Partition of Bengal
The Partition of Bengal was a truly defining event in the history of Bengal. Although it is inextricably linked up with the name of Curzon, it had a pre-Curzonian background. Bengal was indeed an overgrown Presidency and its division had long been in official contemplation. Various schemes were floated in the past, the latest being William Ward’s scheme of 1896, with the object of turning this unwieldy province into a viable administrative unit. Nothing came of all these till Curzon arrived in Bengal. Simultaneously, a section of colonial bureaucracy toyed with the idea of dividing Bengal for political reasons. They suggested that by separating the eastern parts of Bengal from, the west, the nerve center of Indian nationalism could be weakened and the wings of seditious Bengali babus could be effectively clipped. H.H. Risley, the Home Secretary of the Government of India was the most outspoken in this regard. He said, “Bengal united is power. Bengal divided will pull several different ways”.
The Role of Curzon
Thus even before Curzon assumed office opinion in favour of Partition, both on political and administrative grounds, was gaining ground in official circles. Curzon, on his arrival, was made aware of the need to reduce the size of Bengal for reasons of administrative convenience. It extended over an area of 489500 sq. km. and had a population of over 78 million. Curzon, who was obsessed with efficiency, wrote in 1902, “Bengal is ungovernably too large a charge for any single man”. He pressed his officials for appropriate proposals in this regard. On the basis of such proposals Curzon drew up a draft scheme, which was published in 1903. There was at once widespread public protest spearheaded by the Congress.
Amalesh Tripathi suggests that at this initial phase Curzon did not conceive of partition as a devious means to break the back of composite Bengali nationalism. Admittedly he was no friend of the nationalists and even prayed for the early demise of the Congress. But the prospect of deriving any political bonus did not motivate him at this stage. It was in course of his tour of earn Bengal and Assam in 1904 that Curzon observed that the Muslim elite, led by Nawab Salimullah of Dacca favored the partition. They thought that the Muslim majority in eastern Bengal would thereby find a new identity. Curzon now became aware that apart from administrative efficiency, partition would confer political benefits. It would drive a wedge between the predominantly Hindu leadership of western Bengal and the Muslims elites of eastern Bengal. After all, this was what the politics of ‘Divide and Rule’ meant. Without wasting any more time he published the partition proclamation on 1st September 1905.
The partition of Bengal provoked bitter reactions. Protests were widespread and spontaneous. Large public meetings were held in Calcutta and the mofussil, culminating in a mammoth meeting held in the Town Hall of Calcutta on 7th August 1905. The day the Partition was implemented (16 October 1905) was marked as the day of mourning.
Rabindranath Tagore composed a patriotic song for this occasion and it was observed as Rakhi bandhan day, signifying brotherhood between people of eastern and western Bengal.
Out of the complex and volatile reactions emerged a powerful movement which, as R.C. Mazumdar has noted, had the character of ‘an incipient rebellion’. This is what historians characterize as the Swadeshi and the Boycott. Viewed in ideological terms, these represented two sides of the same coin. While the Swadeshi was the constructive aspect of the anti-partition agitation, the Boycott represented its negative side, emphasizing refusal of British goods.