When Was Bengal First Partitioned? No, Not in 1947
In 1905, Lord Curzon decided to divide Bengal, and in a well-planned move, it was partitioned on religious lines.
(This story was first published on 16 October 2019. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the first partition of Bengal in 1905.)
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India was not partitioned for the first time in 1947, but almost 40 years before that, in 1905. Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, was the jewel in the crown of the British Raj and Bengal was the biggest province. But who knew that this glory was about to fade.
Divide and Rule
In 1905, then Viceroy of India Lord Curzon announced the decision to divide Bengal. His unspoken aim was to DIVIDE AND RULE. And in a well-planned move, Bengal was partitioned on religious lines – Muslim-dominated East Bengal was separated from the Hindu-dominated West.
1904: Bengal Province Prior to Partition
The undivided Bengal province was huge. It included present-day:
- West Bengal
- Parts of Chhattisgarh
It had a population of 78 million and you could fit five Englands in it!
Curzon declared that Bengal was too large to be administered as a single province, and so, it will be partitioned.
1905: Eastern Province
Curzon created the province of East Bengal to include 15 eastern districts of Bengal plus Assam. With a population of 31 million, most of which was Muslim. Dacca, or the present-day Dhaka, was made its capital.
1905: Western Province
He then merged Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of Chhattisgharh with the western districts of Bengal to create a Western Province, with Calcutta as the capital. This new province had a population of 47 million, most of which was Hindu.
‘The Motive Behind Partition’
Curzon insisted that the partition would allow the British to:
- Manage Bengal better
- Focus on the neglected Eastern Bengal districts
But the people of Bengal did not buy these arguments. They saw this as a rupture of their motherland. They realised that the real reasons behind the partition of Bengal was:
- To create a divide between Hindus and Muslims
- Merger of West Bengal with Odisha and Bihar reduced Bengali Hindus to a minority
The partition triggered a wave of nationalism. Bengali Muslims and Hindus, from East and West, launched an effective boycott of British-made goods. Some protests turned violent – shops selling foreign goods were burnt. This anger gave birth to the Swadeshi movement in Bengal, spearheaded by leaders such as Masterda Surya Sen, Bipinchandra Pal, Aurobindo Ghose and Surendranath Banerjea.
The Swadeshi movement soon spread across the rest of the undivided India. Some years later, Mahatma Gandhi called this Swadeshi movement of 1905 the soul of the call for Purna Swaraj, or ‘complete independence’.
Written by Bankim Chandra in 1870 and first sung by Randranath Tagore in 1896, ‘Vande Mataram’ became the rallying cry for the anti-partition protests. Naturally, the British were quick to ban the song, but the Bengalis defied the ban.
Rise Of Rebel Poets
1. Rabindranath Tagore
On 16 October, after the Bengal partition, Rabindranath Tagore called it a day of national mourning. Responding to Tagore, thousands of Hindus and Muslims across Bengal took to the streets, tying rakhis to each other as a symbol of solidarity.
2. Kazi Nazrul Islam
Equally influential and revered was author and poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. He too wrote against the partition and against Curzon’s divide and rule strategy.
Right after the partition, Lord Curzon returned to England, leaving Bengal in a mess. The British used force but failed to control the protests. Leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and VO Chidambaram Pillai led Swadeshi agitations across India. In December 1911, the British bowed down. Viceroy Lord Hardinge announced that Bengal would be reunited. All districts where the Bengali language was spoken became a single province, while Assam, Bihar and Odisha were separated. The British also shifted their capital from Calcutta to Delhi.
Curzon’s ‘divide and rule’ mantra did return to haunt Bengal in 1947, but that, as they say, is another story.
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