The Swadesh Movement had its genesis in the anti-partition movement which was stated to oppose the British decision to partition Bengal.
The Government’s decision to partition Bengal had been made public in December 1903.
The official reason given for the decision was that Bengal with a population of 78 million (about a quarter of the population of British India) had become too big to be administered.
This was true to some extent, but the real motive behind the partition plan was the British desire to weaken Bengal, the nerve centre of Indian nationalism.
This it sought to achieve by putting the Bengalis under two administrations by dividing them (i) on the basis of language (thus reducing the Bengalis to a minority in Bengal itself as in the new proposal. Bengal proper was to have 17 million Bengalis and 37 million Hindi and Oriya speakers), and (ii) on the basis of religion, as the western half was to be a Hindu majority area (42 million out of a total 54 million) and the eastern half was to be a Muslim majority area (18 million out of a total of 31 million).
Trying to woo the Muslims, Curzon, the viceroy at that time, argued that Dacca could become the capital of the New Muslim Viceroys and kings. Thus, it was clear that the Government was up to its old policy of propping up Muslim communalists to counter the Congress and the national movement.
Moderates Agitation (1903-05):
During the period, the leadership was provided by men like Surendranath Benerjea, K.K. Mitra and Prithwishchandra Ray. The methods adopted were petitions to the Government, public meetings, adopted were petitions to the Government, public meetings, memoranda, and propaganda through pamphlets and newspapers such as Hitabadi, Sanjibani and Bengalee.
Their objective was to exert sufficient pressure on the Government through an educated public opinion in India and England to prevent the unjust partition of Bengal from being implemented. Ignoring a loud public opinion against the partition proposal, the Government announced partition of Bengal in July 1905. Within days, protest meetings were held in small towns all over Bengal.
It was in these meetings that the pledge to boycott foreign goods was first taken. On August 7, 1905, with the passage of Boycott Resolution in a massive meeting held in the Calcutta Town hall, the formal proclamation of Swadeshi Movement was made. After this, the leaders dispersed to other parts of Bengal to propagate the message of boycott of Manchester cloth and Liverpool salt.
October 16, 1905, the day the partition formally came into force, was observed as a day of mourning throughout Bengal. People fasted, bathed in the Ganga and walked barefoot in processions singing Bande Mataram (which almost spontaneously became the theme song of the movement).
People tied rakhis on each other’s hands as a symbol of unity of the two halves of Bengal. Later in the day, Surendranath Benerjea and Ananda Mohan Bose addressed huge gatherings (perhaps the largest till then under the nationalist banner). Within a few hours of the meeting, Rs 50,000 were raised for the movement.
Soon, the movement spread to other parts of the country—in Poona and Bombay under Tilak, in Punjab under Lala Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh, in Delhi under Syed Haider Raza, and the Madras under Chidambaram Pillai.
The Indian National Congress, meeting in 1905 under the presidentship of Gokhale, resolved to:
- condemn the partition of Bengal and the reactionary policies of Curzon and
- support the anti- partition and Swadeshi Movement of Bengal.
The militant nationalists led by Tilak, Lajput Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghosh wanted the movement to be taken outside Bengal to other parts of the country and go beyond a boycott of foreign goods to become a full-fledged political mass struggle with the goal of attaining swaraj. But the Moderates, dominating the Congress at that time, were not willing to go that far.
However, a big step forward was taken at the Congress session held at Calcutta (1906) under presidentship of Dadabhai Naoroji, where it was declared that the goal of the Indian National Congress was ‘self-government or swaraj like the United Kingdom or the colonies’.
The Moderate-Extremist dispute over the pace of the movement and techniques of struggle reached a deadlock at the Surat session of the Indian National Congress (1907) where the party split with serious consequences for the Swadeshi Movement.
After 1905, the Extremists acquired a dominant influence over the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal. There were three reasons for this:
- The Moderate-led movement had failed to yield results.
- The divisive tactics of the Governments of both the Bengals had embittered the nationalists; and
- The Government had resorted to suppressive measures, which included atrocities on students— many of whom were given corporal punishment; ban on public singing of Bande Mataram; restriction on public meetings; prosecution and long imprisonment of swadeshi workers; clashes between the police and the people in many towns; arrests and deportation of leaders; and suppression of freedom of the press.
Emboldened by Dadabhia Naoroji’s declaration at the Calcutta session (1906) the self-government or swaraj was to be the goal of the Congress, the Extremists gave a call for passive resistance in addition to swadeshi and boycott which would include a boycott of government schools and colleges, Government service, courts, legislative councils, municipalities, Government titles, etc. so as to, as Aurbindo put it, “make the administration under present conditions impossible by an orgnised refusal to do anything which will help either the British commerce in the exploitation of it.”
The militant nationalists put forward several fresh ideas at the theoretical, propaganda and programme levels. Among the several forms of struggle thrown up by the movement were:
Boycott of foreign good:
This included boycott and public burning of foreign cloth, boycott of foreign-made salt or sugar, refusal by priests to ritualize marriages involving exchange of foreign goods, refusal by wahermen to wash foreign clothes. This form of protest met with great success at the practical and popular level.
