Subhash Chandra Bose and Leon Prouchandy of Pondicherry in Saigon, Vietnam: Dana Filek-Gibson, editor-in-chief, Saigoneer, Ho Chi MInh City interviews J.B.P.More
Subash Chandra Bose and Prouchandy:
Dana Filek Gibson, Editor-in-chief, Saigoneer, Ho Chi Minh city interviews Dr. JBP.More,
about Netaji Subash Chandra Bose and his Pondicherry associate, Léon Prouchandy
· The house at 76 Rue Paul Blanchy was first owned by Saverikannu Prouchandy, a wealthy rubber estate owner, who later passed the property on to his nephew, Leon Prouchandy.
The villa at 76, rue Paul Blanchy was actually a sprawling villa with garden on three sides and compartments on the road side, situated in the posh White town of Saigon, where the French usually resided. It had a total area of 2533sq.m. Now it is much reduced in size as you would have noted. My grandfather, Saverikannu (Saverican) Prouchandy was the original proprietor of this villa. He was a rubber estate owner. He had several other properties, especially at Cap Saint Jacques (Vung Tau). After his death in 1928 in Pondicherry(Villa Aroumé,4,RangapillaiStreet)due to illness, it was his nephew Léon Prouchandy who managed his properties. Léon Prouchandy therefore became my step-grandfather. My mother was the eldest daughter of Saverican Prouchandy. She was born in Saigon in 1920 and lived at the villa for nearly 26 years under the care of Léon Prouchandy, since her father’s death, before returning to Pondicherry. So she knows more or less what happened in the villa and in Saigon during those days.
· Leon was a supporter of Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement. Upon Gandhi’s call for Indians in positions of power to quit their jobs in protest of colonial rule, Leon left his position at a French bank.
Prouchandy was attracted towards the Gandhian movement. Heeding to Gandhi’s call, he quit the job in the bank and took to social reforms following Gandhi. This has been reported in the Franco-Indian newspaper l’Inde Illustré.
· Leon was well-known in Saigon’s Tamil community for instituting dress reforms in 1933, encouraging his fellow Tamils to adopt European dress instead of traditional clothing.
Unlike Gandhian reforms like widow remarriage, Harijan uplift, etc, Prouchandy struck his own path. He launched the famous dress reforms movement in 1933, asking his compatriots, Hindu and Muslim as well as Christian to adopt European dress and hair style, instead of the traditional clothing, in order to be considered on par with the Europeans. He was genuinely worried about the down-graded status of his compatriots in Indochina and wanted to uplift them by abandoning what is not fit for modern life. During this period, he was also known in Indian/French circles for his philanthropy and his efforts to unite the Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
Even during this period off and on he used to write articles and talk in praise of the Japanese, asking the Indians to emulate them.
· Ten years later, in 1943, Subas Chandra Bose arrived in Saigon for the first time, where he was greeted by Leon at the house at 76 Rue Paul Blanchy. By this time, Bose had already become president of the Indian Independence League (IIL).
In the course of time in September 1939, the Second World War broke out. That seems to have put an end to the social reforming activities of Prouchandy. It was during this period Subhas Chandra Bose split with Mahatma Gandhi in India and in 1942 made his way secretly to Hitler’s Germany. Japanese troops then entered French Indochina. Subhash Chandra Bose also reached south-east Asia in 1943 and assumed command of the Indian National Army and the Indian Independence League.
· Leon gave Bose and the IIL use of his villa to establish the General Secretariat of the IIL at 76 Rue Paul Blanchy. The villa served as its headquarters until 1945.
My mother had told me that when Subhas Chandra Bose came to Saigon for the first time around mid-1943, he was taken in procession in an open car. When the car drove past the road (rue Catinat, presently Don Khoi) in front of the church, just next to the Paul Blanchy road, Léon Prouchandy stopped the car, and garlanded Bose with a gold necklace. Prouchandy became a close associate of Bose thenceforth.
In 1944(I do not know which month), he gave his villa free of rent to the Indian Independence League (Saigon branch). The General Secretariat of the I.I.L. was established there thenceforth. Prouchandy was the Executive Council member of the I.I.L., Saigon.
· In September 1945, shortly after Bose was thought to have been killed in a plane crash in Taiwan, French authorities arrested Leon and took him to Bot Catinat. When he was returned to 76 Rue Paul Blanchy three months later, Leon appeared to have been tortured. He eventually returned to Pondicherry for the remainder of his life.
Yes he was tortured in the Saigon Bot Catinat prison, according to my mother and family sources. According to my mother he was court-martialled. His torturers seem to have wanted to extract from him some information probably regarding Bose’s whereabouts and most certainly information about the secret location of the INA. treasure, containing gold, jewels, precious stones and currency) which Bose carried with him in boxes.
