Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago
By Peter Ibbotson
The world watches in wonder the sight of France staggering to national bankruptcy and economic ruin. Impoverished by the ill-fated Indo-China campaign, France has for 18 months been waging the anti-colonial war in Algeria, at a cost of 1500 million francs a day. And at the end of last year France played the major part in fomenting the abortive and iniquitous invasion of Egypt which was only halted by the pressure of world opinion against the aggressive triumvirate: France, Israel and the UK.
Why the wonder at France’s anti-colonialism? The wonder arises from a study of history. Modern France had its birth in the French Revolution which was not the revolt of a nation against one man, Louis XVI, but the revolt of a nation against the despotic principles of the government. The French Revolution had before it the example of America, where Marquis de la Fayette had played an active part on the revolutionary side and took his leave of Congress with a stirring declaration and aspiration: “May this great monument, raised to Liberty, serve as a lesson to the oppressor, and an example to the oppressed!”
The French Revolution began – the Bastille was taken – and the Revolution was firmly established by the Declaration of Rights which the National Assembly promulgated as a statement of the principles for which the Revolution stood. The articles of the Declaration were well aimed at setting up in France a monument to Liberty equal to that which de la Fayette had apostrophised in America; some of the articles are pertinent to recall today:
“I. Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights…
Il. …these rights are Liberty, Prosperity, Security, and Resistance of Oppression.
VII. No man should be accused, arrested, or held in confinement, except in cases determined by the law, and according to the forms which it has prescribed…
VIII. …no one ought to be punished, except in virtue of a law promulgated before the offence, and legally applied.
XI. …every citizen may speak, write, and publish freely.
XVI. Every community in which a separation of powers and a security of rights is not provided for, wants a Constitution.”
These and other rights were recognised by the National Assembly… “In the presence of the Supreme Being, and with the hope of His blessing and favour” as sacred; as natural, imprescriptible and inalienable. That was 150 years ago. Today the Government of France denies every one of these rights to the people of Algeria; and denied them to the people of Indo-China; and denied them to the people of Indo-China; and denied them – or tried to deny them – to the people of Egypt.
What do the Algerian people want, that metropolitan France should wage against them what is tantamount to a full-scale war? All they have ever asked for is self-determination. They want to be no longer a colonial vassal race, under France; they want to determine their own future. The celebrated Algerian fighter for freedom, Messali Hadj, who has been persecuted for over 30 years by French colonialism (but has not bowed to it), said recently: “Once the right of the Algerian people to self-determination has been recognised, it will be perfectly possible to envisage close co-operation with France within the framework of a genuine commonwealth.” Here Messali Hadj had in mind a commonwealth of the British type, grouping France and the Maghreb.
In waging the war against the Algerian people, France is committing many crimes against humanity. An international commission of enquiry has recently established the truth of allegations that in North Africa, imprisonment without trial, torture, and illegal detention are practised. In May, the American press gave great prominence to a documented report by the Mouvement national algérien on French atrocities in Algeria. ‘Documented Proof for an Algerian Nuremberg’ was the title of the report; which the M.N.A. distributed widely.
The American government (which like the French government seems to have forgotten the high principle in which the country was born out of revolution) supports the French; but the American people are with the people of Algeria, supporting their stand for liberation from the yoke of an oppressor. The Arab nations support the Algerians; so do good democrats everywhere. Mr Aneurin Bevan recently spoke to the French Socialist Party and gave three essential elements for a peaceful settlement of the Franco-Algerian war: a statement by France that independence would be granted to Algeria; a respite in which the various factions among the Algerians could blend themselves in a wide stream; and an effort to relieve the European population of their fears which are, however, only justified in the framework of the present disastrous policy. Pandit Nehru too has declared that India would unswervingly support Algeria’s cause until she gained her independence.
France could, indeed, learn much from the UK in colonial matters. Before the last war, India was always restless at being kept a vassal state, part of the British Empire. When the Japanese entered the war, a Provisional Government of Azad Hind was at once proclaimed, with Subhas Chandra Bose a Head of the State and Supreme Commander of the Indian National Army. (It was in October 1943 that the Provisional Government was proclaimed, in Singapore – then renamed Syonan). The Provisional Government of Azad Hind had declared in one of its proclamations: “Only one mission to fulfil. That mission is to expel the Anglo-American armies from the sacred soil of India by armed force and then to bring about the establishment of a Permanent National Government of Azad Hind in accordance with the will of the people.” (In 1914 Tilak had called upon his nationalist followers to fight unconditionally to the death with Britain for victory).
The 1919 Montagu-Chelmsford constitution worked as reasonably well as any compromise can be expected to work; Anglo-Indian relations were marred by the Amritsar massacre in 1919 and by the fact that the constitution reserved finance and defence to the British officials, and until a government controls all the police and military forces within its territory, its independence is only a fiction. The Simon Commission announced in 1937 that the end in view was Dominion status but Congress wanted complete independence. A few intransigent imperialists such as Churchill were bitterly and adamantly opposed to independence for India; and Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind movement might have been an embarrassment had it not been for the announcement that the constitutional status of India would be reconsidered after the war. The Cripps mission was not (in western eyes) a success; it was deliberately engineered so as to discredit Cripps and reduce the popularity which his mission to Moscow had gained for him. After the war, the Labour Government granted independence to India, and the appropriate Act of Parliament was passed in 1947.
By thus voluntarily! abdicating from an imperialist position, the UK avoided in India a colonial war such as France has experienced in Indo-China and Algeria; only on a larger scale. Bankrupted and discredited in the eyes of the world by reason of her suicidal policy in Algeria, France would do well to regain some self-respect, and follow the ten-year-old lead of the UK, by granting independence to Algeria.
4th Year – No 160
Friday 30th August 1957
* Published in print edition on 30 March 2021
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