Indian National Movement Phase: Partition of Bengal & Swadeshi Movement
- The partition of Bengal in 1905 was a significant event in India’s struggle for freedom, and understanding its background and impact is crucial to comprehending the nationalist movement. This unit aims to provide an overview of the factors that led to the partition, the nationalist reaction it sparked, and the transformative effects of the Swadeshi movement.
By studying this article, you will gain insights into:
- The Historical Background: You will explore the context in which Indian nationalists and the British authorities clashed, understanding the political, social, and economic circumstances that set the stage for the partition of Bengal.
- Motives for Partition: The unit will delve into the motivations behind the British scheme to partition Bengal, shedding light on the political, administrative, and strategic considerations that influenced their decision.
- The Growth of the Swadeshi Movement: You will learn about the emergence and development of the Swadeshi movement, a significant response to the partition. The unit will explore the various political trends and techniques that were employed by the movement to advocate for self-reliance and protest against British policies.
- Strengths and Challenges: The unit will assess the strength and impact of the Swadeshi movement, examining its successes as well as the challenges it faced. You will gain an understanding of the movement’s ability to mobilize people, foster a sense of national pride, and bring about tangible changes in Indian society.
- Overall Assessment: Finally, the unit will enable you to make an overall assessment of the historical phenomenon of the partition of Bengal and the subsequent Swadeshi movement. You will be able to evaluate the significance of these events in the broader context of India’s struggle for freedom.
- By studying this article, you will acquire a comprehensive understanding of the partition of Bengal, the Swadeshi movement, and their impact on India’s fight for independence.
- By the end of the 19th century, the enthusiasm of the educated middle class in India, who were seen as emerging leaders of Indian society, seemed to have significantly waned. Influential figures like Gladstone in Britain and Lord Ripon in India, who recognized the significance of educated Indians and sympathized with their aspirations, were no longer in power. Instead, those who held positions of governance in India were sceptical of them and opposed any relaxation of British imperial control over the country. These authorities tended to disregard Indian opinions and turned a blind eye to instances of racial arrogance by officials. They even sought to undermine the limited concessions that had been reluctantly granted to Indians in the past.
- The Raj’s hostility became evident even to earlier nationalists who, by 1900, realized the futility of their petitions and appeals to the government. Their modest demands for employment in the Indian Civil Service and some reforms in the Legislative Councils had been largely ignored. Their plea for a just British rule in India, replacing the prevailing “un-British” misrule, fell on deaf ears. The repeated calls for constitutional concessions from the Indian National Congress over the course of two decades only resulted in minor reforms in 1892. The situation worsened in the early 20th century, particularly with the presence of Viceroy Lord Curzon, who regarded Congress with disdain, disregarded its leaders’ pleas with indifference, and considered the Civil Service as exclusively reserved for Europeans. Curzon, a staunch imperialist, was unabashedly racist, viewing the Western concept of truth as superior and speaking of Indians in a condescending manner.
- Despite being alarmed and unsettled by Curzon’s approach, the earlier nationalists were not disheartened enough to accept every humiliation or surrender completely. They had gained stature in the eyes of their people, learned from social reformers and intellectuals to have faith in themselves, and developed enough self-respect to demand fair treatment and natural justice. A confrontation between Curzon and the educated middle-class nationalists was inevitable, and it eventually occurred in Bengal, where Indian intellectuals were particularly assertive and where Curzon displayed his most offensive behaviour.
