A statue of a former maharaja will be placed in front of the city’s iconic Curzon Gate by the Bardhaman municipality. Why, 117 years after leaving India, does this imperialist former viceroy still cause fury and loathing? Just who was Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India who partitioned Bengal in 1905?
After it was revealed earlier this week that the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-run Bardhaman municipality had decided to construct a statue of Bardhaman’s Maharaja Bijay Chand Mahatab and his wife Radharani in front of the city’s iconic landmark, the 119-year-old Curzon Gate in West Bengal became the center of a political controversy.
Politicians, historians, and heritage specialists have criticized the ruling party’s choice, with some arguing that the statutes will obscure the view of the structure which was erected by Mahatab in 1903 for Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India at the time, visited Bardhaman.
Curzon is arguably the Viceroy of India who has drawn the greatest criticism since he partitioned Bengal in 1905, sparking a wave of Bengali nationalism that helped fuel the larger Indian national movement. He was also one of the more outspokenly imperialist viceroys, and he believed that Britain’s control of India was essential to the continued existence of the empire. Curzon famously said in 1900, “We could lose all our [white settlement] dominions and still survive, but if we lost India, our sun would sink to its setting.”
Who was Lord Curzon?
George Nathaniel Curzon, a British conservative politician who was born in 1859, attended the prestigious schools of Eton and Oxford for his education. Before being named Viceroy of India in 1899, he held the positions of Under-Secretary of State for India (1891–1892) and for Foreign Affairs (1895–1898).
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His reign as viceroy was renowned for its frenzied activity and focus on effectiveness. In 1904, he said in his budget speech, “Efficiency of administration is, in my view, a synonym for the contentment of the governed.”(quoted in Sumit Sarkar, ‘Modern India 1885–1947’).
Curzon formed a distinct police force, a province of the North-West Frontier Province with a Muslim majority, a British expedition to Tibet, and the Archaological Survey of India to investigate and preserve ancient sites. (Barbara and Thomas Metcalf, ‘A Concise History of Modern India’)
According to Sumit Sarkar, early in his career, Curzon received some respect from his colonial subjects for intervening in a number of notorious racist incidents involving Indians and Europeans. He chastised 9th Lancers soldiers for fatally beating an Indian cook in Sialkot in 1902, penalized white soldiers for raping a lady in Rangoon in 1899, and failed in his attempt to persuade the Calcutta High Court to revise the meager sentence imposed to an Assam tea manager for killing a “coolie.”
But why was he disliked then?
The increasing nationalist movement in India both perplexed and incensed Curzon. and he aimed to stifle the rising aspirations of the educated middle class in India.
An outspoken imperialist, he took a number of unpopular actions, such as passing the Indian Universities Act (1904), which put Calcutta University under government control, and the Indian Official Secrets Amendment Act (1904), which further restricted press freedom. He also passed the Calcutta Municipal Amendment Act (1899), which reduced the number of elected representatives in the Calcutta Corporation.
In 1900, Curzon stated that the Indian National Congress was “tottering to its fall” because he thought the organization had lost its attraction and influence among Indians. Ironically, though, his boldest and most despised choice—to split Bengal in 1905—was what sparked a surge in nationalist feeling and revived the Congress.
How and why did the partition of Bengal take place?
Calcutta was the capital of the British Raj, and Bengal Presidency constituted one of India’s biggest provinces, comprising present-day West Bengal, Bangladesh, Bihar, and parts of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Assam.
For a long time, they British said that Bengal was just too vast to control and govern successfully; it was also assumed that with Calcutta as the nerve center of educated nationalists, resistance to british colonialism would only grow. In 1904, Home Secretary H H Risley stated, “Bengal united is a power; Bengal divided will pull in several different ways.”
Curzon declared the division of Bengal into two provinces in July 1905. East Bengal and Assam had a population of 38 million people, mostly Muslims, while Bengal, the western region, had a population of 55 million people, mostly Hindus.
Protests erupted nearly instantly following the declaration, with rallies held in over 300 cities, towns, and villages across Bengal. (From ‘A History of Modern India,’ by Ishita Banerjee-Dube) The educated Bengali bhadralok interpreted this move as an endeavor to separate their motherland and limit their power in the region, whereas later nationalists argued that it was symptomatic of the British’s divide and rule program.
What were the consequences of the partition?
Popular opposition to partition had been building since the British announced their plan, but it became a more powerful and coordinated movement once it was implemented in 1905. Nationalist leaders coordinated a boycott of British goods and institutions in opposition to the division, and advocated the use of indigenous products. The Swadeshi movement began in August 1905, after a formal resolution was made at a gathering in Calcutta.
Students led the action, which included boycotts of British educational institutions and law courts, as well as huge bonfires of imported cotton fabrics. There was a rise in nationalist discourse, and Rabindranath Tagore’s song ‘Bande Mataram’ became the movement’s informal anthem.
The Swadeshi movement and boycott moved beyond Bengal to other sections of the country, including Punjab, Maharashtra, and parts of the Madras Presidency. A number of secret groups, such as Bengal’s Anushilan Samiti, attempted to subvert British control through violence. To fund their operations, revolutionary groups employed bombs, attempted to assassinate colonial authorities, and indulged in armed robberies.
Curzon quit and returned to England in 1905 after losing a power struggle with Lord Kitchener, the commander-in-chief of the British Army. After his departure, the colonial authority proclaimed the reunification of Bengal in 1911, and the Raj’s capital was moved from Calcutta to Delhi.