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The Division of Bengal, 1905-12

The recovery of the Muslim community from its low status after the 1857 mutiny was a gradual process that went on throughout the ensuing century. In education, commerce, and government service the Muslims lagged behind the Hindus, who more quickly adapted themselves to rapidly changing socioeconomic conditions. During British rule in India, most industry was Hindu-owned and Hindu-operated. Muslims lagged behind in business and in industry, especially those from eastern Bengal, which had long been regarded as remote from the hub of commerce.

The words of Bengali commentator Mansur Ali succinctly describe the Hindu dominance and Muslim inferiority in virtually all spheres of society in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: "In Bengal, the landlord is Hindu, the peasant Muslim. The money lender is Hindu, the client is Muslim. The jailor is Hindu, the prisoner is Muslim. The magistrate is Hindu, the accused is Muslim." By remaining aloof from the Western-oriented education system, the Muslims alienated themselves from the many new avenues opening up for the emerging middle class. This self-imposed isolation led to an intensified awareness of their minority role.

Curiously, however, it was Muslim opposition to the extension of representative government--a political stance taken out of fear of Hindu dominance--that helped to reestablish rapport with the British, who by 1900 welcomed any available support against mounting Hindu nationalism. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, under the leadership of a Muslim noble and writer, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817- 98), a beginning was made toward reconciling the traditional views of Indian Muslims and the new ideas and education system being introduced by the British. Syed was responsible for the founding in 1875 of the Muhammadan-Anglo Oriental College (renamed the Muslim University of Aligarh in 1921), where Islamic culture and religious instruction were combined with a British university system.

Syed was one of the first Muslims to recognize the problems facing his community under a government ruled by the Hindu majority. He did not propose specific alternatives to majority rule, but he warned that safeguards were necessary to avoid the possibility of open violence between the religious communities of India.

In 1905 the British governor general, Lord George Curzon, divided Bengal into eastern and western sectors in order to improve administrative control of the huge and populous province. Curzon established a new province called Eastern Bengal and Assam, which had its capital at Dhaka. The new province of West Bengal (the present-day state of West Bengal in India) had its capital at Calcutta, which also was the capital of British India. During the next few years, the long neglected and predominantly Muslim eastern region of Bengal made strides in education and communications.

Many Bengali Muslims viewed the partition as initial recognition of their cultural and political separation from the Hindu majority population. Curzon's decision, however, was ardently challenged by the educated and largely Hindu upper classes of Calcutta. The Indian National Congress (Congress), a Hindu-dominated political organization founded in 1885 and supported by the Calcutta elite, initiated a well-planned campaign against Curzon, accusing him of trying to undermine the nationalist movement that had been spearheaded by Bengal.

Congress leaders objected that Curzon's partition of Bengal deprived Bengali Hindus of a majority in either new province--in effect a tactic of divide and rule. In response, they launched a movement to force the British to annul the partition. A swadeshi (a devotee of one's own country) movement boycotted British-made goods and encouraged the production and use of Indian-made goods to take their place. Swadeshi agitation spread throughout India and became a major plank in the Congress platform.

Of open organized disaffection there was little in India, except in the dismembered province of Bengal and the newly created province of Eastern Bengal and Assam, where a very bitter agitation, accompanied by the boycott of British goods and frequent disturbances of the peace in which Mahommedans were mostly the sufferers, was started by Hindu politicians with the object of obtaining a reversal of the partition. The movement kindled the flame of Bengal nationality and became invested with the religious sanctions of Hinduism. The "motherland" of Bengal, it was said, had been desecrated by foreign hands and Kali, its tutelary goddess, cried for vengeance.

Among an excitable and impressionable people, crude notions of self-rule and political freedom easily "yoked themselves," as Lord Morley wrote to Lord Minto, "to deep invisible roots of alien race, creed and inviolable caste." The movement caught up students and teachers in schools and colleges and the poorer members of the professional classes. As it gathered strength and was fed by a rancorous press, among the publications of which the Yugantar (New Era) newspaper was the most notorious until its suppression in 1908, it led not a few of its misguided proselytes into the downward path of anarchical crime.

Within two years of Lord Minto's arrival in India, secret societies, radiating from Calcutta and Dacca and composed chiefly of young men belonging to respectable families, sprang up in many districts of the two provinces, having for their object the deliverance of India from the foreign yoke. This they sought to compass by assassination and terrorism.

The art of bomb-making was imported from Europe. Revolutionary literature and the use of pistols and explosives were sedulously studied. Funds were obtained, by gang robberies, usually committed at night and accompanied by murder and violence. In October 1907 an attempt was made to blow up the train in which the lieutenant-governor of Bengal was travelling, in December the district magistrate of Dacca was shot, in April 1908 two English ladies were killed in their carriage by a bomb intended for the district magistrate of MuzafTarpur. Police discoveries followed which made it clear that the Government was faced with a formidable revolutionary conspiracy, organized by obscure fanatics but directed by subtler brains, challenging the very existence of British rule and unamenable to political concessions. An anarchic movement of this kind was really alien to the Indian character.

But the mass of the population was inert and terrified, and the moderate section of the politically minded classes was overborne by extremists, who, while dissociating themselves from the "physical force" party, extenuated their acts and laid the blame on the "partition" policy.

On 12 December 1911, in a great arena outside Delhi specially prepared for the occasion, the King-Emperor held a coronation durbar at which he received in person the homage of the great officers of state and the ruling princes and chiefs of the Indian Empire. Largesse and "boons " of various kinds were granted and an announcement made of great political moment. The seat of the Government of India was to be transferred from Calcutta to Delhi; Eastern Bengal reunited to Bengal and the enlarged province given a Governor in Council, Bihar, Orissa and Chota Nagpur, tracts which are loosely connected with Bengal proper, made a Lieutenant-Governorship in Council; and Assam formed into a Chief Commissionership. The secret had been well kept and the surprise was complete. The scheme, though open to obvious objections, was ingenious and cleverly balanced.

Muslims generally favored the partition of Bengal but could not compete with the more politically articulate and economically powerful Hindus. When the British voided the partition of Bengal, the decision heightened the growing estrangement between the Muslims and Hindus in many parts of the country. The reunited province was reconstituted as a presidency and the capital of India was moved from Calcutta to the less politically electric atmosphere of New Delhi. The reunion of divided Bengal was perceived by Muslims as a British accommodation to Hindu pressures. The Mahommedans of Eastern Bengal and their coreligionists in other parts of India regarded the revision of the partition as a Hindu victory and a blow to their community. The suspicion and resentment thus engendered augmented the unrest which events in Europe were exciting among them.

The outbreak of war between Italy and Turkey was in turn followed by the Balkan War in 1912, which excited the feelings of Indian Mahommedans, always sensitive to events affecting their co-religionists in other countries. Turkish reverses aggravated the situation and created the impression that the interests of Christendom and Islam were in serious conflict. The tension was increased by the intemperate language of a section of the Mahommedan press, by meetings to express sympathy with Turkey and by collection of funds for sending medical relief to the Turkish forces. The local governments found it necessary lo enforce the Press Act and other restrictions. A state of alarm and irritation in the Indo-Mahommedan community invariably leads to bad relations with other communities.

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