Partition of Bengal (1905)

Mains Marks Booster     2nd August 2023        

Swadeshi and Boycott Movement

The partition of Bengal in 1905 stands as a watershed moment in India's fight against colonial rule, symbolizing the spirit of resilience, unity, and the unyielding pursuit of freedom. It was announced by Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India at the time, on July 20th, 1905, and went into effect on October 16th, 1905, only to be reversed six years later.

Administrative Motives: The British government justified the partition on administrative grounds, citing the need for better governance and improved efficiency in the administration of the vast Bengal province. The Bengal Presidency was British India's largest province, with a population of 78.5 million people.

Territorial Division: The Bengal Presidency included the states of Bengal, Bihar, and parts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Assam. It was divided into two separate provinces: Bengal with a Hindu majority and Eastern Bengal and Assam with a Muslim majority.

Impact of the Bengal Partition

  • Curzon's partition of Bengal caused political turmoil and strong opposition
  • Bengalis rallied for unity, while the Indian National Congress criticized the division on religious grounds. 
  • West Bengal’s Bengali-speaking population opposed becoming a linguistic minority within their province due to an increase in Odia and Hindi speakers.
  • Some Bengali Muslims supported the partition, anticipating benefits in education, economy, and politics due to their majority status in the newly created province.
  • Nationally, the partition was condemned as a divisive tactic. 
  • The partition aimed to foster discord between religious communities, thus weakening India’s national unity and solidarity.
  • Protests and agitations commenced well ahead of the partition’s implementation. Rabindranath Tagore encouraged unity by urging Hindus and Muslims to tie Rakhis (traditional bands symbolizing protection) to each other.
  • The Swadeshi and Boycott movements, pivotal in India’s fight for independence, emerged as a consequence of the partition.
  • The populace initiated a boycott of British products, which were inundating the Indian market to the detriment of local industries.
  • The partition achieved its goal of sowing sectarian divides and facilitated the establishment of the Muslim League in 1906.

Interesting Fact:

  • Rabindranath Tagore composed the iconic song ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’, which eventually became the national anthem of Bangladesh.


  • Curzon’s contentious decision to divide Bengal, coupled with the rise of the 'Extremist' faction within Congress, catalyzed the advent of Muslim separatist politics.
  • Separate electorates for Muslims and Hindus in 1909 created distinct political entities.  Muslims held a dominant position in the Legislature due to their substantial population.
  • The Swadeshi Movement, initiated in 1905 and lasting until 1908, was a self-sufficiency campaign significantly influencing Indian nationalism.
  • It commenced as a united backlash against the British Government’s announcement of Bengal's partition in December 1903, aiming to reduce dependence on foreign products by promoting domestic production.
  • The leaders in Bengal realized that mere protests and resolutions were insufficient; more tangible actions were needed to demonstrate the depth of public sentiment.
  • The movement encouraged the use of Indian-made goods (Swadeshi) and boycotting British goods. Mass meetings were organized across Bengal to take pledges for this cause.
  • Public bonfires of foreign clothing and picketing outside shops selling foreign goods were widespread.
  • The movement emphasized self-reliance, known as 'Atma Shakti'.
  • National education was an important constituent of the movement, promoting self-sufficiency.
  • Bengali students were prominent in the movement, advocating for Swadeshi and leading picketing against foreign goods. The government, however, sought to suppress them through punitive measures, including fines, expulsions, and arrests.
  • Women's active involvement, particularly from the urban middle class, was a noteworthy element of the Swadeshi movement.
  • Some prominent Muslims, such as Abdul Rasul, Liaquat Hussain, and Guznavi, supported the movement. However, others, like the Nawab of Dhaka, remained neutral or supported the partition due to communal interests.
  • Lord Curzon acknowledged that partition aimed to give Muslims in Eastern Bengal a sense of unity, reminiscent of earlier Muslim rule.

Interesting Fact:

  • The British government employed repressive measures to quell the Swadeshi Movement, including banning rallies, censoring newspapers, and imprisoning leaders. 
  • Various acts were passed to hinder the movement, such as the Seditious Meeting Act (1907), Criminal Law Amendment Act (1908), and Indian Press Act (1910).

Impact of the Swadeshi Movement:

  • Significant decline in foreign imports during 1905-1908.
  • Growth of extremism amongst youth who took to violence and wanted to bring an instant end to British dominance.
  • Forced the British dispensation to offer some concessions to Indians in the form of Morley-Minto reforms in 1909.
  • Inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan, the Bengal National College and a number of Swadeshi Institutions were set up.
  • Growth in Swadeshi Industries such as banks, insurance companies, etc.
  • Boycott of Buyers and Sellers of foreign goods including clothing, sugar, etc.

Reasons for Limited Success of the Movement:

The movement eventually faltered due to several factors:

  • The British government's harsh repression.
  • Absence of a formal organizational structure.
  • Arrest of key leaders.
  • The retirement of influential leaders like Aurobindo Ghosh and Bipin Chandra Pal.
  • Disunity among leaders after the Surat split in 1907.
  • Failure to sustain public engagement and extend its reach beyond the upper-middle class.
  • Inability to effectively implement non-cooperation and passive resistance.
  • Gradual decline in momentum and enthusiasm.

Though the movement fizzled out it demonstrated the power of mass mobilization, united action, and economic nationalism in challenging British authority. It ignited a sense of national pride and laid the foundation for a united and resolute fight against British colonialism.

