Partition of Bengal

Partition of Bengal, 1905 affected on 16 October during the viceroyalty of lord Curzon (1899-1905) . Proved to be a momentous event in the history of modern Bengal. The idea of partitioning Bengal did not originate with Curzon. Bengal, which included Bihar and Orissa since 1765, was admittedly much too large for a single province of British India. This premier province grew too vast for efficient administration and required reorganization and intelligent division.

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Bengal had been the largest province of India since the Mughal period. The prosperity and riches of Bengal were widely known, and Muslim artisans, of Bengal were world famous for their extraordinary skill in workmanship. The political and social decline of Bengali Muslims was brought about by three events: the British victory over Muslims at the battle of Plassey (1757); the conferment by Nawab Nazim Mir Qasim of special trading rights and privileges on the East India Company (1761); and finally the grant by the Mughal king Shah Alam of a special dispensation ‘to the East India Company for the right of collection of revenue and civil administration in Bengal and Bihar (1765). Therefore, the East India company, not only made serious efforts to promote its trade but also spared no pains to establish its political power. To ‘achieve this objective a policy of violence and repression was adopted. History fails to furnish an instance of such ruthless treatment meted ‘out by the victors to the vanquished .After the War of Independence of 1857, the plight of ‘the Muslims of Bengal further deteriorated politically, economically and socially.

The lieutenant governor of Bengal had to administer an area of 189,000 sq miles and by 1903 the population of the province had risen to 78.50 million. Consequently, many districts in eastern Bengal had been practically neglected because of isolation and poor communication which made good governance almost impossible. Calcutta and its nearby districts attracted all the energy and attention of the government. The condition of peasants was miserable under the exaction of absentee landlords; and trade, commerce and education were being impaired. The administrative machinery of the province was understaffed. Especially in east Bengal, in countryside so cut off by rivers and creeks, no special attention had been paid to the peculiar difficulties of police work till the last decade of the 19th century organized piracy in the waterways had existed for at least a century.

Along with administrative difficulties, the problems of famine, of defense, or of linguistics had at one time or other prompted the government to consider the redrawing of administrative boundaries. Occasional efforts were made to rearrange the administrative units of Bengal. In, 1836, the upper provinces were sliced off from Bengal and placed under a lieutenant governor. In 1854, the Governor-General- in-Council was relieved of the direct administration of Bengal which was placed under a lieutenant governor. In 1874 Assam (along with Syihet) was severed from Bengal to form a Chief Commissionership and in 1898 Lushai Hills’were added to it.

A number of plans had previously been made in connection with the division of Bengal, but none of them was approved Proposals for partitioning Bengal were first considered in 1903. Lord Curzon, when he “took charge as viceroy of India, decided to redraw the boundaries of Bengal to divide it into two provinces of manageable size. In the light of the previous plans regarding the partition of Bengal, he worked out a complete scheme and gave it final shape .Curzons original scheme was based on at of other lieutenant direct Chief Commissionership previously first he to divide grounds of administrative efficiency. It was probably during the vociferous protests and adverse reaction against the original plan, that the officials first envisaged the possible advantages of a divided Bengal. Originally, the division was made on geographical rather than on an avowedly communal basis. ‘Political Considerations’ in this respect seemed to have been ‘an afterthought’. The government contention was that the Partition of Bengal was purely an administrative measure with three main objectives.

  • Firstly, it wanted to relieve the government of Bengal of a part of’ the administrative burden and to ensure more efficient administration in the outlying districts.
  • Secondly, the government desired to promote the development of backward Assam (ruled by a Chief Commissioner) by enlarging its jurisdiction so as to provide it with an outlet to the sea.
  • Thirdly, the government felt the urgent necessity to unite the scattered sections of the Uriya-speaking population under a single administration.

There were further proposals to separate Chittagong and the districts of Dhaka (then Dacca) and Mymensigh from Bengal and attach them to Assam. Similarly Chhota Nagpur was to be taken away from Bengal and incorporated with’ the Central Provinces.

The government’s proposals were officially published in January 1904. In February 1904, Curzon made an official tour of the districts of eastern Bengal with a view to assessing public opinion on the government proposals. He consulted the leading personalities of the different districts and delivered speeches at Dhaka, Chittagong and Mymensigh explaining the governments stand on partition. It was during this visit that the decision to push through an expanded scheme took hold of his mind. This would involve the creation of a self-contained new province under a Lieutenant Governor with a Legislative Council, an independent revenue authority and transfer of so much territory as would justify a fully equipped administration.

As a result in 1905, the provinces of Assam and Bengal were reconstituted so as to form two provinces of manageable size: Bengal with a population of 54 million, of which 42 million would be Hindus and 9 million would be Muslim, and Eastern Bengal and Assam with a population of 31 million, of which 18 million would be Muslim and 12 million Hindu The territories to be transferred from Bengal to the new province consisted of the districts of Chittagong and Dhaka divisions, those of Raj shahi division except for Darjeeling and the district of Malda. This scheme was sent to London by Curzon in February 1905. It was sanctioned by the secretary of state for India, St. John Brodrick, in June, and the proclamation of the formation of the new province was issued in September. The province of Eastern Bengal and Assam officially came into being on October 16, 1905. Under its terms, the districts of Dhaka, Mymensingh, Faridpur, Bakarganj, Tippera, Noakhali, Chittagong and its hill tract of Rangpur, Panba, Malda, and Bogra were to form part of new province, of East Bengal and Assam with predominantly Muslim population. The Western half of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa were placed under another Lieutenant-Governor.

