The Mother, a close collaborator of Sri Aurobindo, claimed there was no antagonism between being an Indian and French citizen at the same time.
In August 1954, Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India, received a guest with an unusual request. His visitor, Indra Sen, was a former professor of philosophy who had travelled from the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry with a message from The Mother, a close spiritual collaborator of late philosopher Sri Aurobindo.
The Mother had prepared a statement that she intended on releasing on August 15. Before it was made public, Sen presented a draft of the statement to Prasad, putting the president in a quandary.
“I want to mark this day with the expression of a long cherished wish, that of becoming an Indian citizen,” The Mother’s statement read. “From the first time I came to India – in 1914 – I felt that India is my true country, the country of my soul and spirit.”
She wrote she wanted to become an Indian citizen “as soon as India would be free”. “But I had to wait still longer because of my heavy responsibilities for the Ashram here in Pondicherry. Now the time has come where I can declare myself.”
At that time, there were many foreign-born people living long-term in India. To help them become naturalised citizens, the government was putting finishing touches to what would become the Citizenship Act, 1955,
But The Mother didn’t just want Indian citizenship.
Using the principles of her spiritual collaborator, she staked a wider claim: she said that, in accordance with Aurobindo’s ideal, her purpose was to show that “truth lies in union, rather than division”. Therefore, “to reject one nationality in order to obtain another is not a natural solution,” she wrote. “So I hope I shall be allowed to adopt a double nationality, that is to say, to remain French while I become an Indian.”
She said she was French by “birth and early education” but Indian by “choice and predilection”. “In my consciousness there is no antagonism between the two – on the contrary – they combine very well and complete one another,” she wrote. “I know also that I can be of service to both equally; for my only aim in life is to give a compete form to Sri Aurobindo’s great teaching and in his teaching he reveals that all the nations are essentially one and meant to express the Divine Unity upon earth through an organised and harmonious diversity.”
Journey to India
Born Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa into a Jewish family in Paris in 1878, the girl who would be known as The Mother became interested in spirituality after a series of “psychic and spiritual” experiences between the ages of 11 and 13. By the time she was in her 20s, she had joined a community in Paris that was fascinated with India and its religious practices.
“In the year 1910 my husband came alone to Pondicherry where, under very interesting and peculiar circumstances, he made the acquaintance of Sri Aurobindo,” Alfassa wrote in 1920. “Since then we both strongly wished to return to India – the country which I had always cherished as my true mother-country. And in 1914 this joy was granted to us.”
She met Aurobindo soon after arriving in the French colony in 1914. “As soon as I saw Sri Aurobindo I recognised in him the well-known being whom I used to call Krishna…,” she wrote. “And this is enough to explain why I am fully convinced that my place and my work are near him, in India.”
Her husband Paul Richard was a politician who stood unsuccessfully for elections for the French Senate from Pondicherry. The couple were forced to move out of India in 1915 and, for the next five years, they lived in France and Japan, before returning to Pondicherry.
They eventually divorced and Alfassa moved into Aurobindo’s house. Considering her equally spiritually evolved, he started calling her The Mother, a name that would also be used by all his followers.
She became one of the founders of the Aurobindo Ashram and chose to live permanently in India.
It was abundantly clear in 1954 that newly-independent India was not going to allow dual citizenship, but that didn’t stop Indra Sen from approaching Prasad with a special request. During their meeting, the Indian president did not make any promises, although he was familiar with the work of the Aurobindo Ashram and The Mother.
Still, not wanting to ignore the matter altogether, Prasad decided to inform Jawaharlal Nehru.
“I told Dr. Indra Sen that legal formalities about the citizenship apart, persons like her have always been looked upon as belonging to us,” Prasad wrote, adding that he was just informing the prime minister about the statement that would be made public on August 15. “I do not think anything has to be done about it.”
Nehru, who had always displayed an openness to foreigners legally applying for Indian citizenship, was quick to reply to the president. “So far as I know, it is not possible for a person, in law, to be both a citizen of India and of France,” he wrote. “If she is at present a French citizen, she will continue as such in law, unless she changes that.”
A series of letters in Hindi and English were exchanged between Sen and Prasad in August and September 1954. The president clearly told the Aurobindo devotee that India did not have a concept of dual citizenship but left the door partly open by saying that a Citizenship Act was being drafted and that he wasn’t sure of the exact provisions.
In the letters, Sen offered the services of The Mother’s sadhaks or seekers for the Indian government’s plans to develop the areas around Pondicherry. “Her sadhaks include administrators of experience, medical men of qualification and eminence, engineers of distinction and achievement, writers and artists of name and reputation, educationists of standing and originality, and horticulturalists, agriculturalists, village works and craftsmen of skill and proficiency,” he wrote. “The services of the sadhaks offered will be rendered as part of their sadhana and Ashram work and will, therefore, carry no individual remuneration.”
The retired philosophy professor tried various arguments, even pleading with the president to push for dual citizenship. “It should be a pity if on technical legal grounds the country is not able to accord citizenship to The Mother,” he wrote. “The Mother has been for long decades bound to India and Indians by intimate bonds of spiritual identity and love, and her contribution to the country, nationally and internationally, through personal work and writings has been great and it is of a kind, whose influence is bound to increase in the future.”
Sen wrote, “Her wish to retain the French citizenship, it can be recognized, is also a part of an ideal, which is a most unmistakable trend in international life today, viz, an increasing unification of world and humanity. India, of all nations, could more easily help and support this trend through its law of citizenship.”
There was little the president could do. Still, he did reach out to Home Minister Kailash Nath Katju: “As the proposal raises an important question, I am passing it on to you for consideration, both from the legal point of view and from the point of views that Dr. Indra Sen has raised in his last letter.”