Partition of Bengal – 1905-1911

Map of Bengal, from 1880, prior to the 1905 partition.

On the 20th July 1905, the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, announced what would be his last and most controversial act in office: The Partition of Bengal.

The Bengal Province covered a total area of 190,000 square miles, with a population of 78.5 million[1]. As you can imagine, this proved to be an administrative nightmare. To rectify the issue, Curzon decided to divide the province into Hindu majority West Bengal and Muslim majority Eastern Bengal & Assam on the 16th October 1905 before leaving office in November. It backfired, triggering a political crisis.

Before the partition, Bengali Hindus dominated the province’s commerce, professional and rural life[2] as they were in the numerical majority. Meanwhile, Bengali Muslims were economically side-lined with little education. However, after the partition, Bengali Muslims became the majority in Eastern Bengal & Assam. Meanwhile, non-Bengali speakers became the majority in West Bengal after the inclusion of Orissa and Bihar[3].

For the Muslims of Bengal, the partition presented an opportunity for advancement without Hindu dominance. Soon to be founder of the Muslim League, Nawab Salimullah of Dhaka led Muslims in support of the partition[4]. For the Bengali Hindus, the partition was a fracturing of their motherland and diminished their authority. In the lead up to the partition, Congress arranged protests and collected petitions against the partition. These proved infective against a government that heeded little attention to the sentiments of its subjects.

Sir Surendranath Banerjee, a founder of the INC at the forefront of the protests, began advocating for Swadeshi (a boycott of British goods). The INC Moderates led the protests; however, minor rebel groups began to sprout under its cause[5]. The efforts ultimately proved futile, and the British went ahead with the partition anyway.

In response, the protests grew more violent, awakening a radical nationalism amongst Bengalis. Congress Moderates grew anxious and stopped supporting the boycott because the newly appointed and sympathetic Morley presented an opportunity to reverse the partition[6]. In what became a blend of religious and political feelings, agitated young Bengali Hindus began adopting the use of car bombs, shootings, and assassinations to see their demands for the partition’s reversal realised[7]. Although some prominent Muslim speakers were present at the protests, most Bengali Muslims were indifferent to the movement[8]. Soon, invigorated nationalists all over India began holding protests against the British in Bombay, Poorna, and Punjab, among others[9].

The radical nature of Indian nationalism made it difficult for the INC to gain support for future constitutional reforms and highlighted internal strife within the party. The Extremists faction became increasingly dissatisfied with the Moderates handling of the situation. The Moderates wanted to gain independence via constitutional means and co-operation with the British; however, this proved ineffective as little ground was gained since the INC’s founding in 1885. On the other hand, the Extremists believed the best way to achieve independence was through protest, boycott, and agitation.

The 1907 annual Congress meeting was originally due to be held in Nagpur but fearing the Extremists would dominate the session, Gokhale changed the venue to Surat. In response, the outraged Extremists protested, leading to a physical scuffle in which furniture was flung around the room. This event came to be known as the Surat Split[10].

It was a significant blow to the INC’s reputation and left the party fractured. In the subsequent years, the Extremists were excluded from Congress. Meanwhile, the AIML was able to gain the preference of the British due to their unwavering support of the partition. This paved the way for the introduction of separate electorates in the Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909.

Nonetheless, by 1911, unable to quell the protests and fearing another potential rebellion on the scale of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British eventually assented and annulled the partition. East and West Bengal were reunited while Assam, Bihar and Orissa were separated from the province. Bengali Hindus were able to dominate Bengali life once again. The status quo was restored.

Bengali Muslims were shocked as the Partition of Bengal was interpreted as British enthusiasm for Muslim interests. By backtracking, the UK government made it clear that it was willing to give in to the demands of Hindus at the expense of loyal Muslims[11]. For the League, failure to prevent the annulment was a massive blow to its reputation as the party that claimed to represent and defend the interests of India’s Muslims.

The Partition of Bengal is a clear example of how what is in the best interests of one community can be at odds with the best interests of another. The Bengali Hindus wanted to have a united Bengal at the expense of the Bengali Muslims. Likewise, the Bengali Muslims wanted a divided Bengal at the expense of the Bengali Hindus.

Thus, highlighting a fundamental issue throughout India that would come to define the Indian Independence Movement in its later years. That issue being that India is a land of many nations. In particular, two nations seem to be most at odds with each other: Hindus and Muslims. This idea is known as the Two-Nation Theory, which I will expand upon in future essays.

The annulment was the first sign that Britain’s iron grip was loosening on its prized possession. However, what would replace the British Raj? An independent India that saw to the interests and advancement of all its communities or one that was dominated by Hindus and reduced to majoritarianism?

This essay is part of a larger series on the history of the Pakistan Movement called Jinnah’s Pakistan: Revisiting the Pakistan Movement

[1] Stein, B., 2010. A History Of India. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers.

[2] Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d. Partition Of Bengal | Indian History. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 14 July 2020].

[3] Stein, B., 2010. A History Of India. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers.

[4] Baxter, C., 1997. Bangladesh: From A Nation To A State. WestviewPress.

[5] Metcalf, B. and Metcalf, T., 2006. A Concise History Of Modern India. Cambridge University Press.

[6] Stein, B., 2010. A History Of India. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers.

[7] Kulke, H. and Rothermund, D., 1986. A History Of India. Croom Helm Australia Pty Ltd.

[8] Talbot, I., 2016. A History Of Modern South Asia: Politics, States, Diasporas. Yale University Press.

[9] Metcalf, B. and Metcalf, T., 2006. A Concise History Of Modern India. Cambridge University Press.

[10] Talwalkar, G., 2006. Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Rupa & Co.

[11] Robinson, F., 1974. Separatism Among Indian Muslims: The Politics Of The United Provinces’ Muslims, 1860-1923. Cambridge University Press.

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