- Curzon initiated his attack in Bengal by reducing the number of elected members in the Calcutta Corporation in 1899, primarily to appease European business interests that complained about administrative delays. This measure was undeniably undemocratic, causing deep offence and a sense of injustice among the citizens of Calcutta. However, before they could digest this wrong, Curzon targeted the autonomous character of Calcutta University, which was highly esteemed by the educated sections of Bengal. Using the recommendations of the Indian Universities Commission, despite the sole Indian member Gurudas Banerji dissenting, Curzon passed the Universities Act in 1904. The pretext for this act was to improve the overall educational standards, but it reduced the number of elected senate members (mostly Indians) and transferred the power of affiliating colleges and schools, as well as providing grants-in-aid, to government officials. This legislation left the educated middle-class members outraged and certain of the Viceroy’s determination to harm them and undermine their spirit in every possible way. Consequently, they mentally prepared themselves for the worst and began contemplating resistance. The worst, as it transpired, came swiftly and dramatically in July 1905 when Curzon announced the partition of Bengal.
The plan for the partition of Bengal
- The plan for the partition of Bengal was driven by administrative considerations and a desire to suppress the nationalist movement in the region. The province of Bengal was vast and diverse, with a varied population speaking different languages and experiencing contrasting levels of economic development. It originally encompassed Bihar, Orissa, and Assam in addition to Bengal proper.
- The British authorities had previously made attempts to streamline the province for administrative convenience. In 1874, Assam was separated from Bengal and established as a Chief Commissioner’s province, which included the predominantly Bengali-speaking area of Sylhet despite some local opposition. In 1897, the South Lushai hill tracts were temporarily transferred from Bengal to Assam, further extending its territory. However, these piecemeal reductions did not effectively address the challenges faced in managing a province as large as Bengal with its complex issues.
- Considering the administrative perspective and the need for equal developmental opportunities across all areas, some form of territorial reorganization of Bengal was necessary. In early 1904, Curzon proposed “readjustments” for Bengal, which seemed reasonable. If he had considered separating linguistically divergent regions like Orissa and Bihar from Bengal, as advocated by nationalists themselves, his policy might have been seen as principled and far-sighted. However, Curzon and his main advisors, including Sir A. Fraser, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, and H.H. Risley, Secretary of the Home Department, Government of India, were determined to exploit the plea for territorial readjustment to suppress the voice of nationalism. The intention was to primarily target the Bengali-speaking educated middle class, who were at the forefront of the national movement in eastern India.
- As the Bengalis were among the first to come under British rule, they had been early adopters of English education, embraced Western liberal ideas, and expressed nationalistic and patriotic views. This irked the imperialist authorities, leading them to take action against the influential Bengali nationalists.
The Motive Behind The Plan
- The motive behind the plan for the partition of Bengal, as perceived by Lord Curzon and his advisors, was to weaken the growing nationalist challenge in eastern India. They considered Bengal to be the most vulnerable point in the British Indian empire, viewing the Bengalis as a formidable force that would pose increasing trouble in the future.
- The official assessment was that a united Bengal presented a strong power, while a divided Bengal would pull in different directions. Curzon and his associates were determined to divide and weaken a solid body of opponents to British rule, employing the strategy of “divide and rule.” They aimed to create a situation of mutual suspicion and jealousy between the two major communities in Bengal, Hindus and Muslims.
- Curzon and his advisors were aware that their opponents in Bengal predominantly came from the Hindu community, which had benefited socio-economically and educationally from British rule more than their Muslim counterparts. Since the majority of Muslims were primarily engaged in agriculture and had not enjoyed similar advantages, Curzon cunningly suggested that his government would support Muslims in their pursuit of advancement and protect them from Hindu domination. As part of this plan, Curzon intended to take away territories in Bengal where Muslims were more numerous and merge them with Assam to form a new province, with Dacca (now Dhaka) as its capital. Curzon hoped that this new province would provide a sense of unity for the Muslims in Eastern Bengal, reminiscent of the days of Muslim viceroys and kings. He expected Dacca to become a provincial capital where Muslim interests would be strongly represented, if not predominant.
