Outside of the state of West Bengal, the first partition of Bengal in 1905 is today a largely forgotten chapter in Indian history. The history textbooks I studied in school contained no more than a passing reference to it, which is a shame given the significance of that chapter in the context of India’s struggle for independence.
110 years after that momentous chapter, its high time we recounted that episode whose ghosts haunt the sub-continent to this day.
Prelude to Partition
When George Nathanial Curzon, Marquess Curzon of Kedleston assumed office as the 11th Viceroy of India on 6th January 1899, the capital of British India was Calcutta. The city was also the capital of the state of Bengal, a province larger than most European countries. With an area of nearly 4,90,000 square kilometres and a population of 8 crores (80 million), it was an extremely vast and unwieldy entity comprising of what is today West Bengal plus nearly the whole of Bangladesh, parts of Odisha and most of undivided Bihar. Purely from an administrative viewpoint, splitting it into smaller provinces made imminent sense.
But administrative issues were not the ones bothering the British rulers at the turn of the century. The socio-political situation in turn of the century Bengal posed an equally formidable challenge. The combination of English education and the prosperity from trading (Calcutta was also the commercial capital of India in that era) had created a class of wealthy and privileged Bengali intellectuals who, not surprisingly, were exerting pressure on the government for a greater say in the running of their affairs.
The Indian National Congress, which was at the time no more than an annual meeting of prominent leaders from across India, had steadily grown in strength and prestige since its inception in 1885, owing to the quality of the delegates and the clout they enjoyed. By 1905, the Congress had become the most important platform for Indian leaders to voice their views. Many of those early Congress leaders were Bengali Hindu intellectuals (Muslims had been deliberately marginalised by the British rulers since the 1857 uprising as punishment for their role in the revolt).
Emboldened by the few successes they had enjoyed, Congress leaders were growing increasingly vocal, much to the annoyance of the British rulers, who perceived them to be ‘disloyal babus‘. The indefatigable Lord Curzon was nothing if not a man of action. Given the dual challenge of administrative difficulties and vocal dissent, it was only going to be a matter of time before he would act.
That was the background in which a plan to partition Bengal was announced in October 1904. The proposed partition would split the province of Bengal into two: West Bengal, consisting of the western part of Bengal plus most of the present day states of Odisha and Bihar, having its capital at Calcutta, and East Bengal & Assam, consisting of the eastern half of Bengal and parts of Assam with its capital at Dacca.
From an administrative viewpoint, the proposal made perfectly good sense, but the British rulers were attempting to kill two birds with one stone. The proposed re-division would leave the Hindu intellectuals a minority in the pre-dominantly Muslim east. In the west, the 1.7 crore (17 million) Bengalis would be outnumbered by Biharis and Odiyas, whose combined numbers added up to 3.7 crores (37 million), leaving them a minority in their own province- a point hardly lost on them.
Popular reaction to the announcement was wholly expected: the pre-dominantly Hindu intellectuals of West Bengal were opposed to the proposed partition. The Muslims in the east were in support of it owing to their dismal economic condition. They hoped, quite naturally, that the existence of a new state with its seat of power in their side of the state would improve their lot. The plan was working exactly as desired.
Undeterred by popular reaction (or perhaps encouraged by it), Lord Curzon announced the partition on 16th October 1905. The announcement instantly sparked off protests in the west, even as the Muslims in the east welcomed it. Almost predictably, Communal riots broke out across the length and breadth of East Bengal. The British policy of ‘divide and rule‘, used to sow communal discord for the first time, was producing spectacular results.
Popular leaders used the tried and tested methods of making petitions and sending delegations to negotiate with the authorities. It soon became evident that petitions and protests were going to produce no results. Violence was never an option, as the muscle power at the disposal of the government was far stronger than anything the protestors could muster. Nonetheless, a more form effective form of protest was needed.
For the answer, Bengali intellectuals took inspiration from an idea propounded by Indian intellectuals in the 19th century: boycott of British goods. It was just a few months since the Chinese trading community had initiated a boycott of American goods to protest against the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants in the USA. The widespread support to the boycott convinced Bengali leaders that a boycott was indeed doable.
