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Lord Curzon and The Partition of Bengal
|by Kumud Biswas|
“I am not a politician, and still less can I be said to be a party-man: but I have a hatred of tyranny, and a contempt for its tools; and this feeling I have expressed as often and as strongly as I could.” These are the opening words of Hazlitt’s Preface to his Political Essays. They could as well have been the words of Rabindranath. Without ever identifying himself with any political organization or ‘ism’ he did the same as Hazlitt through his writings. But on one occasion he came out on the street to actively protest and agitate against an administrative measure which had hurt the Bengali sentiment most – the 1905 Partition of Bengal.
The sense of indignation among the Bengalis was unprecedented, their protest spontaneous and almost universal and their agitation taking forms that often transgressed the limits set by law. The Partition had ultimately to be revoked but not before Curzon, the perpetrator of this arbitrary act, left in defeat and disappointment, apparently resigning his Viceroyalty over a row with the Commander-in-Chief Kitchener. Traditionally on retirement every Viceroy used to be awarded an earldom. An exception was made in the case of Curzon. Instead, from a powerful potentate reigning over a vast empire consisting of many extensive provinces his Lordship now became the petty Chancellor of the prestigious yet small university of Oxford which consisted only of a few colleges. Never a fall could have been greater. And when in 1912, the very year when the Partition was set aside and a year before he received the Nobel Prize, Rabindranath visited Britain with his manuscript Gitanjali the British intellectual world received him with enthusiasm quite uncharacteristic of the British. A friend of Rothenstein informally proposed for the award of an Oxford degree on Rabindranath. But Curzon as Chancellor turned down that proposal. He had obviously not recovered from the injuries of his great fall nor forgotten the man who had played a leading role in the anti-Partition agitation which, among other things, led to that fall.
To a man like Churchill – another bird of the same feather, albeit of a lighter shade, not from conviction but for convenience – who belonged to the same party, Curzon was one of those ‘superior Oxford prigs’, to whom democracy, even of the Tory variety, was anathema. Under the unbridled capitalist system, - the lessez faire economy – of Victorian England the evils of industrialization had manifested themselves in their ugliest forms. In the words of Disraeli the country was divided into ‘Two Nations’. In the midst of plenty there was poverty and squalor. At one extreme there were the upper classes – the landed aristocracy and the manufacturer magnates – who virtually owned all the properties and enjoyed all the material comforts and powers and privileges. On the other extreme were ‘the lower orders of society’ – the burgeoning industrial workers, miners, the lower-middle class and the poor – who wallowed in untold misery both physical and spiritual. Such a society supplied Marx and Engels with ample materials for their formulation of a new philosophy of revolution and the time would not be far away when the weapon they forged in the living laboratory of industrial Britain would burst upon an inherently exploitative world with a shattering impact. Dickens, the most popular novelist of the day, also faithfully documented and depicted this appalling social scene in his works.
One of the Eminent Victorians of Lytton Strachey, Dr. Arnold of Rugby school fame, must have echoed the sentiments of the Conservatives when he wrote in his letter to his son Matthew about the famous Hyde Park riot, “the old Roman way of dealing with that (i.e. rioting) is always the right one; flog the rank and file, and fling the ring-leaders from the Tarpeian Rock!” One section of that Party however appreciated the inevitability of democratization in the changed circumstances and thought it prudent for the sake of survival as a political party to accept at least a ‘democratic Toryism’ if not the democracy of the Liberals. Others there were, however, the hard-boiled reactionaries, one of whom Curzon undoubtedly was, who failed to read the signs of the time and saw in the rising tide of democracy a high tide of anarchy which would eventually swamp what was best in the British society – their traditional culture and institutions. They felt that if this could not be averted at home they could do it abroad in their empire overseas. They could invest their imperialism with a moral purpose. They made themselves believe that their empire had a mission to fulfill – the mission of civilizing their dominions where their superior culture could be transplanted, preserved and protected from the onslaught of philistinism.