- By partitioning Bengal, Curzon and his lieutenants aimed to establish Dacca as a parallel political centre to Calcutta, which was oriented towards nationalism. To counterbalance the influence of Hindus, they intended to create a Muslim-majority province out of Bengal, where Muslims would outnumber Hindus (with 15 million Muslims and 12 million Hindus). This would reduce the Bengali-speaking population to a minority in the remaining Bengal, where 19 million Bengali-speaking individuals would be outnumbered by 35 million speakers of Hindi, Oriya, and other languages. This manipulative game was primarily played to cripple the educated Indian middle-class nationalists.
- The process of partitioning Bengal according to Lord Curzon’s scheme unfolded gradually, starting from June 1, 1903, when he wrote his minute on territorial redistribution. The final plan for the division was sent to the British authorities in London for approval on February 2, 1905. On July 19, 1905, the Government of India officially announced its decision to establish the new province of “Eastern Bengal and Assam.” This province would comprise the divisions of Chittagong, Dacca, and Rajshahi, as well as Hill Tippera (Tripura), Malda, and Assam.
- The actual partition took effect on October 16, 1905, marking the dissolution of Bengal and its Bengali-speaking population of 41.5 million people. The division aimed to physically separate the region and create a new administrative entity known as “Eastern Bengal and Assam.”
The Miscalculation Of The Government
- The British government underestimated the reaction of the Bengalis to the partition of Bengal. They thought that the Bengalis would be upset about the loss of jobs and opportunities, but they did not expect the level of resistance that would follow.
- The Bengalis had a long history of independence and self-rule, and they were proud of their culture and achievements. They were also inspired by the recent victories of Japan over Russia, and they felt that they could achieve similar success against the British.
- The educated middle class in Bengal was particularly critical of the British government. They were angry about the drain of wealth from India to Britain, and they were frustrated by the frequent famines and plagues. They were also facing economic hardship due to overcrowding in the professions and the fragmentation of their landed properties.
- The partition of Bengal was the spark that ignited a fire of resistance among the Bengalis. They launched a series of protests, boycotts, and strikes, and they even formed a secret society called the Anushilan Samiti. The British government was forced to back down and reunite Bengal in 1911.
- The government’s miscalculation was due to a number of factors. They underestimated the Bengalis’ dislike for authoritarianism, their feeling of unity and pride, and their growing self-confidence. They also failed to understand the impact of the partition on the Bengali economy and society.
- In conclusion, the partition of Bengal was a watershed moment in Indian history. It showed that the British government could not take the Bengalis for granted, and it helped to pave the way for India’s independence.
Boycott, Swadeshi And National Education
- The movement against the partition of Bengal began in Bengal along conventional moderate nationalist lines, accompanied by strong protests. Press campaigns and public meetings were organized to oppose the partition, and petitions were sent to the government requesting its annulment. Impressive conferences were held at the Town Hall in Calcutta, where delegates from various districts expressed their strong opposition to the partition. However, despite these efforts, the authorities in India and Britain remained indifferent. As a result, new strategies were sought from mid-1905 onwards, leading to the discovery of the boycott of British goods as an effective tactic.
- The idea of boycotting British goods was first proposed in Krishnakumar Mitra’s publication called Sanjivani on July 3, 1905, and was later embraced by prominent public figures at the Town Hall meeting on August 7, 1905. This discovery was followed by calls from Rabindranath Tagore and Ramendra Sunder Trivedi to observe symbolic acts of brotherhood and mourning on the day the partition was implemented. These measures injected a renewed fervor into the movement.
- The boycott of British products was accompanied by the promotion of “swadeshi,” urging people to buy domestically produced goods as a patriotic duty. The spinning wheel, known as the charkha, became a symbol of the movement’s focus on economic self-sufficiency. Swadeshi fairs were organized to sell handicrafts and other locally made items, becoming a regular occurrence. The movement also inspired the establishment of various Indian industrial ventures, such as Bengal Chemicals, Bange Lakshmi Cotton Mills, Mohini Mills, and National Tannery. Swadeshi banks, insurance companies, and steam navigation companies were also launched under the movement’s influence.
