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Title: Imperial nationhood and its impact on colonial cities
Authors: Raffin, A. 
Issue Date: 2011
Citation: Raffin, A. (2011). Imperial nationhood and its impact on colonial cities. Cities and Sovereignty: Identity Politics in Urban Spaces : 28-58. ScholarBank@NUS Repository.
Abstract: This volume examines conflicts within cities through the lens of political institutions and social identities that operate on a variety of scales. Colonial cities of the French Empire hosted a multiplicity of institutions and identities. This was not just because most colonial cities were places where interaction among various ethnic and national groups took place, but also because the requisites of urban governance in cities of the imperial periphery required attention to a multiplicity of local legal and social institutions that preceded colonial dominion (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1988). For such culturally diverse cities where governance practices were imposed from outside, and where loyalty among local populations sustained imperial rule, the politics of identity served as a field of contested claims. Indeed, linked to the recognition of individual and group identity were issues of access to social or political power and resources, as well as the struggle to gain self-respect and validation of one's identity. Playing with identity and the allegiances it entailed was a tricky game that could lead to conflicts. In the cases at hand, the French colonial power in Pondicherry (Pondichéry in French; here referred to in its Anglicized spelling), India from the 1850s to 1914, and the Vietnamese cities of Saigon and Hanoi from the 1850s through the 1920s challenged the existing social identities, which were often based on kinship group, parentage, religion, and incipient nationalism. While the two Vietnamese cities could be termed cosmopolitan, since they had inhabitants from different parts of the world (Europeans, Chinese, Indians, natives), I would characterize the city of Pondicherry as provincial, as the composition of the population was mostly made up of locals and a small European community. What conditions make cultural diversity a source of tension and possible violence for cities under colonial rule? According to Iris Young, in her study of federalism among the various Native American groups that made up the Iroquois Confederacy, a sovereign state exercises "central and final authority" over all political and legal subjects within a bounded territory (Young 2000, 247). For our case, French territorial sovereignty over its colonies raises the issue of the imperial power's legitimacy. On the one hand, France and its discourse of the "civilizing mission" promised to "uplift" the locals who were not yet as fully "civilized," "modern" and "rational" as the Europeans. Colonized subjects were promised that over the long term, they would become a sovereign entity which would be "an independent, self-determining agent" (Tanner 2007). On the other hand, racial hierarchy characterized the everyday life of the colonial world. Along with the other pieces in this volume, this essay analyzes inter-group dynamics through a focus on individuals, institutions, and the built environment. However, this chapter differentiates the imperial state from the colonial state. The imperial, or metropolitan, state oversaw the metropole (the territory of the capital itself) and its empire. The colonial state was built by representatives of France in order to manage a specific overseas territory. The limitation of the empire's power resulted from overlapping sovereignties of the imperial state and the colonial state, which could have conflicting agendas about the implementation of new Republican policies and laws regarding how to maintain the balance of power. French sovereignty over foreign territory also introduces the problem of identification. Which territorial entity gave the local inhabitants their main identity - the motherland and its empire, the colony, or a given community? The fragility of the imperial state's authority became apparent when this transnational institution imposed new values, institutions and demands on colonial inhabitants, who responded by taking into account their own interests, sense of place, and identity. This chapter argues that state policies created in France but implemented in colonial settings-such as universal suffrage for male Indian natives, decentralized local councils in Pondicherry, and repatriation of Frenchmen from Vietnam to the motherland for the war effort-served to promote the conditions for conflict in Vietnam and India. These various policies acted to reinforce the discrepancy between the promise of the civilizing mission, and the reality of a racialized social order. Did natives' responses to these policies undermine the sovereignty of the imperial state? And what lessons can we learn regarding the process of fostering and maintaining peace in a plural urban environment? The authority of the imperial state was undermined in Pondicherry, since the colonial law was used by social actors as a system of resources against the authorities' projected goal. More precisely, high-caste Indians led by the leader Chanemougam were able to take over newly created local political institutions and reinforce existing social differences in a mainly Hindu society, even though the law of universal suffrage aimed at undermining the hierarchy of the caste system.1 High-caste individuals resisted the Republican empire's attempts to impose a sense of imperial nationhood. They did not perceive themselves in terms of a "nation," but as belonging to a religious and exclusionary community defined by the caste system, a system based on the notions of pollution, purity, and space and sanctioned by an embedded stigma. While they did tolerate French political sovereignty, members of the religious elite refused to embrace French cultural sovereignty based on universal republican ideas. High-caste individuals accepted a position of subordinated subjecthood in the colonial order as long as their dominant position was maintained within their own religious community. These conditions gave rise to a divergence between the imperial state with its ostensible goal of a "civilizing mission for all" and a local state at the urban level, where administrators often chose to implement an ideology of respect for cultural and religious differences. In India, such disparate policies resulted in escalating tensions that eventually led to caste warfare. In the case of Vietnam, new state policies and changing conditions in labor and housing markets led to demands among the local Vietnamese for more ethnic integration, all of which played a role in intensifying inter-ethnic conflict. Nevertheless, the authority of the imperial state was not diminished. Long-distance control continued to be maintained even after Frenchmen were sent back to the metropole to serve in World War I. In addition, local state bureaucrats in Hanoi were able to protect the "dual city," as Hanoi was run almost as two cities in one, the colonial and the indigenous. The distinction between the two halves of the city was enforced by a law pertaining to the built environment, which required that all houses in European neighborhoods comply with a European architectural style. Later conflicts between Vietnamese and local Chinese also failed to challenge the colonial order in Saigon. In his newspaper articles in the early twentieth century, Vietnamese journalist Gilbert Chieu and his companions supported the idea of Vietnam as a partner of the imperial power. They promoted the idea of economic nationalism, which entailed the economic emancipation of Vietnam from the Chinese community. They pressed for power and authority over the economic resources of their land, in other words, for a "secessionless" economic sovereignty that would be shared with the French.2 This Vietnamese group based their claim on their relation to the soil. They argued that the Chinese had no sovereign economic rights over Vietnam since their legal status was as foreign Asians who did not belong to the French imperial nation, as did the Vietnamese. The colonial government gave some backing to the Vietnamese as part of the "Franco-Annamite collaboration" and as a means to counteract the growing economic power of the Chinese in the early phase of the 1919 anti-Chinese campaign, but eventually chose to support the status quo for fear of destabilizing the social order. In the case of Vietnam, the status quo did not pose a conflict between the ideas of the metropole and the more immediate concerns of the colonial authorities. © 2011 by Indiana University Press. All rights reserved.
Source Title: Cities and Sovereignty: Identity Politics in Urban Spaces
ISBN: 9780253355775
Appears in Collections:Staff Publications

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