Teaching French in India

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The development of Francophilia and Francophonie in India was part of the movement to participate in the narrative of the nation in the context of British rule...

The development of Francophilia and Francophonie in India was part of the movement to participate in the narrative of the nation in the context of British rule, which explains the attempts of the Raj to curb the development of French in India. As early as 1879, Le Journal de la Demoiselle d’Arvers, a posthumous novel by Toru Dutt, a very young Bengali novelist, was published.

Initially taught in Bengal, the French language developed in the Bombay region from the 1870s. Father Pedraza, a Spanish professor, was responsible for introducing the teaching of French in high schools, and then within the University of Bombay in the 1870s, which supported a Francophile movement that led in 1886 to the creation of the Bombay Literary Circle, run by the Parsi elites.

The first steps of French in the British education system

From the 1870s onwards, the French was established and developed in the educational system set up by the English authorities, but its official recognition had yet to be acquired. In 1875, two pupils from the Scottish High School, a school reserved for Europeans and mestizos, presented French at the Matriculation Examination at the University of Bombay. This is the first known example of students taking French in this examination. The Faculty of Arts of Bombay University then submitted a proposal for the inclusion of French as a second language in the post-admission examinations, which was supported by the university union.

It was only in April 1886 that the University Senate endorsed the proposal. The Bombay government in turn approved the proposal and endorsed it under Resolution No. 1073 dated of the 12th of July. The resolution, which in the first instance insisted on the particular interest of this teaching for women, finally dropped any discriminatory mention.

Admission of French to the B.A. exams: two students speak out against the Senate

In 1886, French was included in post-admission courses at university. However, while it was recognised for classes, it was not the case for post-admission examinations. This contradictory situation was an expression of the British authorities' reluctance to normalise the spread of the French language among the Indian elite. However, French can be dound in the B.A. examinations at Calcutta University in 1893, and reported at Madras University in the same examinations in 1902.

The time of development (1894-1902)

At the turn of the 20th century, the development of French language teaching in India is attested to by figures reported in 1901. Thus, at the New High School, which included more than a thousand Hindu, Muslim and Parsi students, 350 students studied French for an hour a day under the direction of Pedraza, whereas only "very few" were reported in 1893. At Wilson College, about sixty students in French were preparing for B.A., B.Sc. degrees as well as M.A. degrees, compared to only twenty eight years earlier. Also in 1901, at St Xavier College, an institution run by German Jesuits who still refused to include French in their curriculum in 1893, 75 students received his teaching. Finally, the prestigious and 'well-attended' Fort and Proprietary High School offered French classes to about 150 students. Among these four establishments, more than 635 students studying French can be counted. This diffusion movement was endogenous. That year, for the first time, the Bombay consul asked for support from the French government for French classes in these various establishments and requested some prints and books.

The Commission's arguments against French and their rebuttal

In 1902, the Raleigh Commission for the reform of university curricula attempted to restrict the teaching of French to women, alongside other subjects that were considered too emancipatory. Subsequently, the Literary Circle sent a letter to the Senate of Bombay University pleading for French to remain accessible to all students in the university's curriculum. This letter did not fail to point out the contradictions involved in the committee's decision: "French has long been admitted as an optional subject for the Indian, Ceylonese as well as English Civil Service ". On the 24th of January 1903, the committee appointed by the Senate to study the letters from the Bombay government did not validate the restrictions against the teaching of French, but the status of French in education was weakened.

New threats: the German Jesuit campaign in 1911

A sign of the good health of French teaching in north-western India at the beginning of the 20th century was the installation of two French teachers: Professors Paul Louis Charlier and Louis Peltier. From 1910, the former taught at the Government High School in Ahmedabad as well as at Ahmedabad College. Both teachers settled with their families in the city where they practised their profession. This vigorous teaching of French in the Bombay Presidency and the surrounding areas was soon undermined by new assaults from the Raj authorities, but also from the German Jesuits. The new campaign was not without consequences. At a time when examinations for the honorary diploma in English, Sanskrit, Latin and Persian were being instituted, the government representative demanded that the institution of such a diploma for French be refused. The discriminatory nature of the Raj's educational policy is highlighted by the creation in 1911 in Simla of the Society of Friends of France in British India, exclusively reserved for senior British officials and the Maharaja of Kapurthala.

The Indian elites in search of emancipation nonetheless accorded an important place to French culture and language, as for example the poet Rabindranath Tagore in his university of Visva-Bharati where it was taught from its creation in 1921.


Published in january 2022

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