Mobile Citizens

William Noseworthy

In Mobile Citizens Natasha Pairaudeau provides a masterful assessment of issues surrounding the citizenship on South Asians living in the French colony of Indochine. Drawing deeply upon rich archival sources, a mix of popular print material and administrative reports, the author has done well to live up to the inspiration of the ways that Sugata Bose’s Hundred Horizons (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006) ‘offsets the centrality of European power’ (p. 21).

The examination also discusses John Furnivall’s influential discussions of a ‘plural society’ as those notions contest the ‘us–them’ colonial dichotomies, which were motivated by racist, imperialist presumptions of French supremacy (pp. 23-24). Since Pairaudeau’s focus here is on the diverse South Asian community in Indochine, her assertion that their lives were not strictly matters of economic import, but also involved complex debates about modernism, traditionalism, and the legal issues surrounding citizenship, is a critical contribution to understanding Indochine as a pluralistic society.


As French Indochina is normally examined in terms of the relationships between the emergent nationalities of Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese intellectuals, along with the contestations between Japanese, French, and American intervention, Pairaudeau’s intervention to examine South Asian’s provides a new angle to examine the policies of French Indochina: how is it that French policies constructed the citizenship of ‘other Asians’? How did South Asians push up against the definitions of citizenship and renegotiate categories of national belonging? In particular, the case of South Asian ‘renouncers’, or individuals who renounced their status as Indian to become fully Indochinese, and, therefore made greater strides to gaining equality, shows how the complexities of French law in Indochina were not simply a bilateral matter of ‘French vs native’.

For example, renouncers’ rights in Colonial Indochina included salaries and medical benefits, leave to visit home, and exemption from the Cochin-Chinese personal tax. Legal rights were bestowed upon renouncers as if they were French citizens (p. 60). Therefore, the renouncers become a class of citizen that was very much more French than it was Southeast Asian. Yet, personal legal structure: marriage law, inheritance law, and property law were left to the realm of religious practices, as inherited by the religion of the renouncer. This system was copied from British India, and essentially meant that French colonial law set a precedent for conceding personal matters to the realm of religious practice and the ethical debates that come from such discussions (pp. 64-65). Hence, whether or not individual renouncers were either Hindu or Muslim was a matter of great consequence for these matters. Furthermore, it seems significant that the author mentions that the South Asians who were renouncers were more often Hindu, and less commonly Muslim.

Renouncers, Religion and Rising Tensions

Matters of religious difference did not seem to be of consequence on the surface of the narrative that Pairaudeau presents, although tensions between South Asian and local Vietnamese communities were often at a near boiling point. For example, Vietnamese adapted the worship of Sri Mariamman, the Tamil goddess of small pox, and later cholera, prevention, in a conflated form known as Bà Đên (The Black Lady). The conflation was significant in 1920s and 1930s Saigon as Vietnamese had already conflated a Cambodian localization of Kali, known as Neang Khmau, in the vicinity of Tây Ninh, in the 19th century. Thus, the incorporation of Hindu deities into lesser ranking spirits that could be worship in accordance with Vietnamese understandings of the Tâm Giáo (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism) was already standard. This increased the popularity of the Sri Mariamman temple among the local Vietnamese population in Saigon in the 1930s. Yet, an incident occurred at the Mariamman Temple in Saigon, in 1936: a ‘Bengali’ stationed to guard the temple and two Vietnamese girls. The Vietnamese press variously claimed that the guard stroked one of the girls’ arms and then hit one of them violently, or brutalized one of them, or in another headline, tried to rape a 13-year-old girl. The local French language South Asian run periodical, Indochine Inde reported: The guard asked two girls not to bring babies into the temple, they yelled abusive words at him. He then through them out of the temple, and then they went to the press to create a scandal. Vietnamese responded by calling for boycotts of Hindu temples (pp. 218-219) It isn’t clear if the boycott took place.

These incidents were not unique to the Hindu South Asian community, however. In a 1928 incident where a Vietnamese mob attacked a South Asian shop, Reveil Saigonnais was careful to report that the British subjects and muslims who were involved with the incident. Hence, this removed them from the ‘Francais de L’Inde’ or Tamil-Hindu population. The piece referred to the merchants as ‘muslims who come here to enrich themselves at the expense of Cochinchina’ (p. 264). In response to the perceived lack of support for the Tamil Muslim population, in 1936, in an Indochine-Inde letter from a Tamil Muslim, a call was issued for the formation of a particularly Indian Muslim organization, as they were the only group from the Indian overseas community that did not have their own ‘society’ (p. 270).


Throughout growing tensions with the Vietnamese population, the South Asian communities of Indochine persisted well throughout the middle of the 20th century. In light of the conflict between Japanese, Vietnamese, and French during WWII in Indochine, Indians responded by ‘Indianizing’ themselves, separating themselves from the French so that they would not be targeted by anti-French sentiment (p. 285). They ‘donned the longhis of Muslim merchants’, to make themselves less targeted during periods of Japanese internment after the coup of 1945 (p. 299). Nevertheless, Indian French citizens remained in Southeast Asia throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s they were employed as intermediaries. Lurdusammy, for example, was a ‘liaison between the French and American armies in Laos in the mid-1960s’ (p. 318).

More recently, in the former states of Indochina, the relative growth of the South Asian community has contributed to the sentiment that new migrants of South Asians, particularly from Malaysia, but also from the sub-continent, are connected to deeper historical roots in mainland Southeast Asia. Muslim and Hindu South Asians are involved in contemporary trade of coffee, tea, and agricultural products, as well as textiles, throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, most particularly in urban areas, but also in certain rural areas as well. Beyond providing a window into the understanding of the long history of South Asians in mainland Southeast Asia, in Mobile Citizens, Pairaudeau has contributed to the study of French colonial history, the study of citizenship and legal history, as well as the study of religious and ethnic minorities in a global historical context.