Surat Split (1907):

  • The discord among the various factions within the Indian nationalist movement reached its peak with the Surat Split in December 1907 during the Congress session presided over by Rash Behari Ghosh.
  • At the Surat session, the Congress leaders split into two groups: the Moderates, who favoured constitutional reforms and gradual change, and the Extremists, who advocated for more assertive methods such as passive resistance and boycotting British goods and institutions.
  • This division was already evident during the 1905 Banaras Session of Congress, where leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak criticized the approach of the Moderates.
  • The Surat Split was, in part, a consequence of the British Divide and Rule policy, which aimed to weaken the Indian nationalist movement.

Following the split, the British felt they had regained control over the Indian National Congress (INC), with the Moderates continuing to lead the Congress while the Extremists operated separately.

Reasons for the split:

  • Controversy over the Presidential Election: The moderates supported the re-election of Ras Bihari Ghosh, while the extremists pushed for Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
  • Ideological differences and clash of methods: Moderates emphasized constitutional methods and dialogue with the British, while extremists advocated assertive and radical methods.

Reasons for the split

While the split weakened the organization temporarily, it also paved the way for a more assertive and radical phase of the nationalist movement, setting the stage for future struggles for independence.

Impact of the Surat Split:

  • The absence of the Extremists left Congress stagnant for over a decade, as the Moderates were unable to make significant strides.
  • The re-entry of the Extremists in 1916 and subsequent departure of the Moderates in 1918 revitalized the Congress.

International Influence on Nationalist

Indian nationalists drew inspiration from the nationalist movements in Ireland, Japan, Egypt, Turkey, Persia, and China, as these movements shattered the illusion of European invincibility.


Nationalist Movement

Key Points


Irish Land War (1870-1882) & Home Rule Movement (1870s-1910s)

- Land reforms to favor tenants

- Advocacy for self-government for Ireland within the UK


Meiji Restoration (1868, continued into 1870s)

- Modernization, industrialization, and westernization

- Abolition of the feudal system


Orabi Revolt (1879-1882)

- Anti-European and anti-Ottoman revolt led by Ahmed Orabi

- British intervention led to a British protectorate


Young Turk Revolution (1908)

- Restoration of the Ottoman constitution

- Beginning of modernization and reduction of European influence


Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911)

- Demanded a constitution and parliament

- Aimed at reducing foreign influence and modernizing Persia


Hundred Days' Reform (1898) and anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901)

- Short-lived reform movement and anti-foreign uprising

- Efforts to modernize and reduce foreign influence

Morely Minto Reforms or Indian Councils Act of 1909:

The act was passed in the wake of the Swadeshi movement and was seen as a response to the nationalist challenges to colonial legitimacy and authority during the Swadeshi movement.


  • Legislative councils expanded at both federal and provincial levels.
  • Members of provincial legislative councils were indirectly elected by local bodies through an electoral college, which in turn elected members of the Central Legislative Council.
  • Various stakeholders such as local governments, chambers of commerce, landlords, colleges, trade organizations, and Muslims were represented among the elected members.
  • The majority of members in provincial councils were non-official, but due to the nomination of non-official members, there was a non-elected majority overall.
  • The Imperial Legislative Council included Indian members for the first time.
  • Muslims had separate electorates; certain seats were reserved for Muslims, where only Muslim voters could elect Muslim representatives.
  • The introduction of the ‘separate electorate’ system institutionalized communal representation for Muslims. Lord Minto was dubbed the Father of Communal Electorate as the Act legalized communalism.
  • Legislative councils could debate the budget, propose resolutions, discuss issues of public interest, and seek clarifications.
  • Matters pertaining to foreign policy or relations with princely states were not open for discussion.
  • Satyendra Prasanna Sinha became the first Indian member of the Viceroy's Executive Council, following strong advocacy from Morley.
  • The Secretary of State's Council on Indian Affairs included two additional Indian members.

Evaluation of the reforms: The ‘constitutional’ reforms were aimed at dividing the nationalist ranks by confusing the Moderates and at checking the growth of unity among Indians. The Government aimed at rallying the Moderates and the Muslims against the rising tide of nationalism. 

  • The system of election was too indirect and it gave the impression of infiltration of legislators through a number of sieves. While parliamentary forms were introduced, no responsibility was conceded.

Importance of reforms: It effectively allowed the election of Indians to the various legislative councils in India for the first time. The introduction of the electoral principle laid the groundwork for a parliamentary system.

Congress was largely unsatisfied with the reforms. Only some members like Gokhale put to constructive use the opportunity to debate in the councils. The reforms of 1909, gave the people of the country, a shadow rather than substance. The people had demanded self-government but what they were given was ‘benevolent despotism’.

Morely Minto Reforms – as a beginning of communalism in India

The growth of communalism in India can be traced back to historical factors such as the partition of Bengal in 1905, the Morley-Minto Reforms, and the policy of separate electorates. These events created divisions along religious lines and provided platforms for communal politics.

Reasons leading to the growth of communalism:

  • Role of British Divide and Rule Policy: They often manipulated communal tensions to maintain control and weaken the nationalist movement.
  • Communalism in history writing: Communal interpretation of history portrayed the ancient face as the Hindu face and the medieval phase as the Muslim phase.
  • Influence of Leaders and Organizations: Organizations like the All-India Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha advocated for the interests of specific religious communities.
  • Side effects of social-religious reform movements: Reform movements such as the Wahabi movement, and the Shuddhi movement made the religious role more vulnerable.
  • Side effects of militant nationalism: Activities like Ganpati and Shivaji festival were linked to Hindu culture creating a feeling of 'Majority and Minority'.

Reasons leading to the growth of communalism

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