Partition Of Bengal (1905) Shaped Indian Freedom Movement

A look at the events around that time that shaped the character of the revolution and the subsequent Partition of the nation


In a four-part series, we will be highlighting some of the lesser talked about events in our freedom struggle against the British. The first war of independence took place in the year 1857. Despite the fact that the first war of independence was largely unsuccessful, the Indian population subsequently stoked the embers of nationalism against foreign domination at various stages. While history has selectively highlighted some figures more than others, it is important to revisit the past and take a fresh look at the Indian independence movement, which wasn’t a one-man show. In the first part of this series, we will go back to 1905 and take a look at the events around that time that shaped the character of the revolution and the subsequent Partition of the nation.

As American historian Will Durant rightly said while describing Lord Curzon’s decision to Partition Bengal, “It was in 1905, then, the Indian revolution began.” <fn>Will Durant: The Case for India</fn>

Background of Partition

Bengal Presidency, the granary of India, covered a vast region that included the modern Indian States of Assam, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal along with the nation-state of Bangladesh. The official position of the British prior to Partition was that managing such a huge territory posed administrative difficulties. However, the real motive was to stifle the growing voices of dissent that were simmering over the last two decades. The proposed Partition plan was to include the modern States of West Bengal, Bihar (including Jharkhand) and Orissa as one province called “Bengal” and Bangladesh, Assam and the North-Eastern States as another province called “East Bengal and Assam”.

In the initial days of the freedom movement, the leaders assumed a largely moderate stance towards British rule. The idea of complete freedom wasn’t a part of their agenda. Their efforts were limited to passing a series of prayers and petitions through the Indian National Congress, which was founded in 1885. This strategy of the leaders began to change with the appointment of Lord Curzon as the Viceroy of India in 1899. Even prior to the Partition of Bengal, there was a movement for the domestic production of goods (Swadeshi) and formulating a nationalised educational system.

This was also the time when Bengali society was influenced by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda who had become a national figure following his return from the world parliament of religions. It must be noted that one of the oldest armed revolutionary organisations, the Anushilan Samiti, also had been formed before the Partition of Bengal (1902). While Surendarnath Banerjee was nicknamed as “surrender-not” for his tenacity and refusal to bow down to British excesses, revolutionaries like Aurobindo Ghosh who were a part of the Anushilan Samiti saw their methods as outdated and inadequate. Additionally, Japan’s victory over Russia served as an inspiration for Indians that an Asian power could successfully defeat Europeans <fn>RC Majumdar, HC Raychaudhari, Kalikinkar Datta: An Advanced History of India</fn>.

In a letter dated 17 January 1904, Lord Curzon wrote,

“The Bengalees consider themselves a separate nation and indulge in driving away the British, and putting a Bengalee Babu in the Government House as Governor-General. The partition of Bengal would undermine their sense of superiority and destroy their dreams and that is why they are agitating against it.”

<fn>Nitish Sengupta: Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from Mahabharata to Mujib</fn>

This was the beginning of the British divide and rule policy. The Partition of Bengal was announced on 19 July 1905 and formalised on 16 October 1905. The events that followed would shape the entire character of the Indian national movement for the next four decades until the independence of India on 15 August 1947.

Partition led to Swadeshi, boycott movements

The roots of the Swadeshi movement can be traced to Dadabhai Naoroji’s book Poverty and Un-British Rule in India. In his book, he brought attention to the drain of wealth from India to Britain that popularly came to be known as the “Drain Theory”. Naoroji, through his book, criticised the foreign rule and demonstrated the fact that, on the pretext of free trade, the British were actually exploiting India and using its wealth to pay for its entire administration and armed forces, which protected British Imperial interests. Inspired by his work, grassroots mobilisation in favour of domestic goods began.

One such example can be found in the setting up of the Lakshmir Bhandar, an organisation to promote women-made handicrafts in India by Sarla Devi Choudhurani (niece of Rabindranath Tagore). The Partition of Bengal catapulted the Swadeshi movement and boycott of British made goods into a mass movement. Protestors would travel as far as 8-10 miles on foot to source hand-woven cloth from weavers in the villages <fn>Nitish Sengupta: Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from Mahabharata to Mujib</fn>.

The following table shows the impact of Swadeshi and boycott in crushing the British economy

Table 1. Impact of Swadeshi movement on textile industry <fn>RC Majumdar: History of Modern Bengal</fn>

Place Textiles Sold in September 1904 (in Rs) Textiles Sold in September 1905
Jessore 30,000 2,000
Bagra 1,700 200
Dhaka 15,000 2,500
Malda 8,000 1,300
Burdwan 6,000 1,000
Arrah 1,500 200
Hazaribagh 10,000 500

The import of cigarettes fell by 50% while that of shoes fell by 75%. Clearly, the unfair British trade, which had crushed native Indian industries using unfair competition laws, was badly hit by the Swadeshi movement. The boycott had gone so deep into the Bengali society that pujaris refused to use imported sugar in pujas and cobblers refused to repair imported shoes <fn>Nitish Sengupta: Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from Mahabharata to Mujib</fn>.

This idea of Swadeshi and boycott of foreign goods would be popularised by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and later MK Gandhi to great effect. It became the backbone of the Indian freedom struggle. Gandhi’s pivotal role in encouraging the hand-spun cloth and manufacturing of salt in India became mass movements and received support from all sections of the people across the nation.

The occupation of British in India was to drive up the British economy by draining Indian wealth; Swadeshi movement stemmed that rot, ensuring that wealth stays in India. This would cause widespread panic among the British administration. People became conscious of the fact that foreign import caused widespread economic distress throughout the nation.