That was ‘the white man’s burden’ as the troubadour of their imperialism Kipling sang. These people seem to have despaired of the grown up but not of the growing up Briton, for a ceremony called the ‘Empire Day’ was introduced in British schools calculated to inculcate in the young the virtues of the chauvinism of imperialism. It consisted in the hoisting and waving of flags, recitation of appropriate poems of Kipling, mass singing of ‘Rule Britannia’, playing on gramophone Dame Clara Butt singing Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, some speechifying, letting off fire-crackers around a bonfire in the evening, all followed by a full holiday. Also in collaboration with some liberals, now disillusioned by democracy, they formed in 1884 an Imperial Federation League with the object of bringing about the political integration of the British Empire. At first what they had in mind was not the non-white part but the white part of the empire, the so-called ‘settlement colonies’ of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Though still conscious of their British origin and racial ties with the mother country these dominions had by that time developed an awareness of their separate national identities and were reluctant to give up their political privilege of self-government. Trevelyan has traced the hardening of colour prejudices also to this period.
Thus frustrated in their attempt to test their pet scheme in the white part of the empire they now fastened their attention on the coloured part, that is India. Curzon wrote two long letters to his great political patron, the last peer-Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, seeking the Viceroyalty which no other aspirant to the post had done before. He had realized that the white part formed a part of the empire only in name, the real empire was the non-white part which was to be preserved in perpetuity at any cost for the preservation of the superior culture of the British. When, therefore, he came to India as Viceroy on his own seeking he set himself to his task with a missionary zeal from the very outset. He made his intentions abundantly clear when on the eve of his assumption of office he declared: “India is the pivot of Empire, by which I mean that outside the British Isles we could, I believe, lose any portion of the dominions of the Queen and yet survive as an Empire; while if we lost India, I maintain that our sun would sink to its setting”.
It therefore logically follows that in whatever he thought or said or did his sole aim was the administration of the empire as an efficient system for its preservation and perpetuation. In his foreign policy his object was the removal of all external threats to India to make it a safe base from which to operate the empire system. His domestic policy was to do away with red-tapism, to modernize India, to make the country strong from within as a strong base for the same empire system. If he did any good to India, it was an offshoot of the good that he did for the empire. If he did any right thing he did it for the wrong reason. If he came down with a heavy hand on those who committed any atrocity on any Indian he did so in the spirit of a magnanimous autocrat or a benevolent despot. The Indian deserved his protection only as a subject but not as a matter of right as a citizen. Did not his monarch advise him at Balmoral not to allow the feelings of her Indian subjects to be trampled on, they needed special protection as children do and they should be taught the virtues of obedience? The Indian princes were his partners in the empire to be suitably educated and trained for the purpose. As for the common Indian his case was altogether different.
The viceroyalty of Curzon is said to have marked the apogee of this empire system. But the halo of the high noon of empire seems to have blinded the arrogant imperialists. They failed to recognize the emergence of the English educated middle class and appreciate its significance. Macaulay thought that English education would create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. In Bengal English education generated an unprecedented intellectual ferment which ushered in a renaissance and gave it a cultural and intellectual primacy that prompted Gokhale to remark: “What Bengal thinks today India thinks tomorrow”. A Bengali of the time could well feel like saying with Wordsworth:
The initial impact of Western civilization produced a middle class Bengali whose main concern was education and culture and not politics. Bankim has paid him a rich tribute by making a model of his kind in the character of Amarnath in the novel Rajani published in 1877. When we meet this character in the drawing room of the hero of the novel we find him opening his conversation with social and political topics, turning the pages of Shakespeare Gallery, discussing the characters of Desdemona and Juliet as well as the characters of Indian classical literature like Sakuntala, Sita, Kadambari, Vasavadatta,, Rukmini and Satyabhama. Next he takes up ancient historiography and gives a masterly exposition of classical historians like Tacitus, Plutarch, Thucydides and others.
