1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Eastern Bengal and Assam

EASTERN BENGAL AND ASSAM, a province of British India, which was constituted out of Assam and the eastern portion of Bengal on the 16th of October 1905. Area 111,569 sq. m.; pop. (1901) 30,961,459. It is situated between 20° 45′ and 28° 17′ N., and between 87° 48′ and 97° 5′ E. The province, as thus reconstituted, consists of the Bengal districts of Dacca, Mymensingh, Faridpur, Backergunje, Tippera, Noakhali, Chittagong, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Rangpur, Bogra, Pabna, Malda, and the native states of Kuch Behar and Hill Tippera; and the whole of the former area of Assam consisting of the districts of Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang, Nowgong, Sibsagar, Lakhimpur, Sylhet, Cachar, Garo Hills, Khasi and Jaintia Hills, Naga Hills and Lushai Hills. It is bounded on the N. by Bhutan, on the W. by Burma, on the S. by Burma and the Bay of Bengal, and on the E. by Bengal. The line of demarcation between Bengal and the new province begins at the frontier of Bhutan, east of Darjeeling, runs south-west to Sahibganj on the Ganges and thence follows the course of the Ganges down to the deltaic branch, called the Haringhata, which leaves the main stream above Goalanda, and the course of the latter, which runs south into the Bay of Bengal. The capital of the province is Dacca, and its chief port is Chittagong.

The Bengal districts which were transferred to Eastern Bengal and Assam comprised northern and eastern Bengal, the most prosperous and least overcrowded portion of Bengal. The land there is less densely populated, wages are higher and food cheaper, and the rainfall more copious and more regular, while the staple crops of jute, tobacco and rice command a higher price relative to the rent of the land than in Behar or other parts of Bengal. The population are largely Mahommedans and of a more virile stock than the Bengali proper. Northern Bengal corresponds almost exactly with the Rajshahi division and lies within the boundaries of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. It contains much high land of a stiff red clay, with an undulating surface covered for the most part with scrub jungle. The inhabitants are Indo-Chinese, not Indo-Aryans as in Bengal proper, and are Mahommedan by religion instead of Hindu. Eastern Bengal consists of the Dacca and Chittagong divisions which are mainly Bengali in race and Hindu in religion. For the Assamese districts see Assam. The province as a whole contains 18,036,688 Mahommedans and 12,036,538 Hindus. In language 27,272,895 of the inhabitants speak Bengali, 1,349,784 speak Assamese, and the remainder Hindi and various hill dialects, Manipuri, Bodo, Khasi and Garo. The administration is in the hands of a lieutenant-governor, assisted by a legislative council of fifteen members. Under him are five commissioners, and financial matters are regulated by a board of revenue consisting of two members.

The constitution of the new province arose out of the fact that Bengal had grown too unwieldy for the administration of a single lieutenant-governor. In 1868 Sir Stafford Northcote drew attention to the greatly augmented demands that the outlying portions of Bengal made on the time and labour of the government. At that time the population of the province was between 40 and 50 millions, and the question was left in abeyance until 1903, when the population had risen to 781/2 millions. In the meantime the importance of rendering Assam a self-contained and independent administration with a service of its own, and of providing for its future commercial expansion, had arisen. These two considerations led Lord Curzon to propose that Bengal should be lopped of territory both on its eastern and western borders, and that all the districts east of the Brahmaputra should be constituted into a separate province. This proposal was bitterly opposed by the Hindus of Bengal on the ground that it would destroy the unity of the Bengali race; and their agitation was associated with the Swadeshi (own country) movement for the boycott of British goods.

After the constitution of the province in October 1905, the agitation in Eastern Bengal increased. Public meetings of protest were held, vernacular broadsheets containing scandalous attacks on the British authorities were circulated, schoolboys and others were organized and drilled as so-called “national volunteers,” and employed as pickets to prevent the sale of British goods. Such was the state of things when Sir J. Bampfylde Fuller entered on his office as first lieutenant-governor of Eastern Bengal in January 1906. His reception was ominous. Representative bodies that were dominated by Hindus refused to vote the usual addresses of welcome, and non-official Hindus abstained from paying the customary calls. There were, however, no further overt signs of objection to the lieutenant-governor personally, and after a month or two—in spite of, or perhaps because of, his efforts to restrain sedition and to keep discipline in the schools—there was a decided change in the attitude of Hindu opinion. At Dacca, in July, for instance, the reception at Government House was attended by large numbers of Bengali gentlemen, who assured the lieutenant-governor that “the trouble was nearly ended.” The agitation was, in fact, largely artificial, the work of Calcutta lawyers, journalists and schoolmasters; the mass of the people, naturally law-abiding, was unmoved by it so long as the government showed a firm hand; while the Mussulmans, who formed a large proportion of the whole, saw in the maintenance of the partition and of the prestige of the British government the guarantees of their own security.