Prouchandy seems to have been tortured to the point of rendering him amnesic, so that he did not remember his torturers and the secrets that he had given out. He was subjected to water-boarding and electric shocks according to my mother. Prouchandy’s family was in disarray due to this terrible tragedy that had befallen the head of the family who was only 45 years old then. They tried to get him cured. Top Saigon French doctor Le Vilain tried to cure him unsuccessfully. Cambodian sorcerers were pressed in. But of no avail. So the family returned to Pondichery sometime in 1946 with Prouchandy. My mother was witness to all these events. She also returned to Pondicherry. Prouchandy lived in that amnesic state till about 1968 in the same villa as my mother and myself at No.5, Dupleix street. I was about 12 or 13 years old when my grandfather died. I am witness to the sufferings undergone by my grandfather as long as he lived due to his amnesic state. He sacrificed his life for his country. But nobody bothered about it. He passed away unsung and unknown to his countrymen.
· As mentioned in MT Sajul’s recent article, you recently found a French memo dated 1947 which suggests Bose was still alive at that time, meaning he had not perished in a 1945 plane crash as originally suggested.
I don’t think that Bose died in the crash. In the French secret service report, dated 11th December 1947 it is clearly stated that Bose’s whereabouts were not known. It is also stated that Bose escaped from Indochina, which seems to imply that Bose was under custody before he escaped from Indochina. The French had used the term ‘evadé for escapee. In French, the word ‘evadé is generally used for someone who had escaped from prison or custody. Therefore it is highly possible that he was arrested after the Japanese surrender on 15th August 1945, as he was considered as a war criminal by the allied powers. We do not know the exact date of his arrest, though there is another secret record received on 26th September 1945 which says that 7 Indians were arrested of which three were big personalities and members of the Hikari Kikan and the Indian Independence League. Of the 3 personalities, I think one might have been Bose himself. We do not also know the date of his escape or about how he escaped and where he went or whether he left Saigon at all. I do not think he escaped to Russia or China for want of evidence. Probably Prouchandy might have known what happened to him.
But the villa at 76, rue Paul Blanchy was the last house where Subhash Chandra Bose spent some time before he disappeared. Therefore this villa has a historical significance, besides the fact that it was the Secretariat of the Indian Independence League of Bose.
· If possible, I would like to know more about Leon Prouchandy’s life, both before and during the time in which Bose was in Saigon. He was initially a banker, but how did he get involved in the civil disobedience movement? When did he come to Saigon? Did he follow Gandhi’s movement before coming to Indochina, or was something in Saigon instrumental in his involvement in this?
Léon Prouchandy was born on 1st May 1901 in Pondicherry. He studied in the French school of Saigon, where his father was a policeman. He was a Brevet diploma holder. He was quite fluent in French and had penned several articles in ‘Saigon Dimanche’, a journal of Saigon in the 1930s. he spoke fluent Vietnamese and Tamil. He was a bit westernized and always wore European dresses. My mother used to tell me that he was a perfect gentleman, always impeccably dressed. Never would he utter a harsh word even to a servant.
He was an accountant/ cashier in a French credit bank in the early 1930s. It was a very lucrative job.
· What prompted Leon’s push for a dress reform policy? What was the general reception of the community? Prior to his arrest, did Leon face any friction with the French authorities and/or the community at large for his actions/beliefs?
Prouchandy was very much distressed by the way that the Europeans looked down upon his compatriots due to their sloppy way of dressing, not adapted to modern life. When he launched the dress reforms movement, there were of course some Indian elements who criticized him. But in general the Indian community welcomed the move. The wealthy Nattukottai Chettiar bankers and Muslim merchants like J.M. Mohamad ismail welcomed Prouchandy’s reforms. Many of them abandoned their traditional clothing and took to western dress, heeding to Prouchandy. This was widely reported in the Saigon newspaper ‘Saigon Dimanche’ and the in l’Inde Illustré.
Prouchandy is not known to have had any friction with the French or the French authorities. His villa was in the White French area. As a matter of fact, he had donated off and on to causes espoused by the French too. He always held the French republican values in high respect.
· Had Leon met Bose before his arrival in Saigon in 1943?
Prouchandy did not meet Bose before 1943. But he might have heard of him as a Congressman and of his escape to Hitler’s Germany.
· What went on at Saigon’s IIL headquarters? What kinds of things were discussed or planned there?
There was an Indian National Army recruitment bureau in the Secretariat. Hindustani classes were conducted for the Tamils of Saigon there. It always served as the main office of the I.I.L. in Indochina.
