1911 The Fall Of Calcutta?

Anindita Mazumder

The year, 1911 turned out to be the most remarkable for the evolving ethos and identity of the Bengalis. It was the year when bare-footed footballers of a native club, Mohun Bagan won the shield triumphantly, defeating the British Sahibs at the grounds of Calcutta. In the same year, Tagore penned his famous patriotic song, Jana Gana Mana dedicated to the spirit of motherland – the ruler of our minds and destiny. Last but not the least, after a long political struggle the partition of Bengal was revoked but it was a gift not without thorns – Calcutta lost her position as the capital city of British India. In the first anniversary issue of Calcutta Chronicle, we look at the causes and effects of the decision to shift capital from Calcutta and Delhi.

On a cold, wintry day in Delhi, the King-Emperor George V announced that the decision of partitioning Bengal was being revoked and a new province would be carved out of Bihar and Orissa. In the same undertone he also announced that henceforth Delhi would be the capital of British India. In that large gathering not many people caught his words or their nuances. But it relegated Calcutta, the seat of governance in British India since 18th century to being just a provincial capital. The fateful day was December 12, 2011.

The key reason prompting the transfer of capital was of course the long drawn political unrest that rocked Bengal ever since Lord Curzon proposed to partition the province on administrative grounds. The British had not anticipated such opposition to the Partition Plan because Bengalis were never considered to be capable of putting up a fight particularly, perhaps, because they had easily acceded to the British rule without a murmur of protest and were untouched by the fiery zeal of mutineers in 1857. But partition had upset all the previous perception of the British. The harshest repressions seem to breed the most vicious attacks. Lord Hardinge who succeeded Lord Minto as the Viceroy was a personal friend of Lord Curzon of Kedleston and along with the new Secretary of State, Earl of Crewe thought it would be best to kill two birds with the same stone – revoke partition of the province and transfer capital from Calcutta to Delhi. The city of Delhi had long been the capital of succeeding dynasties who had ruled India till the eclipse of the Mughals and it was a well-known adage, “he who rules Delhi rules India”. Lord Hardinge also thought that the choice of Delhi would be a balm for the Muslims, particularly those hailing from the province of East Bengal, aggrieved by the loss of provincial power due to the revocation of partition. At the same time the loss of prestige with the downgrading of Calcutta from imperial capital to a mere provincial capital would make a severe dent on the pride of the Bengali Bhadralok, an adequate punishment for showing dissent.

It was a truly a well-kept secret. Even the former Viceroys of India or lieutenant generals of Bengal had no inkling to the plan. The announcement made in a dry and stiff tone, characteristic of the British was heard by only a handful, possibly those near the dais but it had little impact either on the minds of the people of Bengal or Delhi. When George V arrived in Calcutta at the end of December for a weeklong visit after shooting quite a few tigers, midway, there was no show of dissent or agitation even as the King and Queen held court and investiture, visited Zoological Gardens and the site of Victoria Memorial, attended polo matches and Proclamation Parade and a pageant in the presence of Nawab of Murshidabad, Raja of Burdwan and other native rulers. He was also gifted gold mohurs as peshkash on behalf of the people of Bengal, Orissa, Behar, East Bengal and Assam. Even Calcutta University authorities met the Emperor and praised him in commemorative writings though the bomb thrown by Rashbehari Bose at Hardinge while the Viceroy was entering Delhi, was indeed a sign of Bengali dissension.

However, there was opposition from unexpected quarters; the European community was quite discontented. The press, The Englishman, The Statesman and vernacular, Amritabazar Patrika wrote against the move. The Statesman in particular, attacked the decision with an editorial titled, “HMG”, denoting not “His Majesty’s Government” but “Hardinge Must Go”. The upper class Muslim leaders were also unhappy by the decision. But the worst attack on the Government of India incidentally, came from Lord Curzon of Kedlestone who virtually tore into the Viceroy and the Secretary of State for India during his speech on the transfer of capital in the House of Lords on February 21, 1912 after the King and Queen had returned to England. Lord Hardinge was accused of hiding behind the embroidered mantle of the King to ensure there was no criticism of the decisions to transfer the capital and revoke partition of Bengal since the royal announcement made the policies irrevocable.

“I have a very warm feeling for Calcutta myself. It has always seemed to me to be a worthy capital and expression of British Rule in India. It is English built, English Commerce has made it the second city in the Empire, for so it is, in population and size, and from the offices of the Government in Calcutta English statesmen, administrators, and general have built up to its present commanding height the fabric of British rule in India. Calcutta has had a splendid past and whatever happens to it in the future cannot alter that,” Curzon remarked while demolishing the argument of ill-adaptability of Calcutta as capital.

Not known to mince his words he accused the British officials of trying to escape the “heated atmosphere of Bengal” and said “The importance of Calcutta results from its position on the sea, from its proximity to the great sources of supply of jute and coal and tea in Eastern India and from the enterprise of its merchants. I dare say there will be some displacement of trade, some depreciation of property, perhaps some loss of money to individual firms..…Personally I think the removal of the Government from Calcutta much more injurious to the Government than it will be to Calcutta.”

According to him Calcutta “brightened our minds, it widened our outlook, it brought us into the mainstream of national existence” because of the cross-cultural milieu. He thundered that with the transfer of capital from Calcutta the Government of India will become more isolated, more bureaucratic and less in touch with public opinion and eventually shorten British rule in India.

True to Lord Curzon’s prediction, following the shift of capital only the Union Jack went to Delhi the trade remained with Calcutta. Companies like Andrew Yule, Braithwaite, Brooke Bond, Lipton, Chloride, Dunlop, GEC, ICI, Jensen and Nicholson, Metal Box, Westinghouse Saxby continued to have their headquarters in Calcutta even after Independence. The country’s largest financial institution, Imperial Bank which later became State Bank of India had its headquarters at Calcutta till 1955.

However, once their proximity to power was snatched away Bengalis lost their control over national politics. This was indeed the master stroke of Viceroy Hardinge for the political leaders of Bengal were relegated to insignificance and the controls were seized by the leaders of Northern and Western India.

Curzon turned out to be both right and wrong. True, the severance of 150-year-old ties with Calcutta did not prolong British rule in India but Calcutta’s undoing came because of the seeds of disharmony he himself had once sowed with his decision to split Bengal, eventually leading to the Partition in 1947. Scarred by the famine of 1943 Calcutta was not only overwhelmed by the influx of refugees in large numbers but lost its rich hinterland, particularly the jute producing areas in 1947. Bombay, blessed with a sea port as opposed to the riverine port of Calcutta – constantly threatened by siltation, and untouched by the scars of Partition went on to supplant Calcutta as the financial capital of modern India.