Contemporary philosophers and thinkers like Comte, Mill, Huxley, Owen, Darwin, Buchner and Schopenhauer also form the subjects of his discussion. Five years later in Bankim’s Anandamath, published in 1882, we find the emergence of a different kind of Bengali – a political man and a man of action with a burning passion for political emancipation from the foreign yoke, ready to sacrifice not only the security and comforts of a settled family life but even his very life. He is no longer effeminate and cowardly but courageous enough to form a secret society and take up arms against his alien oppressors. From among such people arose the hawks who resented the placidity of the first political organization formed in 1885 which met more as a social club to pass resolutions praising the ruling power and praying for some small pittance through constitutional means. Soon they were to turn Bankim’s ‘Vande Mataram’ into their war cry.
Macaulay had also visualized a day which would be the proudest day for the English when the Indians “having become instructed in European knowledge” would “demand European institutions”. This ideal of ultimate self-government by the natives was never quite disavowed by the British, but the day of its realization remained a kind of a movable feast. Thus when in the closing decade of the 19th century the English educated Indian middle class had grown self-confident and claimed that the day had arrived the British disputed it. In their arrogance they could never bring themselves to believe that the Indians would ever attain adulthood and would be able to govern themselves if they got a chance to do so. So long they were under the tutorship and now they should be under the trusteeship of the British. Self-government would be granted to them in some future which was however subject to extension ad infinitum. When therefore in the ambivalent Congress the Young Turks in their toga virilis grew restive and showed signs of militancy Curzon expressed his great ambition to give that body a decent burial. To achieve that end he took a number of measures which were provocatively reactionary and retrograde. The most mischievous of them all was his scheme of partitioning of Bengal.
The question of territorial reorganization of the Indian empire never engaged the attention of Curzon. He had an occasion to deal with it when he was required to settle the administrative disposition of Berar after it was wrested through his gunboat diplomacy from the dominions of the Nizam of Hyderabad. All British conquests and annexations were gradual in nature. The shapes and sizes of their provinces were therefore the results more of historical accidents than of any deliberate scheme or policy, the political exigencies of the hour being the main deciding factors. Bengal was a classic case where an administrative unit initially consisting of a few districts had grown over the years into a province too large to be effectively administered by a Lt. Governor. Earlier the position was worse. The Governor-General of India himself was directly responsible for its administration. It was Dalhousie who first divested himself of its charge and created for it a separate post of Lt. Governor. In 1874 Assam was separated. Still it contained Bihar and Orissa. Some of Curzon’s predecessors had made attempts to further relieve the overburdened Bengal administration but had to shelve them as they found the scheme to be very costly and not so easy to implement. But Curzon now rushed in where his forebears feared to tread, specially when he convinced himself that bureaucratic sloth had delayed the implementation of a scheme designed to achieve administrative efficiency for which he was a great stickler. In his famous ‘round and round’ minutes he roundly blamed the bureaucracy and determined to show off his own efficiency. Red tape, which he greatly abhorred, did to him what a red rag does to a bull. For formulation of the scheme he found some boon companions and helpmates, a band of yesmen and courtly cronies, who were eager to please him and pamper his whims than to give him sound advice. Chief among them were Fraser and Risley, respectively the Lt. Governor of Bengal and the Home Secretary to the government of India.
In Curzon’s time it took the scheme of partition of Bengal three long years to mature. To follow the course of its development we may quote from the masterly summary of Sumit Sarkar given in his The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal:
The minute, suitably edited for public consumption, formed the basis of Risley’s letter of 3 December 1903 proposing transfer of Chittagong division, Dacca and Mymensingh to Assam.