Public meeting and procession:
These emerged as major methods of mass mobilisation and simultaneously as forms of popular expression.
Crops of volunteers of ‘Samitis’:
Samitis such as the Swadesh Bandhab Samiti of Ashwini Kumar Dutta (in Barisal) emerged as a very popular and powerful method of mass mobilization. These samitis generated political consciousness among the masses through magic lantern lectures, swadeshi songs, physical and moral training to their members, social work during famines and epidemics, organization of schools, training in swadeshi crafts and arbitration courts.
Imaginative use of traditional popular festivals and meals:
The idea was to use such occasions as a means of reaching out to the masses and spreading political massages. For instance, Tilak’s Ganapatii and Shivaji festivals became a medium of swadeshi propaganda not only in western India, but also in Bengal. In Bengal also, the traditional folk theatre forms were used for the propose.
Emphasis given to self-reliance or ‘atma shakti’:
This implied re-assertion of national dignity, honour and confidence and social and economic regeneration of the villages. In practical terms, it included social reforms and campaigns against caste oppression, early marriage, dowry system, consumption of alcohol, etc.
Programme of swadeshi or national education. Bengal National Collage, inspired by Tagore’s Shantiniketan, was set with Aurobindo Ghosh as its principal. Soon national school and colleges sprang up in various parts of the country. On August 15, 1906, the National Council of Education was set up to organize a system of education—literary, scientific and technical—on national lines and under national control.
Education was to be imparted through the medium of vernaculars. A Bengal Institute of Technology was set up for technical education and funds were raised to send students to Japan for advanced learning.
Swadeshi or indigenous enterprises:
The swadeshi spirit also found expression in the establishment of swadeshi textile mills, soap and match factories, tanneries, banks, insurance companies, shops etc. These enterprises were based more on patriotic zeal than on business acumen.
Impact in the cultural sphere:
The nationalists of all hues took inspiration from songs written by Rabindranath Tagore, Rajnikant Sen, Dwijendralal Ray, Mukunda Das, Syed Abu Mohammad and others. Togore’s Amar Sonar Bangla written on this occasion was later to inspire the liberation struggle of Bangladesh and was adopted by it as its national anthem.
In painting, Abanindranath Tagore broke the domination of Victorian naturalism over Indian art and took inspiration of Victorian naturalism over Indian art and took inspiration from Muhgal, Ajanta and Rajput paintings. Nandlal Bose, who left a major imprint on Indian art, was the first recipient of a scholarship offered by the Indian Society of Oriental Art, founded in 1907.
In science, Jagdish Chandra Bose, Prafullachandra Roy and others pioneered original research which was praised the world over.
Students came out in large numbers to propagate and practise swadeshi, and to take a lead in organizing picketing of shops selling foreign goods. Police adopted a repressive attitude towards the students. Schools and colleges whose students participated in the agitation were to be penalized by disaffiliating them or stopping of grants and privileges to them.
Students who were found guilty of participation were to be disqualified for government jobs or for government scholarships, and disciplinary action—fine, expulsion, arrest, scholarships, etc. was to be taken against them.
Women, who were traditionally home-centred, especially those of the urban middle classes, took active part in processions and picketing. From now onwards, they were to play a significant role in the national movement.
Some of the Muslims participated—Barrister Abdul Rasul, Liaqat Hussain, Guzanvi, Maulana Azad (who joined one of the revolutionary terrorist groups)—but most of the upper and middle class Muslims-stayed away or, led by Nawab Salimullah of Dacca, supported the partition on the plea that it would give them a Muslim-majority East Bengal.
Thus, the social base of the movement expanded to include certain sections of the zamindari, the students, the women and the lower middle classes in cities and towns. An attempt was also made to give political expression to economic grievances of the working class by organizing strikes in British- owned concerns such as Eastern Indian Railways.
But the movement was not able to garner support of the Muslims, especially the Muslim peasantry, because of a conscious government policy of divide and rule helped by overlap of class and community at places. To further government interests, the All India Muslim League was propped up in 1907 as an anti-Congress front and reactionary elements like Nawab Salimullah of Dacca were encouraged.
Movements in support of Bengal’s unity and the swadeshi and boycott agitation were organized in many parts of the country. Tilak, who played a leading role in the spread of the movement outside Bengal, saw in this the ushering in of a new chapter in the history of the national movement. He realized that here was a challenge and an opportunity to organize popular mass struggle against the British rule to unite the country in a bond of common sympathy.
Annulment of Partition:
It was decided to annul the partition of Bengal in 1911 mainly to curb the menace of revolutionary terrorism. The annulment came as a rude shock to the Muslim political elite. It was decided to shift the capital to Delhi as a sop to the Muslims, as it was associated with Muslim glory, but the Muslims were not pleased. Bihar and Orissa were taken out of Bengal and Assam was made a separate province.