The Partition of Bengal: Causes & Consequences
Announced on 19 July 1905, the Partition of Bengal 1905 was the territorial reorganization of the Bengal Presidency of British India by Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India. While partitioning Bengal into two new provinces of manageable size — East and West Bengal, Lord Curzon known for administrative efficiency, was not specifically aiming to divide Hindus from Muslims. However, it so happened that the new province of East Bengal with a thirty million population and Dacca as its capital became a Muslim-majority province. On the other hand, West Bengal with a population of 54 million and Calcutta as its capital turned out to be a Hindu-majority province
Apparently, it was done for administrative convenience, yet it did have socio-political and economic motives. Consequently, its political fallout resulted in its annulment in 1911.
Reasons for Partition of Bengal
There were several reasons for carrying out the partition of this province.
- Administrative Justification
Extending over 1, 89, 000 square miles with a population of 80 million, this largest province of British India comprising Bengal, Behar, and Orissa, was under the control of one lieutenant Governor. It was simply impossible for him to govern it effectively and efficiently; no Lt. Governor was able to take a tour of the whole province due to its vastness even once in his tenure. These administrative difficulties were compounded by the paucity of limited sources of communication in the provinces due to rivers and forests. The law-and-order condition of the provinces was also worst due to insufficient police and in-efficient management.
2. Natural Division
There were vast ethnic and linguistic differences between West Bengal and East Bengal. This ethnic division incidentally co-terminated with religious affiliations; while East Bengal was overwhelmingly Muslim, West Bengal had a Hindu majority. The natives of West Bengal considered themselves superior in civilization to the resident of East Bengal.
3. Vested Interests of the British
Besides improving the effectiveness and efficiency of governance, the division of Bengal was the need of the time to develop trade in East Bengal and to promote the Port of Chittagong to reduce the costs of transporting and exporting raw materials from this part of India. Similarly, the British rulers of India also had a political angle in this plan of partitioning Bengal; they had not forgotten the 1857 uprising which started in Bengal and engulfed vast areas of British India. They thought it prudent to divide it into two provinces to obviate any such event in the future.
4. Mollifying Muslims
After the cataclysmic events of 1857, the Bengali Muslims suffered the worst kind of economic, social, and political discrimination for their alleged role in the uprising. Realising that the pendulum might have gone too on the far side, the British decided to mainstream them to obviate the possibility of any rebellion. The British were not oblivious of the grave consequences of the marginalisation of a significant section of society.
5. Bureaucratic Interests
The creation of new districts always leads to the creation of new posts for the v bureaucrats; creating a whole new province was a bonanza for the British bureaucracy who were very enthusiastic supporters of this partition as they were eyeing the new posts being created to manage the new province.
With few exceptions, the Partition of Bengal received a favourable response from the Muslims who welcomed the Partition of Bengal for the following reasons:
- Economic Advancement
Although Hindus had been dominant in finance even during the Muslim rule, they were able to occupy the administrative posts after the 1857 War of Independence. Consequently, the Bengali Muslims were confident that after getting their own province, they would be able to progress economically. They would get opportunities for services and the advancement of agriculture. And it proved true; by 1911, the position of Bengali Muslims in East Bengal and Assam exhibited improvement. As opposed to one-eighth of the 1,235 higher appointments in 1901, Muslims in 1911 occupied almost one-fifth of the 2,305 gazetted appointments held by Indians
2. Socio-cultural Enhancement
The Bengali Muslim elite was acutely aware of the degradation of their Muslim Bengali culture. It was being systematically marginalised by the Bengali Hindu culture. The city of Dacca, where the Muslims were in majority was the centre of Muslim culture. They, therefore, thought it the right step to preserve their cultural heritage in an independent province.
3. Political Empowerment
They were also hopeful that with their own province, they would not only be politically empowered but their overall position and status would be enhanced at the national level. Presently, it was the Bengali Hindus who represented Bengal at the national level
While the Bengali Muslims overwhelmingly supported the partition plan, the Hindus opposed the move tooth and nail due to multiple reasons
- Loss of Economic Power
Due to historical reasons, the Hindus had an exclusive hold on the economic, social, and political life of the whole of Bengal. Being financially well off and economically dominant, the Hindus could not afford to lose the vast captured market and the sources of their wealth easily. Similarly, the Hindu lawyer community raised maximum hue and cry because they thought that the new province would have its separate courts and thus their practice would be affected. And not to forget the press under the Hindu businessmen’s control. They were afraid that new newspapers would be established which would decrease their income naturally.
2. Plot against Bengali Nationalism
The intellectual elite of Hindus of West Bengal regarded the partition as an attempt to strangle nationalism in Bengal, where it was more developed than elsewhere. They started an organised agitation against the partition by holding mass meetings, and rural unrest, and re-invigorating the swadeshi (native) movement to boycott the import of British goods. Despite the agitation, the extreme opposition went underground to form a terrorist movement when the partition was carried through.