Now began a process of expansion, which soon transformed a scheme for transfer of certain districts into a full-scale partition of Bengal. In the last week of December 1903 Fraser suggested that Bakargunj and Faridpur should also be annexed to Assam, converting the latter into a full-scale lieutenant’s province. Curzon in course of his East-Bengal tour (February 1904) hinted rather vaguely that “a more ambitious” scheme “for a larger readjustment in the east of Bengal” was being considered. While for the next year a half the general public was permitted to hear little about the matter – so much so that the impression spread that the whole idea had been dropped – the officials went on merrily with the game of switching about other people’s lands. The list of transferable districts steadily expanded – the Bengal government on 6 April 1904 added Rangpur, Bogra, Pabna; five months later Simla even more generously annexed Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Malda, Jalpaiguri and Cooch-Behar state to the new province. Curzon on his return from England sent off this final scheme in his dispatch to the secretary of state of 2 February 1905. The secretary of state gave his consent in the dispatch of 9 June, and on 19 July 1905 the government of India announced its decision to set up a new province of ‘Eastern Bengal and Assam’ comprising the Chittagong, Dacca and Rajshahi divisions, Hill Tippera, Malda and Assam. The formal proclamation came on 1 September 1905, and on 16 October 1905 Bengal was partitioned.”
This ‘divide and rule’ policy was not only machiavellian but also mephistophelean. Till the partition Bengal enjoyed the unique distinction of being communally the least disturbed province. The partition marks the date from which communal disturbances began to occur with increasing frequency. For the creation of this monster of communalism the entire credit goes to Curzon and his cronies like Fraser and Risley. The government of India itself later in its dispatch of 25th August 1911 was to recognize a growing estrangement between the two communities as a result of the partition. The initial Muslim response to the partition was neither widespread nor enthusiastic. Curzon made extraordinary personal efforts to generate larger support from that community. Through numerous tours and lectures in Muslim majority districts he coaxed and tried to convince the Muslims about the advantages that would accrue to them from the partition. He also made them many promises much of which proved empty in the years to come. He set much store by the support of the Nawab of Dacca who himself was dogged by family feuds and had very little influence over his coreligionists. His estates were also in the red and to keep this personage financially afloat as a prop of his diabolical scheme Curzon threw all financial principles and proprieties to the winds to grant him a huge advance which was more in the nature of gratuitous relief than a loan.
A renowned historian like Trevelyan has called Curzon great. It cannot be said that Curzon was born great. He was indeed the scion of one of the landed aristocratic families of England which could trace their history back to the days of the Conqueror, but the Curzons of Kedleston could boast of no distinction whatsoever in their long history of eight hundred years before Curzon. He seems to have determined to make good this deficiency in his family tradition. But one who follows his career dispassionately can hardly agree with those who claim that he succeeded in his efforts. As a student he did not fare so extraordinarily well as to be called brilliant. One of his teachers who considered him so and remained his lifelong admirer was a homosexual and it is arguable whether his admiration was due to his student’s scholarship or good looks. Nayana Goradia in her recent study, Lord Curzon: The Last of the British Mughals, has found traces of masochism in him. He used to enjoy caning by his governess as well as by his teachers. The anonymous author of the doggerel quoted earlier appears to have been an accurate observer of his character. A first rate snob he was fond of pomp and ceremony and always gave himself an air of superiority. This irked his friends and foes alike. To a man like Churchill he was a prig. He was anti-democratic and a reactionary of reactionaries. Even his own party-men did not trust him and were to play a cruel trick on him when he was deprived of the premiership which was his due as the seniormost member after the retirement of Bonar Law on health grounds. The King also seems to have developed a dislike for him. As Prince of Wales he had an opportunity during his Indian tours to see for himself the high-handed manner of Curzon’s administration as viceroy. Curzon was to have the mortification of being summoned by the King all the way from his country home to London only to be told that even though he was the seniormost leader of his party after Bonar Law he could not be made the next premier.
During the first term of his viceroyalty, however, Curzon gave a fairly good account of himself and earned praises specially for his vigour and drive. But his efforts were actually no more than the continuation of the works of his predecessors and had little innovative or original about them. Because of his despotic nature he was intolerant of the views of others. His impatience made him incapable of sustained efforts so that by the second term he began to lose hold of his reins. For his supercilious attitude he antagonized the bureaucracy and Woodruff does not have very many good words to spare for him in The Men Who Ruled India. He failed to find an able hand in the ICS which had become a legend in its time. On the contrary he succumbed to the weakness of flattery to which people whose heads are turned by power are prone and became fond of two questionable characters of the service, Fraser and Risley. Though he was forewarned of the character of the latter he made him his Home secretary. He was a poor judge of men and could not suspect that these two ‘poor tape worms’ would eat into his vitals and egg him on to undertake measures that would ultimately bring him to grief. He exhibited his poor judgement again in the selection of Kitchener as his army chief.