The new province was to be called ‘Eastern Bengal and Assam’ with its capital at Dhaka and subsidiary headquarters at Chittagong. It would cover an area of 106,540 sq. miles with a population of 31 million comprising of 18 million Muslims and 12 million Hindus. Its administration would consist of a. Legislative Council, a Board of Revenue of two members, and the jurisdiction of the Calcutta High Court would be left undisturbed. The government pointed out that the new province would have a clearly demarcated western boundary and well defined geographical, ethnological, linguistic and social characteristics. The most striking feature of the new province was that it would concentrate within its own bounds the hitherto ignored and neglected typical homogenous Muslim population of Bengal. Besides, the whole of the tea industry (except Darjeeling), and the greater portion of the jute growing area would be brought under a single administration. The government of India promulgated their final decision in a Resolution dated 19 July 1905 and the Partition of Bengal was affected on 16 October of the same year.

The publication of the original proposals towards the end of 1903 had aroused unprecedented opposition, especially among the influential educated middle-class Hindus. The creation of a Muslim majority province was resented by high caste Hindus, Hindu landlords, capitalists, traders, lawyers and particularly the Hindu press. The proposed territorial adjustment seemed to touch the existing interest groups and consequently led to staunch opposition. October 16, 1905 was declared as a day of mourning by Hindus. Unprecedented agitation was carried out by Hindus not only in Bengal but also in other parts of India. They alleged that by partitioning Bengal, the English had vivisected the Bengali homeland, divided Hindus and Muslims, and struck a deadly blow at Bengali nationalism, which would weaken nationalist and patriotic movements. The Hindus protested by coming out into the streets, walking barefoot and carrying ashes on their heads. They also started several agitational movements, such as the Charkha Movement, boycotting British goods and wearing local coarse cloth. The Swadeshi Movement was another boycott launched against the British. The Congress also supported the Hindu cause. The Calcutta lawyers apprehended that the creation of a new province would mean the establishment of a Court of Appeal at Dacca and diminish the importance of their own High Court. Journalists feared the appearance of local newspapers, which would restrict the circulation of the Calcutta Calcutta visualized the shift of trade from Calcutta to Chittagong, which would be nearer, and logically the cheaper port. The Zamindars who owned vast landed estates both in west and east Bengal foresaw the necessity of maintaining separate establishments at Dhaka that would involve extra expenditure. It is important to note that in 1901 when Punjab was divided into NWFP and Punjab, no such agitation was launched.

The educated Bengali Hindus felt that it was a deliberate blow inflicted by Curzon at the national consciousness and growing solidarity of the Bengali-speaking population. The Hindus of Bengal, who controlled most of Bengal’s commerce and the different professions and led the rural. society, opined that the Bengalese nation would be divided, making them a minority in a province including the whole of Bihar and Orissa. They complained that it was a veiled attempt by Curzon to strangle the spirit of nationalism in Bengal. They strongly believed that it was the prime object of the government to encourage the growth of a Muslim power in eastern Bengal as a counterpoise to thwart the rapidly growing strength of the educated Hindu community. Economic, political and communal interests combined together to intensify the opposition against the partition measure.

The Indian and specially the Bengali press opposed the partition move from the very beginning. The British press, the Anglo-Indian press and even some administrators also opposed the intended measure. The partition evoked fierce protest in west Bengal, especially in Calcutta and gave a new fillip to Indian nationalism. Henceforth, the Indian national congress was destined to become the main platform of the Indian nationalist movement. It exhibited unusual strength and vigour and shifted from a middle-class pressure group to a nation-wide mass organization.

The annulment of the partition as a result of the agitation against it had a negative effect on the Muslims. The majority of the Muslims did not like the Congress support to the anti-partition agitation. The politically conscious Muslims felt that the Congress had supported a Hindu agitation against the creation of a Muslim majority province. It reinforced their belief that their interests were not safe in the hands of the Congress. Thus they became more anxious to emphasize their separate communal identity and leaned towards the Muslim League to safeguard their interest against the dominance of the Hindu majority in undivided India. To placate Bengali Muslim feelings Lord promised a new University at Dacca on 31 January 1912 to a Muslim deputation led by Salimullah.

The Partition of Bengal of 1905 left a profound impact on the political history of India. From a political angle the measure accentuated Hindu-Muslim differences in the region. One point of view is that by giving the Muslim’s a separate territorial identity in 1905 and a communal electorate through the Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909 the British Government in a subtle manner tried to neutralize the possibility of major Muslim participation in the Indian National Congress.

For years, the government of India and the home government had been telling Muslims that the partition of Bengal was final and would not be annulled. Such flagrant disregard for solemn promises created distrust among Muslims. They lost all faith in British pledges and decided not to trust the British V government. This was the beginning. Soon, other circumstances arose which strengthened Muslim aversion to dependence upon the British government. The Partition of Bengal indeed marks a turning point in the history of nationalism in India. It may be said that it was out of the travails of Bengal that Indian nationalism was born. By the same token the agitation against the partition and the terrorism that it generated was one of the main factors which gave birth to Muslim nationalism and encouraged them to engage in separatist politics. The birth of the Muslim League in 1906 at Dacca (Dhaka) bears testimony to this. The annulment of the partition sorely disappointed not only the Bengali Muslims but also the Muslims of the whole of India. They felt that loyalty did not pay but agitation does. Thereafter, the dejected Muslims gradually took an anti-British stance.

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