- Furthermore, picketing outside shops selling British goods led to a boycott of government-controlled educational institutions. The British authorities threatened student picketers by withdrawing grants, scholarships, and affiliations from their institutions through the “Carlyle Circular” issued on October 22, 1905, by Carlyle, the Chief Secretary of the Government of Bengal. This resulted in fines and expulsions of students. Consequently, many students decided to leave these “oppressive” schools and colleges. The boycott of educational institutions prompted leaders of the Swadeshi movement to consider establishing a parallel education system in Bengal. Appeals were made, donations were collected, and distinguished individuals came forward to develop programs for national education. These efforts led to the establishment of the Bengal Technical Institute (later known as the College of Engineering and Technology, Jadavpur University), the Bengal National College and School (founded on August 15, 1906, with Aurobindo Ghosh as its Principal), as well as several national primary and secondary schools in the districts.
The Samitis And The Political Trends
- Numerous volunteer organizations known as samitis emerged in Calcutta and the districts to support national education and promote the ideas of boycotting and swadeshi (indigenous goods). Notable samitis included the Dawn Society, the Anti-Circular Society (originally formed to protest the “Carlyle Circular”), the Swadeshdhandhav, the Brati, the Anushilan, the Suhrid, and the Sadhena samitis. These samitis advocated swadeshi and boycott, engaged in social work during famines and epidemics, provided physical and moral training, established crafts and national schools, and created arbitration committees and village societies. They also encouraged folk singers and artists to perform on Swadeshi themes in local dialects. Alongside renowned literary figures like Rabindranath Tagore, Rajanikanta Sen, Dwijendralal Roy, Girindramohini Dasi, Sayed Abu Mohammed, Girishchandra Ghosh, Kshirodeprasad Vidyavinode, and Amritalal Bose, these samitis contributed to patriotic compositions. The ideologies of the samitis encompassed secularism, religious revivalism, moderate politics, social reformism through economic, educational, and social programs, and even political extremism.
- During the Swadeshi movement in Bengal, various political trends competed for public support.
- i) The moderate nationalist opinion, represented by figures such as Surendranath Banerjea, Krishnakumar Mitra, and Narendra Kumar Sen, maintained faith in British justice and advocated restraint in the agitation. They hoped for positive outcomes with the appointment of Liberal Morley as Secretary of State for India in Britain. However, their lukewarm stance did not resonate with the prevailing militant sentiment against the British authorities, causing the moderates to rapidly lose popularity.
- ii) The second trend, known as “constructive swadeshi,” emphasized national empowerment through self-help and self-reliance. It aimed to build national strength by promoting indigenous enterprises, nationalistic education, and the establishment of village uplift societies to bridge the gap between rural and urban communities. In the beginning, advocates such as Satishchandra Mukherji, Aswini Kumar Dutta, Rabindranath Tagore, Prafulla Chandra Roy, and Nilratan Sircar supported this cause.
- iii) Despite the significance of the social reformist program, it lacked the broad appeal of the more energetic and adventurous leaders like Bepinchandra Pal, Aurobindo Ghosh, and Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya. This led to the emergence of political extremism as the third trend. Expressing itself through periodicals like New India, Bande Mataram, Sandhya, and Yugantar, the political extremists demanded complete self-government for India, free from British influence or tutelage. They sought to sever all connections with the British, advocating for the boycott not only of British goods and educational institutions but also of the British administration, courts, services, and a social boycott of loyalists. Aurobindo Ghosh even proposed armed struggle if British repression exceeded the limits of Indian endurance. Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya questioned the sustainability of British rule in India if chowkidars (watchmen), constables, deputies, munisiffs, clerks, and even the sepoys (Indian soldiers) resigned from their positions.
