Three months after the Viceroy of British India, Lord Curzon, announced his decision to split Bengal in 1905, the partition came into force, effectively dividing the province on religious lines. Though there was an attempt to turn the clock back on the 16th October 1905 partition by reunifying the state in 1911, Bengal—and India—would never be the same again.
On 20 July 1905, Curzon issued an order dividing Bengal into Eastern Bengal and Assam (with a population of 31 million), and the rest of Bengal (with a population of 54 million comprising 18 million Bengalis and 36 million Biharis and Oriyas).
Officially, Curzon and his men claimed that Bengal was too large to be governed effectively and the partition was simply an attempt to smoothen the administrative machinery by dividing the state into manageable parts. There was some truth to these claims, but the partition was also a cold political manoeuvre to “split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule” as the then home secretary put it clinically in an official note. The “opponents” he referred to were, of course, the Indian nationalists, who at the time were most effectively mobilised in Bengal. In fact, Indian nationalism had found its earliest expression in 19th century Bengal, and the British were shrewdly aware of this.
However, the partition did find support in East Bengal, as many people there felt that Calcutta dominated the rest of the state, with industry and educational institutes concentrated in the capital city. The partition revived the fortunes of Dacca (now Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh), making it the centre of commerce and education in East Bengal.
The opposition to the Bengal partition manifested itself in a militant nationalism and the Swadeshi movement. On 7 August 1905, one of the first mass protests was organised in Calcutta’s Town Hall. The day of partition, 16 October, was declared a time of mourning and fasting. The song ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’, composed by Rabindranath Tagore, was sung by boisterous crowds. Cries of ‘Bande Mataram’ resonated on the streets as protests spread to the rest of the state. Using home-made goods and shunning foreign-made ones became both a practical means to protest against the partition and a symbol of nationalism. The Swadeshi movement also saw large-scale burning of foreign-made cloth.
Controversial as ever, while narrating his childhood experiences of the anti-partition struggle in his famous book Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, who grew up in East Bengal at the turn of the century, memorably wrote: “Our messianic faith in the future of our country was filled out with a definitely Hindu content; to our lyrical love for our country was added a fierce hatred of the English; the spirit of self-sacrifice and dedication found its natural, but always fatal, complement of fanaticism . . . [T]he Hindu revivalism of the last quarter of the nineteenth century [. . .] was the driving force behind the anti-partition agitation of 1905 and subsequent years.”
Chaudhuri goes on to explain how the moderates began to cede ground to the more extreme nationalist sentiment. “We found the older patriotic songs very tame and uninspiring. They seemed to contain very namby-pamby sentiments. Inevitably, new songs began to make their appearance to cater for the new spirit.”
The anti-partition movement laid emphasis on self-reliance. Local industries, textile mills and handloom factories were opened; and national banks and insurance firms set up. Bengal, which had undergone a cultural renaissance in the previous century, now saw nationalist writings and poetry take centre stage. Besides Tagore, poets such as Rajani Kant Sen and Mukunda Das wrote nationalist songs that became very popular among Bengalis. Students and women played a prominent role in the protests. The Swadeshi leadership also took a re-look at education, and institutes that sought to impart ‘nationalist’ education were set up.
Simultaneously, the partition saw increased communal polarisation between Hindus and Muslims—partly encouraged by the British, and partly a result of the historical baggage between the two communities—with tensions coming to the fore violently at times in Bengal.
The government, especially in East Bengal, cracked down on the anti-partition protests. Measures to control or ban the press and public rallies were passed. Singing of Bande Mataram became an offence (and therefore, inevitably, a bigger rallying point for the protesters). Thousands of students and nationalists were arrested. Protesters were often beaten up by the police.
Seeing the unabated political protests against the partition, the government reunited the two parts of Bengal in 1911. This was, however, followed by another partition that divided the province on linguistic lines. The Hindi, Oriya and Assamese-speaking areas were made administrative units. These units would form the basis of the modern states of Bihar, Orissa and Assam after India became independent. The British also sought to make a less volatile city India’s capital. Delhi replaced Calcutta as the country’s administrative capital.
The anti-partition struggle had a wide-ranging impact on the larger nationalist movement across India. The cause of Bengal’s unity was taken up in other parts of the country. The milder nationalism of the past was now replaced by the assertive nationalism of leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghose. On the other hand, the partition also created some of the conditions for the growth of Muslim nationalist sentiment, and the All India Muslim League was created in 1906.
But if one were to choose a single, defining legacy of the partition, it would perhaps be that the idea of complete political freedom from British rule was given a clear voice by people like Aurobindo Ghose. Though it would take another four decades for that dream to be realised, the months and years after the 1905 partition crystallised the nationalist movement into a more organised and potent force.
As Surendra Nath Banerjee, a leading political figure and prominent Swadeshi leader, wrote in his autobiography: “The year 1905 was one of the most memorable in the history of Bengal. It would be no exaggeration to say that it was an epoch-making year, leaving a far reaching influence on the public life of Bengal and the future of the country.”
Also on this day:
1868 — Denmark ended its involvement in India by selling the rights to the Nicobar Islands to the British
1942 — Cyclone struck Bengal, claiming around 40,000 lives
1948 — Hema Malini, actor-turned-politician, was born
1974 — Chembai Bhagavatar, Carnatic music singer, passed away