Partition of Bengal (1905)
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The decision to effect the Partition of Bengal (Bengali: বঙ্গভঙ্গ) was announced in July 1905 by the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. The partition took place on 16 October 1905 and separated the largely Muslim eastern areas from the largely Hindu western areas. The Hindus of West Bengal who dominated Bengal's business and rural life complained that the division would make them a minority in a province that would incorporate the province of Bihar and Orissa. Hindus were outraged at what they recognised as a "divide and rule" policy, where the colonisers turned the native population against itself in order to rule, even though Curzon stressed it would produce administrative efficiency. The partition animated the Hindus and led the Muslims to form their own national organisation on communal lines. Bengal was reunited in 1911 in an effort to both appease the Bengali sentiment and have easier administration.
The provincial state of Bengal had an area of 189,000 miles2 and a population of nearly 8 crores (80 million). It included the Hindi-speaking regions of Bihar, the Odia-speaking regions of Odisha as well as the Assamese-speaking region of Assam, making it a huge administrative entity. Moreover, the capital Calcutta was the capital of the entire British India. With the growing efforts of the Indian National Congress to secure the independence of India, Lord Curzon decided to address both these problems by partitioning Bengal into two entities, which would result in a Muslim-majority in the eastern half, and a Hindu-majority in the western half. This he hoped would reduce the administrative pressures as well divide the population on religious grounds, quelling the Indian Independence Movement.
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The government announced the idea for partition in January 1904. The idea was opposed by Henry John Stedman Cotton, Chief Commissioner of Assam 1896–1902.
The Partition of Bengal in 1905 was made on October 16 by Viceroy Curzon. The former province of Bengal was divided into two new provinces "Bengal" (comprising western Bengal as well as the province of Bihar and Orissa) and Eastern Bengal and Assam with Dacca as the capital of the latter. Partition was promoted for administrative reasons: Bengal was geographically as large as France and had a significantly larger population. Curzon stated the eastern region was neglected and under-governed. By splitting the province, an improved administration could be established in the east, where subsequently, the population would benefit from new schools and employment opportunities.
The partition was generally supported by the Muslims of East Bengal. Their support was motivated by both their poor economic conditions in East Bengal, as well as the perceived dominance of the Hindu businessmen and landlords in West Bengal over the governance of Bengal. Most of the factories and mills in Bengal were established in and around Calcutta, while many sources of raw materials for these factories were in East Bengal. Furthermore, most of the educational institutions of the Province were situated in Calcutta – including the lone university in Bengal. As a result of the partition, Dacca, the capital of East Bengal, saw an increase in investment in infrastructure. This included the construction of administrative buildings like the Curzon Hall and High court, as well as the foundation of educational institutions in East Bengal and Assam.
The opposition to the partition was led by the educated middle class of western Bengal. Bengali Hindus were at the forefront of political agitation for greater participation in the governance under British rule, and many suspected that the partition was designed to curtail Hindu demands for political representation. Following the partition, an anti-British movement formed in opposition to the Partition. This involved non-violent and violent protests, boycotts and even an assassination attempt against the Governor of the new province of West Bengal.
The opening years of the twentieth century were stormy. The political scenario was undergoing a change, and the British were beginning to feel a bit uneasy. Discontentment was brewing. Political discontent was growing due to the inability of the government to organise effective relief during the period of plague and famine. In order to stem the discontent, the British played the political trump card with great aplomb. For the first time, they used their divide-and-rule political game with great force. From 1870 onwards, the British started inciting the Hindus and the Muslims to form their own political parties to establish their distinct religious identities. That was perhaps, the beginning of the communalisation of politics. The British not only encouraged the two communities to form political parties along religious lines, they took various constructive steps to create a situation whereby Hindus and Muslims would be forced to think in a way as if their religious identity is at peril. This effort culminated in the partition of Bengal in 1905. West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar was on one side and the erstwhile east Bengal and Assam was on the other. The partition was made along communal lines. This partition provided an impetus to the religious divide and, as a result of that, All India Muslim League and All India Hindu Mahasabha was formed. Both the organisations aimed at fanning communal passions.
The main reason for the Partition was purely to reduce the Bengali influence and curb the growing nationalism. The Hindus were in a better position in terms of economic status, professional qualities etc., than the Muslims. During the pre-Sepoy Mutiny period, section of Hindu traders greatly helped the British while their Muslim counterparts did not. The British were angry. With the spread of Western education Hindus were able to make substantial socio-economic progress, but the Muslims could not. A sense of deprivation crept in. Perhaps, the sense of deprivation was engineered
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. When the discontentment grew in the beginning of this century, the British capitalised on this sense of deprivation. A feeling of inferiority was there. The British merely added fuel to fire. Suddenly both the communities became aware of their religious identities. The net result is the Partition of Bengal. The scars resulting from the partition of Bengal have never completely healed and can still be seen today.
Partition: Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India decided to partition Bengal for "administrative" purposes, creating a new province of East Bengal and Assam, with a population of 31 million people and with its capital at Dhaka. The Brahmaputra and the Padma (the Ganges) rivers physically defined this first partition of Bengal. East Bengal prospered, Dhaka assumed its old status as capital and Chittagong became an important sea port.