The proposed boycott was intended to serve two objectives: (a) The pecuniary loss by depriving the British textile industry of its biggest captive market (Bengal was by far the richest province in colonial India) would be an instrument to coerce the British rulers and (b) it would give a boost to the indigenous industry, which was still in its infancy at the time.
At the forefront of the swadeshi movement were Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghosh, who strongly advocated a militant nationalist movement. The former, along with Lala Lajpat Rai in Punjab and Bal Gangadhar Tilak in the Bombay state (the predecessor to present day Maharashtra) formed a trio of militant nationalists who came to be dubbed as ‘Lal, Bal, Pal’.
And so for the first time, the British were confronted by a militant nationalist movement (the uprising of 1857 was certainly not a ‘nationalist’ movement- we’ll take that up some other day). The partition had unleashed forces which were neither expected nor intended.
- The communal discord sown by the partition would speed up the formation of a political party dedicated to serving Muslim interests, the need for which was strongly felt even before the partition. At the All India Muhammadan Education Conference in Lucknow in 1906, the foundations were laid for a party called the All India Muslim League (AIML).
- The boycott of British goods would give a huge boost to the domestic textile industry, which was still in its infancy at the turn of the century. Entrepreneurs like the Wadias (Bombay Dyeing), Sarabhai (Calico) and Tatas (Swadeshi Mills), who were still marginal players in the textile industry would establish themselves as textile tycoons during the course of the Swadeshi movement
Lal Bal Pal
- Lal, Bal and Pal- the leaders who favoured a militant national movement- found themselves at odds with the likes of Phirozeshah Mehta and Gopal Krishna Gokhale who favoured a more moderate approach. Their differences would prove irreconcilable, resulting in a split between the Moderates and the Extremists at the Surat session of the Congress in December 1907.
- The split dealt a body blow to the national movement led by the Indian national Congress. It would be nearly a decade before the two factions would reunite
- The lack of tangible results despite the protests and the boycott led to widespread disillusionment, resulting in a wave of revolutionary movements in Bengal around 1907 which was even more militant than the one in Poona in 1897.
- The British Government eventually bowed down to the widespread protests and annulled the partition of Bengal in 1911.
- The annulment of partition created widespread disappointment among the Muslims of east Bengal. The heightened awareness created among the Muslims of the east would culminate in a second partition in 1947 that still stands. The eastern half of Bengal, then known as East Pakistan became a fully independent state in 1971 with the new name Bangladesh
- The concept of swadeshi, which originally envisioned boycott of British goods, eventually assumed the form of a far more comprehensive nationalist ideology which would be implemented on a much larger scale by Mahatma Gandhi a generation later.
- The Swadeshi ideology spawned by the boycott of British goods, would inspire a new generation of nationalists. Syama Prasad Mukherjee (1901-1953), a product of that generation (who started political life as a Congressman before disillusionment set in post independence) formed a nationalist party called Bharatiya Jan Sangh in 1951. The successor to the Jan Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (more on this topic at a later date) is currently in power in India.
- The poem ‘vande mataram‘ from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1882 book Anandamatha would become the rallying call for Bengali nationalists during the anti-partition protests. The poem would come to be closely associated with the nationalist movement in the first half of the 20th century. Today it is the national song of India
- Aurobindo Ghosh (1872-1950), a militant nationalist who was also involved in revolutionary activists in the aftermath of the partition was one of the principal accused in the Alipore Bomb Case, before being acquitted. The period in prison triggered off a spritual awakening. Determined to continue on the path of spirituality, Ghosh moved to Pondicherry (then a territory under French rule and as such, outside British jurisdiction), where he would find the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1926.
- The unprecedented scale of the anti-partition protests meant that the British rulers could never again trust Bengali intellectuals. With a view to marginalising their political power, the British government shifted the political capital of its Indian empire from Calcutta to the ancient city of Delhi in 1911. A new city was built near Delhi, which came to be known as New Delhi. The new capital was formally inaugurated in 1931.
- The shifting of the capital to New Delhi occasioned a state visit by the newly crowned monarch George V in 1911. As was the norm in that era, the royal vessel touched down at the port of Bombay. The occasion was commemorated with the construction of a new monument at Apollo Bunder in Bombay, which came to be called ‘Gateway of India’.