Nationalisation of education by Indians

The Partition of Bengal in 1905 is highly underrated in the Indian freedom struggle and its impact on the educated Indian middle class. In the years following the Partition, the armed revolutionaries and Swadeshi protestors would play a vital role in India’s independence. However, an important aspect that has been ignored is the impact of 1905 on the evolution of a nationalised education system by the Dawn Society and NCE (National Council of Education), which wrested the power of higher education from the British into Indian hands.

Partition contextThe Dawn Society was set up in Calcutta by Satish Chandra Mukherjee, an educationist and the founder of the Dawn magazine, which was published in Bengali. Notable intellectuals from that era Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo Ghose and Rajendra Prasad were members of the Dawn Society. The journal dealt with issues in-depth, inspiring the Swadeshi movement and appealing to intellectuals and bright students to come out of Anglicised institutions such as the Calcutta University.

Other famous members of the Dawn Society were Sister Nivedita and the renowned revolutionary Bagha Jatin (Jatindranath Mukherjee).

The Dawn Society raised money from eminent landed gentry at that time to set up a National Council of Education in 1905. The prime contribution of the Dawn Society was to ensure education, including sciences and arts, which were imparted in Bengali though English was to be retained. The NCE and later the Society for Promotion of Technical Education set up the Bengal National College and Bengal Technical Institute respectively. Post-independence, they were merged and came to be known as Jadavpur University.

National colleges and schools established by the NCE helped shape the mind of the middle class towards a Swadeshi movement and propelled the revolutionary spirit nationwide. The idea that modern education is a tool to create better administrators for the British was completely shattered and the Dawn Society showed how one could be modern without serving the divisive interests of the rulers.

Birth of an armed revolution

The British administration, rattled by the rise of boycott and Swadeshi, became increasingly repressive in nature. Lathi charges, unfair arrests and even deployment of soldiers to force the purchase of British goods became so common that even British newspapers published from England criticised the administration. A natural reaction to the British tyranny was the growth of armed revolutionaries.

To prevent a repeat of 1857, the British had passed the Indian Arms Act of 1878, which prevented Indians from owning, manufacturing or possessing firearms, a standard gun control measure which governments have applied worldwide to maintain the hold of the ruling population. However, the rise of armed revolutions against the British in Ireland and against the Tsars in Russia inspired Indians that unjust authoritarianism could be countered with an armed revolt.

The Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar would serve as the two main organisations that would mark what was termed as the “Agni Yug” (the era of fire). Underground cells sprung up to train Indians in weapons and bomb-making. Assassinations of anti-Swadeshi officials, who brutally crushed protests, became commonplace. Such tactics and their success would subsequently inspire revolutionaries all across the nation from Bhagat Singh in Punjab to Surya Sen in Chittagong and, of course, later Subhas Chandra Bose.

Without going into too much of details about individual revolutionaries who surfaced after 1905 such as Khudiram Bose, Bagha Jatin, Prafulla Chaki, and Rash Behari Bose, in this article it is important to understand that Indians all over the world saw armed resistance to British rule as a feasible method of gaining independence. Our textbooks have deliberately downplayed the role of armed revolutionaries, as MK Gandhi was strictly opposed to any form of violence. However, it must be noted that from purely a British point of view, the armed revolutionaries constituted a more serious threat to their administration. They weren’t dacoits who hit and ran, rather they were well educated in British and Indian nationalist thought process, up-to-date with current world affairs and had the ability to rally nations who were natural enemies of the British as seen by Rash Behari Bose’s rallying of support for India in Japan under the common banner of Asian resistance to European Imperialism.

Bengal became a hub of revolutionary activities, protests and boycott of foreign goods prompting the British to propose the Morley Minto Reforms (1909). Moderates like Surendranath Banerjee welcomed the reforms; however, they were rejected by the masses and British eventually had to withdraw the Partition and Bengal was reunited in 1911. The British moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi as announced in the Delhi Durbar of 1911.

Birth of Muslim League and seeds of discontent

The Partition of Bengal was uniformly opposed by both Hindus and Muslims. However, Lord Curzon had perfected his divide and rule policy by providing a substantial sum of money to Nawab Salimullah, one of the founders of the Muslim League, not to participate in the boycott. Inspired by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Muslims who had remained isolated from British education and administration slowly started joining the British at the middle and upper-middle-class level. The Partition of Bengal was seen as an opportunity for Muslims to join and benefit from British administration in the predominantly Muslim-majority East Bengal. Hence, the withdrawal of Partition in 1911 lead to discontent among the educated Muslim classes.

The First World War and subsequent Khilafat movement would turn the tide of the Muslim educated class against the British. What became clear to the British from the Partition of Bengal was that a divide and rule policy and pitting one group against the other would ensure that their best interests are served. It wasn’t the Indians alone who learnt lessons from the failed Partition of Bengal, but the British did too.

The rise of separatism and discontent among Muslims would later be promoted through separate electorates and often Muslim League leaders would not cooperate with the Indian National Congress as seen during the Quit India Movement of 1942. This greatly helped the British in successfully partitioning the country after their initial failed attempt, and maintain geopolitical and economic interests in the Indian subcontinent.

It can be fairly concluded that the events of 1905 contained the seeds that shaped the future of the subcontinent for years to come in terms of nationalism, economic policy and educational reforms. Unfortunately, it also sowed the seeds of division, which culminated in the Partition of the country in 1947.


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