Given below is the proclamation of partition:
The Governor-General is pleased to constitute the territories at present under the administration of the Chief Commissioner of Assam to be for the purposes of the Indian Councils Act 1861... a province to which the provisions of that Act touching the making of laws and regulations for the peace and good order of the presidencies of Fort St. George and Bombay shall be applicable and to direct that the said province shall be called and known as the province of Eastern Bengal and Assam.... The Governor-General in Council is pleased to specify the sixteenth day of October, 1905 as the period at which the said provisions shall take effect and 15th as the number of councilors whom the Lieutenant-Governor may nominate for his assistance in making laws and regulations. The Governor-General in Council is further pleased to declare and appoint that upon the constitution of the said province of Eastern Bengal and Assam, the districts of Dacca, Mymensingh, Faridpur, Backergunge, Tippera, Noakhali, Chittagong, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Rajashahi, Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Rangpur, Bogra, Pabna, and Malda which now form part of the Bengal Division of the Presidency of Fort William shall cease to be subject to or included within the limits of that Division, and shall thenceforth be subject to and included within the limits of the Lieutenant-Governorship of the province of Eastern Bengal and Assam. The reason behind the partition that was officially announced was that the Bengal province was too large to be administered by a single governor and therefore was partitioned on administrative purpose. But the real reason behind the partition was political and not administrative. East Bengal was dominated by the Muslims and West Bengal by the Hindus. Partition was yet another part of the ‘Divide and rule’ policy. The following excerpts from Curzon’s letter of 2 February 1905 to St. John Brodrick, Secretary of State for India, give an idea of his aims in partitioning Bengal:
“Calcutta is the centre from which the Congress Party is manipulated throughout the whole of Bengal, and indeed the whole of India. Its best wire pullers and its most frothy orators all reside here. The perfection of their machinery, and the tyranny which it enables them to exercise are truly remarkable. They dominate public opinion in Calcutta; they affect the High Court; they frighten the local Government, and they are sometimes not without serious influence on the Government of India. The whole of their activity is directed to creating an agency so powerful that they may one day be able to force a weak government to give them what they desire. Any measure in consequence that would divide the Bengali-speaking population; that would permit independent centres of activity and influence to grow up; that would dethrone Calcutta from its place as the center of successful intrigue, or that would weaken the influence of the lawyer class, who have the entire organisation in their hands, is intensely and hotly resented by them. The outcry will be loud and very fierce, but as a native gentleman said to me – ‘my countrymen always howl until a thing is settled; then they accept it’.”
Partition sparked an extremely major political crisis along religious lines. Hindu resistance exploded as the Indian National Congress began the Swadeshi movement that included boycotting British goods and public institutions, meetings and processions, forming committees, propaganda through press, and diplomatic pressure. Hitherto untouched sections of Indian society participated in these movements, providing base for later movements. Richness of the movement extended to culture, science and literature. Masses were educated for a bolder form of politics and colonial hegemony was undermined. The Muslims in East Bengal hoped that a separate region would give them more control over education and employment, hence, they opposed those movements. Rabindranath Tagore wrote Banglar Mati Banglar Jol as a rallying cry for proponents of annulment of Partition.
Opposition to the partition was supported by Sir Henry John Stedman Cotton who had been Chief Commissioner of Assam, but Curzon was not to be moved. Later, Cotton, now Liberal MP for Nottingham East coordinated the successful campaign to oust the first lieutenant- governor of East Bengal, Sir Bampfylde Fuller.
Due to these political protests, the two parts of Bengal were reunited on 12 Dec, 1911. A new partition which divided the province on linguistic, rather than religious grounds followed, with the Hindi, Oriya and Assamese areas separated to form separate administrative units: Bihar and Orissa Province was created to the west, and Assam Province to the east. The administrative capital of British India was moved from Calcutta to New Delhi as well.
In 1909, separate elections were established for Muslims and Hindus. Before this, many members of both communities had advocated national solidarity of all Bengalis. With separate electorates, distinctive political communities developed, with their own political agendas. Muslims, too, dominated the Legislature, due to their overall numerical strength of roughly twenty two to twenty eight million. Nationally, Hindus and Muslims began to demand the creation of two independent states, one to be formed in majority Hindu and one in majority Muslim areas.
In 1947, Bengal was partitioned for the second time, solely on religious grounds, as part of the Partition of India following the formation of the nations India and Pakistan. In 1955, East Bengal became East Pakistan, and in 1971 became the independent state of Bangladesh after a successful war of independence with West Pakistan.
The partition left a significant impact on the people of Bengal as well as the political scene of the Indian Subcontinent. This event also created a sense of political awareness among the Muslims of East Bengal. To mollify the people of East Bengal, Lord Curzon declared that a university as a center of excellence would be established in Dacca (which would later be named as University of Dhaka) and formed a committee in this regard consisting Khwaja Salimullah, A. K. Fazlul Huq and others. The decision was severely criticised by some Hindu leaders in West Bengal. The most significant impact of this event was greater communal dissonance between the Hindus and Muslims of Bengal.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, "the creation of the barrier" http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/60754/partition-of-Bengal
- Bipan Chandre Lal, "History of Modern India", ISBN 978-81-250-3684-5, pp 248–249
- David Gilmour, Curzon: Imperial Statesman (1994) pp 271–3
- Gordon Johnson, "Partition, Agitation and Congress: Bengal 1904 To 1908," Modern Asian Studies, (May 1973) 7#3 pp 533–588
- The heritage of Bangla patriotic songs
- Judith M. Brown, Modern India (1985) pp 184, 366
- Haimanti Roy, "Partition of Contingency? Public Discourse in Bengal, 1946–1947," Modern Asian Studies, (November 2009), 43#6 pp 1355–1384
- Judith M. Brown, Modern India (1985) p 366
- Edwardes, Michael. High Noon of Empire: India under Curzon (1965)
- McLane, John R.. "The Decision to Partition Bengal in 1905," Indian Economic and Social History Review, July 1965, 2#3, pp 221–237