All seemed to be going well when an unfortunate difference of opinion occurred between the lieutenant-governor and the central government, resulting in the resignation of Sir Bampfylde Fuller (August 1906) and in ulterior consequences destined to be of far-reaching import. The facts are briefly as follows. Acting on a report of Dr P. Chatterji, inspector of schools, dated January 2, 1906, the lieutenant-governor, on the 10th of February, addressed a letter to the registrar of Calcutta University recommending that the privilege of affiliation to the university should be withdrawn from the Banwarilal and Victoria high schools at Sirajganj in Pabna, as a punishment for the seditious conduct of both pupils and teachers. Apart from numerous cases of illegal interference with trade and of disorder in the streets reported against the students, two specific outrages of a serious character were instanced as having occurred on the 15th of November: the raiding of a cart laden with English cloth belonging to Marwari traders, and a cowardly assault by some 40 or 50 lads on the English manager of the Bank of Bengal. These outrages “were not the result of thoughtlessness or sudden excitement, but were the outcome of a regularly organized scheme, set on foot and guided by the masters of these schools, for employing the students in enforcing a boycott.” All attempts to discover and punish the offenders had been frustrated by the refusal of the school authorities to take action, and in the opinion of the lieutenant-governor the only course open was to apply the remedy suggested in the circular letter addressed to magistrates and collectors (October 10, 1905) by Mr R. W. Carlyle, the officiating chief secretary to the government of Bengal, directing them, in the event of students taking any part in political agitation, boycotting and the like, to inform the heads of schools or colleges concerned that, unless they prevented such action being taken by the boys attending their institutions, their grant-in-aid and the privilege of competing for scholarships and of receiving scholarship-holders would be withdrawn, and that the university would be asked to disaffiliate their institutions.

The reply, dated July 5th, from the secretary in the home department of the government of India, was—to use Sir Bampfylde’s own later expression—to throw him over. It was likely that a difference of opinion in the syndicate of the university would arise as to the degree of culpability that attached to the proprietors of the schools; in the event of the syndicate taking any “punitive action,” the matter was certain to be raised in the senate, and would lead to an acrimonious public discussion, in which the partition of Bengal and the administration of the new province would be violently attacked; and in the actual state of public opinion in Bengal it seemed to the government of India highly inexpedient that such a debate should take place. “Collective punishment,” too, “would be liable to be misconstrued in England,” and the government preferred to rely on the gradual effect of the new university regulations, which aimed “at discouraging the participation of students in political movements by enforcing the responsibility of masters and the managing committees of schools for maintaining discipline.”

On receipt of this communication Sir Bampfylde Fuller at once tendered his resignation to the viceroy (July 15). He pointed out that to withdraw from the position taken up would be “concession, not in the interests of education, but to those people in Calcutta who have been striving to render my government impossible, in order to discredit the partition”; that previous concessions had had merely provocative effects, and that were he to give way in this matter his authority would be so weakened that he would be unable to maintain order in the country. On the 3rd of August, after some days of deliberation, the viceroy telegraphed saying that he was “unable to reconsider the orders sent,” and accepting Sir Bampfylde’s resignation. By the Anglo-Indian press the news was received with something like consternation, the Times of India describing the resignation as one of the gravest blunders ever committed in the history of British rule in India, and as a direct incentive to the forces of disquiet, disturbance and unrest. Equally emphatic was the verdict of the Mussulman community forming two-thirds of the population of Eastern Bengal. On the 7th of August, the day of Sir Bampfylde Fuller’s departure from Dacca, a mass-meeting of 30,000 Mahommedans was held, which placed on record their disapproval of a system of government “which maintains no continuity of policy,” and expressed its feeling that the lowering of British prestige must “alienate the sympathy of a numerically important and loyal section of His Majesty’s subjects”; and many meetings of Mussulmans subsequently passed resolutions to the same general effect. The Akhbar-i-Islam, the organ of Bombay Mussulman opinion, deplored the “unwise step” taken by the government, and ascribed it to Lord Minto’s fear of the Babu press, a display of weakness of which the Babus would not be slow to take advantage.

This latter prophecy was not slow in fulfilling itself. So early as the 8th of August Calcutta was the scene of several large demonstrations at which the Swadeshi vow was renewed, and at which resolutions were passed declining to accept the partition as a settled fact, and resolving on the continuance of the agitation. The tone of the Babu press was openly exultant: “We have read the familiar story of the Russian traveller and the wolves,” said a leading Indian newspaper in Calcutta. “The British government follows a similar policy. First the little babies were offered up in the shape of the Bande Mataram circular and the Carlyle circular. Now a bigger boy has gone in the person of our own Joseph. Courage, therefore, O wolves! Press on and the horse will soon be yours to devour! Afterwards the traveller himself will alone be left.”[1] The task before the new lieutenant-governor of Eastern Bengal, the Hon. L. Hare, was obviously no easy one. The encouragement given to sedition by the weakness of the government in this case was shown by later events in Bengal and elsewhere (see India: History, ad fin.).

For the early history of the various portions of the province see Bengal and Assam.

See Sir James Bourdillon, The Partition of Bengal (Society of Arts, 1905); official blue-books on The Reconstitution of the Provinces of Bengal and Assam (Cd. 2658 and 2746), and Resignation of Sir J. Bampfylde Fuller, lieutenant-governor, &c. (Cd. 3242). A long letter from Sir J. B. Fuller, headed J’accuse, attacking the general policy of the Indian government in regard to the seditious propaganda, appeared in The Times of June 6, 1908.

  1. Quoted by Mr F. S. P. Lely in The Times of November 22, 1906.