My mother told me that whenever Bose came to Saigon, he visited the Secretariat, though he usually stayed in Hotel Majestic. Prouchandy thus became acquainted with him personally. He was the influential Executive Council member of the Indian Independence League, Saigon, when the Japanese took over direct administration of Saigon and Indochina on 9th March 1945. Not only Bose, but also his close associates like his Finance Minister, A.C. Chatterji, used to visit the Secretariat and Prouchandy until 1945. They used to have discussions about how to raise money for the Netaji War fund, logistics, etc. Some of Bose’s associates were accommodated free of cost by Prouchandy in his compartments (compartiments in French) adjoining the villa and at other places, whenever they came to Saigon. Subhash Chandra Bose last came to the villa on 17th August 1945, according to my mother. They had several closed door discussions, probably about how to escape from the clutches of the Allied powers.
He was close to Bose according to my mother as he had been helping Bose’s cause in various ways, especially financial. Prouchandy was one of those rare Pondicherrians who chose to join Bose in order to free India from colonial rule. His slogan thenceforth was ‘Dilli Chalo’ ‘Go forth to Delhi’. That is what my mother told me.
· Did Leon hear of what had allegedly happened to Bose before his arrest? Was he aware the arrest was coming (as some had suggested that if the French regained control of Indochina after the Japanese left he would be in trouble)?
He was perfectly aware of what was in store in case the Japanese lost and Subhash Chandra Bose did not succeed. It seems that some pro-French Pondicherrains used to threaten him of dire consequences if he does not cease his pro-Bose and pro-Japanese activities and his properties would be confiscated by the colonial powers for treason.
My mother had never spoken to me of the air crash. She told me that even after Japanese surrender Prouchandy used to go out of the house stealthily and come back sometimes late in the evening. But never did Prouchandy tell her or anyone about where he went or whether Bose had died or any such thing. I do not know if Prouchandy was aware of Bose’s supposed death in air crash. But he had never spoken about it to my mother or anyone. He never told anyone that Bose had died. This is my mother’s testimony.
· You mentioned that your mother lived in Saigon during the 1943-45 period when Bose and the IIL were in the villa at 76 Rue Paul Blanchy. Did she ever talk to you about this time? What did she recall from this era?
Yes of course. I have recounted above much of what my mother had told me off as long as she livedy. My mother further told me that after the departure of Bose from the villa, Prouchandy used to never appear in the front side of the villa. Instead, he was always in the rear of the villa as if he was hiding. He had told my mother and other relatives in the villa to tell that Leon was not at home if anybody came in search of him. My mother told that he lived in terrible fear during these days. But he did not surrender. But somehow the authorities had got wind that Prouchandy was hiding in the villa. Sometime in September 1945, colonial military came to the villa in jeeps, accompanied by 2 or 3 Pondicherrians. They entered the house and searched for Prouchandy, in front of all the family members. Prouchandy was caught, identified by the Pondicherrians and taken away forcibly. The family members could do nothing. They cried and wailed. But of no avail. He was shut up in the nearby dreaded Bot Catinat prison and interrogated and tortured, according to my mother.
· In the February Times of India article, it was reported that you sent a letter to the Vietnamese government requesting transfer of ownership for the villa at 76 Rue Paul Blanchy (now Hai Ba Trung) to the Indian government for historical preservation. What, if anything, has come about from this petition since then?
Yes I had submitted a petition to the Vietnmese government through the Vietnamese Embassy in New Delhi on 26th April 2016 asking them to transfer the villa at 76, rue Paul Blanchy (Hai Bha Trung presently) to the Indian government as a goodwill gesture so that it can converted into a sort of historical memorial and Indo-Vietnamese cultural centre. This villa was not only the Secretariat of the I.I.L; in Saigon, but also the last house where Netaji Bose came and stayed and had his discussions before we lose trace of him. In this sense it is a historical monument.
I sent copies of the petition to the Prime Minister of India, the Home Minister and the Foreign Minsister of India. They acknowledged receipt of the petition. But there has been no follow up till now.
But the Vietnamese embassy officials had made it known to me that they are more than willing to consider my petition favourably if the Indian government approaches them formally.
· Regarding the new discovery of the 1947 French memo, it is clear that there is more to Bose’s story. What does this news mean for historians like yourself?
It means that we have to dig more in order to establish the historical truth. We cannot be satisfied with speculations and imaginations. Bose did not go to Russia or China or Japan. These seem to be nothing more than stories planted to divert the attention from the fact that Bose was held in custody in Saigon itself. A honest historian has the responsibility to get to facts, at all costs. The French secret reports go to establish those facts to a considerable extent with regard to Bose’s detention in Saigon. The historians main job is to record the events of the past truthfully, whatever those events might be.
A Critique of Modern Civilisation and Globalisation by Dr. More (original text of the talk delivered on 13th April 2017 at RMRL, Chennai)
Roja Muthiah Library, ChennaiProfessor Ananda Krishnan Special Endowment Lecture ‘A CRITIQUE OF MODERN CIVILISATION AND GLOBALISATION’