Anti-colonial political movements in Southern India in the period 1919 – 1947

ECAF Fellowship report from Dr. Andrew Davies, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Liverpool

ECAF Centre: L’Ecole Francais d’Extreme Orient, Pondicherry, India

I was awarded a BA/BASAS/ECAF fellowship to study transnational anti-colonial networks in the early 20th Century. The award allowed me to visit the National Archives of India in New Delhi for two weeks, the Tamil Nadu Archives in Chennai for ten days, and to be based for five weeks in the Ecole Francais d’Extreme Orient in Pondicherry.

My research was focussed on a number of activists who found refuge in French India during the first two decades of the 20th Century. The most famous of these is Aurobindo Ghose, but a number of others, including the Tamil poet Subramania Bharati, were also active in spreading ideas that the Government of India found to be ‘seditious’. The most notorious case involved the implication of some of these activists in the murder of Robert Ashe, a district official in the far South of Madras Presidency. As a result, Pondicherry became for a brief time the centre of an anti-colonial network that connected to other activists as far away as Europe, North Africa and America. My time in India allowed me to piece together some of these networks as they were viewed by the colonial authorities in Calcutta and Madras at the time, but also the impact that some of these activists had within Pondicherry itself. Bharati, for instance, is now seen as a key figure in revitalising Tamil literature, a reputation that is largely based on the poetry he wrote whilst living in exile. This has allowed me to begin to analyse the transnational geographies of anti-colonial resistance that were present, but also to see how these networks had impacts on individuals in particular places like Pondicherry. I am currently in the process of going through a lot of this material, but plan to write up this work into at least two journal articles, and plan to present the findings at the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting and the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) Annual Conference (both in 2014).

The Ecole Francais d’Extreme Orient was a welcoming and friendly institution, which supported my research throughout. During the research I was also able to establish connections with scholars in the French Institute of Pondicherry, the V. Subbiah Memorial Social Science & Literary Research Centre, Pondicherry, and in the Madras Institute of Development Studies. The fellowship was an excellent opportunity to spend an extended period in ‘the field’ as an early career researcher, and will help contribute towards a number of future projects about transnational anti-colonialism which I am currently developing.