- The proponents of political extremism passionately brought forward the issues of swaraj (self-rule) and its attainment through passive resistance, overshadowing other concerns, including the initial cause of the agitation, the partition of Bengal. In comparison, the unification of Bengal appeared as a secondary issue, deemed “the pettiest and narrowest of all political objects” (Aurobindo Ghosh’s article in Bande Mataram, April 28, 1907). This shift in focus from a regional issue to a national goal marked an extraordinary advancement made by Indian nationalists within a short period of two animated years.
The Concept Of Mass Movement, Workers, And Peasants
- The pursuit of swaraj (self-rule) as the national goal, along with the methods of boycott and passive resistance, required not only the awakening of the masses but also their active involvement in well-organized mass movements against British rule. While the educated middle class had largely joined the Swadeshi movement, and even some members of the landed aristocracy and commercial interests showed sympathy towards the national cause, the majority of the poorer classes, especially the working class and peasantry, had yet to fully engage in the struggle.
- Some Swadeshi activists, notably Aswini Coomar Banerji, Prabhat Kusum Roychoudhury, Apurba Kumar Ghosh, and Premtosh Bose, made efforts to organize workers in Bengal and channel their economic grievances into political avenues. The initiative began when 247 clerks of Bum Company in Howrah went on strike in September 1905 to protest against a demeaning work regulation. This was followed by strikes in Calcutta’s tramways, jute mills, and railway workshops. Coolies, carters, and sweepers in Calcutta also resorted to strikes to voice their economic demands. The printing press, jute mill, and railway workers exhibited a greater level of politicization, especially among the more militant individuals. The contentious strike in the government-owned presses led to the formation of the Printers’ Union in October 1905, which became the first genuine labour union. Similarly, the employees of the Eastern Indian Railway formed the Railwaymen’s Union in July 1906 after their own struggle. Swadeshi leaders like Bepin Chandra Pal, Shyamsundar Chakrabarthy, and Liakat Hussain attempted to organize agitated railway workers in Asansol, Ranigunj, and Jamalpur, but these efforts resulted in police firing at the Jamalpur Workshop on August 27, 1906. Aswini Coomar Banerji led the jute mill workers in forming the Indian Millhands’ Union at Budge-Budge in August 1906. However, these unions faced setbacks due to government hostility. The nationalist leaders, lacking ideological commitment to the cause of workers, gradually diminished their enthusiasm for mobilizing them after 1907.
- Despite the presence of numerous branches of samitis in rural areas, such as the Swadeshbhandhav Samiti with 175 village branches in Barisal District, these organizations failed to ignite the imagination of the peasants. The patriotic appeals made by the samitis remained vague, distant, and even abstractly rhetorical to the majority of impoverished farmers. This was mainly due to the lack of genuine interest among the leaders in improving the agrarian situation or formulating concrete programs for the betterment of the peasant masses.
- The middle-class members in Bengal, including professionals, clerks, and businessmen, depended on the rental income from their ancestral lands for their economic well-being. This rentier character positioned them in an exploitative relationship with the exploited peasantry, creating a contradiction between their interests and the aspirations of the peasants. The Bengali middle class generally did not approve of the meagre tenurial rights granted to cultivators in the Tenancy Act of 1885. They often exhibited intolerance towards the “insolvent raiyats” and held a contemptuous attitude towards the Chhotoloks (common people).
- The Swadeshi movement did not raise any voice of protest against the burdens of debt faced by the peasants, their periodic evictions from land, or their continued subjection to unpaid forced labour (begar). No samiti called upon cultivators to launch an agitation against exorbitant taxes and rents. Even a radical spokesperson like Aurobindo Ghosh expressly rejected such campaigns, fearing that they might harm the interests of powerful zamindars (landlords).
- To make matters worse, as the Swadeshi movement evolved, it acquired a strong religious overtone, with an undue emphasis on Hindu revivalistic symbols and idioms. This emphasis largely discouraged Muslim peasants, who formed the majority of the peasantry in eastern Bengal, from actively participating in the movement.