His controversy with this man was to become the immediate cause of Curzon’s downfall. And in the supreme test of a ruler he miserably fails. In his heart he did never keep the interest and well being of the people he ruled nor paid any heed to their feelings and aspirations. He suffered from a sense of racial superiority of the worst kind. For this Curzon though was not alone to blame because this feeling had begun to develop among the British ruling class right from the time of Macaulay whose acerbic comments about the Bengalis in general are not only vulgar but in sheer bad taste. This superiority complex was to culminate in the writings of Kipling and the ideas of that dyspeptic son of a Scottish stone mason turned messiah, Carlyle, who was an ardent lover of German philosophy and propounded the theory of dominant ‘Superman’ in his Heroes and Hero Worship and the life of Frederick the Great. While in world history an Austrian corporal was to become the villain of the piece for racial hatred and holocaust it may well be asked if the likes of Carlyle and Curzon can ultimately escape the culpability for such crimes. The treatment meted out by Hitler to the Jews and others are different only in degree but not in kind from the treatment which the ‘black niggers’ of India received at the hands of their British rulers. It is not for nothing that Curzon has been called a xenophobe.
Curzon did not inherit greatness nor could he achieve it, but greatness was thrust upon him when he was made the viceroy of India. He however failed to measure up to that greatness for he was a man who was really very little. The fault did not lie in his stars but in himself. With his limited intelligence clouded by unlimited arrogance he failed to see the changes which were in the air during the closing years of the 19th century. Not only a new century was dawning but also a new world was being born. It was a time when Waterloos could no longer be won on the playing fields of Eton nor could a few salvos from the canons of a Clive decide a Battle of Plassey. The days of far-flung empires of vast territorial possessions were coming to a close. Their death knell was first rung by the war of 1914-18. Barely 25 years later the greedy European shopkeepers were to wage a more fierce war among themselves that not only gave a burial to their empires but also brought the world itself to the brink of total destruction. As the very personification of anachronism Curzon went out like a medieval knight-errant to give a quixotic battle to save a dying feudal world where a few landed aristocratic families could monopolise political power through a rotten electoral system that denied voting rights to the unpropertied masses.
At home the men of his class ultimately met with defeat. In this country his reactionary measures met with the same fate but rendered a signal service to the nascent nationalist movement by giving it a sharp edge which it so long lacked. He provided the nationalists with a good cause for militant action. Swadeshi and terrorism made the position of the British in India increasingly untenable. From the anti-partition agitation our freedom movement gathered a new momentum and the imperialists had to accept defeat. The partition of Bengal had to be revoked and Curzon had to leave this country in shame to spend a considerable part of his political career in the wilderness. In fact Curzon’s viceroyalty marks the beginning of the end of the British empire in India which he so sedulously wanted to perpetuate. In his farewell speech Curzon had said, ‘Let India be my judge’.
Today that judgement is – he harmed both himself and the empire, the very opposite of what he had intended to achieve; he unwittingly infused with new vigour the very freedom movement he wanted to suppress. And India cherishes a bitter memory of his lasting contribution in politics – the use of communalism as a political weapon, which ultimately led to the partition of India. He was more a petty politician than a statesman. To compare him with the great is to insult the great. He totally lacked that large vision of great rulers like Akbar and others who have worked for harmony and not for chaos among the people they ruled. He was unable to avail of the opportunity which is rarely granted by destiny to any ruler to achieve greatness by cementing with cultural unity the unprecedented political unity which the British had achieved in India. Instead he permanently poisoned the relationship between the two major religious communities of this country. He also exacerbated the racial hatred and enmity between the Indians and the British. A small man as he was it was not given to him to realize the poet’s conception of India as a place of pilgrimage for nations where various races and religions have met through the ages to commingle in a single body of humanity:
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