3. Slippery Slope Argument
They called it a deliberate attempt by the British Government to curb Bengali nationalism as a part of overall Indian nationalism. To them, it was one of the British policies of Divide and Rule, and feared that if successful, it would lead to the division of many other provinces where the situation was almost the same. Interestingly, Lord Curzon had previously created a separate Muslim majority province of the North-West Frontier Province out of the united Punjab
4. Opposition for Opposition Sake
The Partition of Bengal had brightened the possibility of the betterment of Muslims; keeping in view the acrimonious relations between the two communities, it was but natural for the Hindu landlords, capitalists, and traders to shun the prospects of the other community becoming their equal.
Annulment of the Partition
When Lord Hardinge assumed charge as Governor-General of India Hindus again became active and sent a representation to him for the annulment of the partition of Bengal. He recommended the same to the British Prime Minister for Indian Affairs. On the occasion of the visit of His Majesty George V to the Subcontinent, and the holding of Darbar at Delhi on 12th December 1911, the partition of Bengal was cancelled. The united Bengal was placed under a Governor and Assam was placed under a Chief Commissioner.
Reasons for the Annulment of the Partition of Bengal
There were several reasons why the British were forced to retract their plan/
- Severity of Hindu Opposition
The British were unable to correctly foresee the severity of the opposition shown by the Hindus. Lord Curzon who had initiated the plan was on his way out; with his ouster, the partition plan lost the support of its champion
2. Loss of Revenue
When Gandhi re-invigorated the Swadeshi movement by boycotting the purchase of British products, it had its ripple effect down the line to the UK. The British exporters and manufacturers seeing a loss in their profits started lobbying for the annulment
3. Arrival of King George V
Finally, it was the impending visit of King George V to India for which the British needed the cooperation of all the communities. Congress seized the initiative and demanded the annulment of the Bengal Partition as a quid pro quo for their participation in the Delhi Darbar. British Indian government had no option but to bow to their demand
Like any momentous event, the Partition of Bengal and its subsequent annulment had a far-reaching impact on the political landscape of British India
- Bengali Muslim Separatism
The Bengali Muslims, having benefitted from the partition, were angry and disappointed when the partition was annulled. Although they had already started considering themselves as a separate nationality after the economic, political, and administrative discrimination by the British, the annulment of the partition convinced them that they were a separate nation from the Hindus who had wholeheartedly opposed the plan which was in favour of Muslims.
This resentment remained throughout the rest of the British period. That is why the Bengali Muslims played such a dominant and leading role in Pakistan Movement. The final division of Bengal at the partitioning of the subcontinent in 1947, which split Bengal into India in the west and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) in the east, can be traced ultimately to this annulment decision of 1911.
2. Formation of the Muslim League
One of the direct consequences of the annulment of the partition of Bengal was the need for creating a formal political organisation to not only counter the Indian National Congress but also to provide a platform for the Muslims of India to articulate and aggregate their demands
3. Muslims learnt Agitational Politics
This decision was a shattering blow to Muslims. It left them sullen and disillusioned. Their anger and indignation had widespread repercussions. The Muslim leaders and intelligentsia condemned the decision as a betrayal of the worst kind. Bengali Muslims learnt the importance of constitutional struggle but also the need to learn agitational politics as they realised that ultimately it was the agitations that resulted in its annulment. That is why the Bengali Muslims were at the forefront of the Pakistan Movement
4. Accelerated Indian Muslim Separatism
Besides accelerating the Bengali Muslim separatism, the annulment of the partition of Bengal also led to the acceleration of separatist tendencies in the Indian Muslims. The Muslims of India appreciated the step and started turning in the favour of the British but the British soon gave in against the mounting pressure of Hindus which helped the Muslims to realize the importance of standing on their feet and to organize themselves politically. It also affirmed the apprehension of Sir Syed that the Muslims might submerge in the majority of Hindus and lose their separate identity
5. Transformed Congress
It began a transformation of the Indian National Congress from a middle-class pressure group into a nationwide mass movement. Nationalists all over India supported the Bengali cause and were shocked at the British disregard for public opinion and what they perceived as a “divide and rule” policy. The protests spread to Bombay, Poona, and Punjab.
Lord Curzon believed that Congress was no longer an effective force but provided it with a cause to rally the public around and gain fresh strength from. In ‘Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of the British Raj, 1600–1947’, Denis Judd wrote: “Curzon had hoped… to bind India permanently to the Raj. Ironically, his partition of Bengal, and the bitter controversy that followed, did much to revitalize Congress. Curzon, typically, had dismissed the Congress in 1900 as ‘tottering to its fall’. But he left India with Congress more active and effective than at any time in its history.