The Communal Tangle
- The communal tensions during the Swadeshi movement played a significant role in exacerbating the divide between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal. The British imperialist ideas of dividing communities and playing them against each other were well-known and were actively pursued by British officials like Curzon, Fraser, Risley, Minto, Fuller, and Hare. The authorities encouraged aristocratic elements among the Muslims to think in terms of Muslim political power, leading to the formation of the Muslim League in October 1906, under the leadership of Nawab Salimullah of Dacca.
- In the rural areas of eastern Bengal, the influence of obscurantist mullahs and maulavis was significant. They often projected the contradiction between Hindu zamindars (landlords) and Muslim cultivators solely in terms of religious antagonism. Despite these divisive factors, there were still eloquent pleas for communal harmony during the Swadeshi movement, and instances of Hindu-Muslim fraternization were witnessed, such as the joint procession of 10,000 students in Calcutta.
- However, the educated middle-class nationalists’ attempts to use Hinduism as a morale booster and a medium of communication with their followers had unintended consequences. The stridently Hinduized rhetoric in nationalist publications like Bande Mataram, Sandhya, and NuhshLlkri, the glorification of the Hindu past, and the emphasis on Hindu rituals and symbols created a divide between Hindus and Muslims. The projection of the movement’s content in religious forms, the observance of Hindu festivals, and the insistence on traditional Hindu values in national education programs further alienated the Muslim community.
- The Hindu revivalistic propaganda by the movement’s leaders contributed to a hardening of attitudes on both sides. The communalists, taking advantage of the situation, incited communal hatred among Muslims, as expected by the British. This created an environment conducive to communal violence. Communal riots occurred in various parts of Bengal, with Hindu landlords and moneylenders often being targeted. However, the nationalists, instead of understanding the underlying issues, hastily labelled the rioters as British-hired troublemakers, failing to grasp the depth of the problem.
- The failure to address communal tensions and the persistence of religious fervour among the nationalists further escalated the communal divide during the Swadeshi movement.
The Rise Of Revolutionary Terrorism
- The failure to mobilize the masses, especially workers and peasants, and the mismanagement of communal tensions led to the Swadeshi movement falling short of its potential by the second half of 1907. Additionally, the movement faced continuous repression from the British authorities. Measures such as prohibiting the slogan “Bande Mataram,” disqualifying movement participants from government employment, expelling and fining student participants, and using Gurkha soldiers and police to suppress agitators were employed. These repressive actions reached a climax in April 1906 when delegates attending the provincial conference in Barisal were brutally attacked by the police.
- In response to such repression, the question of using violence as a means of resistance gained prominence. The romantic and reckless middle-class youth of Bengal, disillusioned by the lack of mass mobilization, turned to heroic individual acts and secret societies as alternatives to open politics. They saw violence as a way to strike fear into British officials and their supporters, hoping to arouse the masses through daring examples. Secret societies such as Yugantar in Calcutta and the Anushilan Samiti in Dacca formed exclusive inner circles, plotted selective assassinations, and committed political robberies to acquire funds for procuring arms and ammunition.
- The most notable instances of revolutionary terrorism during this period were the attempted assassination of a British Magistrate, Kingsford, by Prafulla Chaki, who died in the attempt, and Khudiram Bose, an 18-year-old who was hanged for his involvement. In April 1908, a secret bomb manufacturing factory was discovered in the Manicktala area of Calcutta, and several hardcore militants, including Aurobindo Ghosh, were implicated. Despite setbacks and setbacks, revolutionary terrorism continued to operate and even spread to other parts of India and abroad as a clandestine legacy of the Swadeshi movement.
- The adoption of violent means was driven by the impatience and desperation of certain sections of the middle-class youth and their belief that mass mobilization alone would not be sufficient to overthrow the British oppressors. They sought to instil fear and demonstrate their resolve through acts of terrorism, hoping to inspire the larger population.
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