was completely transformed. He was suffering from amnesia. In other words he had lost his senses. It seems that he was tortured while he was in custody, which rendered him amnesiac. His life and all his future was snuffed out at a young age. He never knew that he had sacrificed his life and his future for the sake of the independence of his country. The top French doctor of Saigon, Dr. Le Vilain tried to cure Léon Prouchandy. But it was of no avail. Cambodian sorcerers were pressed in as a last attempt to retrieve the senses of Prouchandy. It was not successful either. As a result, the family was in a pathetic state.

Though Subhas Chandra Bose, who too left this world tragically, has been honoured in every city of India with statues and the naming of roads after him, many of the heroes who participated in the freedom struggle along with him from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma and Indochina have simply been forgotten. They remain the unsung martyrs of the Indian Freedom Movement. Of course Léon Prouchandy of Pondicherry is one of those great unsung Tamil martyrs who had dared to sacrifice their wealth and lives so that their countrymen may live in freedom. Leon Prouchandy stands apart from the whole array of social reformers and freedom-fighters that Pondicherry, Thamizhnadu and India had produced, due to the originality and uniqueness of his dress and hair style reforms and his ardent desire to put an end to colonialism.