Bengal’s struggle with the Centre is not a new feature in Indian politics. It was always rebellious and counted as a factor in national politics since the days of Sasanka, the ruler of Gauda, who made himself master of the whole of Bengal with its capital at Karnasuvarna by 606 AD.
Under him began Bengal’s narrative of aggrandisement which raised her to the position of imperial supremacy. Of the two powerful political leagues of Northern India under the leadership of the two most powerful kingdoms of Bengal and Thaneswar, it appears that the Bengal group took the initiative and under the leadership of Sasanka it had waged a war on the aspiring House of Pushyabhuti of Thaneswar. Sasanka proved to be a formidable opponent.
His power seems to have remained unshaken till at least 619 AD. In an inscription of that year he is invoked as the suzerain power by a feudatory chief of Ganjam. After matsyanyaya or anarchy, which followed Sasanka’s death, the people raised a chief Gopala (c. 750-770 AD) to the throne. With Gopala began the rule of the Pala dynasty which ruled for an unusually prolonged period.
During the time of Dharmapala (c. 770-810 AD) and Devapala (c. 810-850 AD), the two most important rulers of the Pala dynasty, Bengal became one of the great Indian powers and the undisputed master of a large part of North India.
Dharmapala raised the Pala kingdom to a height of greatness and splendour not dreamt of before. His suzerainty was acknowledged by almost all the important States of Northern India. In particular he conquered Kanauj and placed his protégé on the throne. He held a great imperial assembly at the famous city. It was attended by vassal kings and he consecrated himself as the suzerain of North India both literally and figuratively.
The assembled chiefs acknowledged the new status of Dharmapala with bowed heads while the sacred water of consecration was being poured over his head from a golden pitcher. Bengal, wrote Dr RC Majumdar, thus suddenly emerged as “the mistress of an empire that stretched from one end of North India to the other”.
It is not without justification that the court poets of Devapala described his empire as one that extended from the Himalayas to the Vindhyas and from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. He is said to have defeated the Dravidians, the Gurjaras and the Hunas and conquered Utkala and Kamrupa. The fame of his prowess reached the distant isles in the Indian Archipelago.
The Palas were supplanted by the Senas. Lakshmanasena the most important ruler of the dynasty, who ascended the throne in c.1179, distinguished himself as a conqueror and claims to have pushed his conquests as far as the southern ocean. He reduced Kamrupa to subjection and defeated the king of Benares. The Senas however failed to stem the tide of Muslim invasion.
The successors of Lakshmanasena, however, succeeded in preserving their independence in Eastern Bengal till the second half of the 13th century. During the rule of the Delhi Sultanate the administration of Bengal was always a serious problem.
Gaur or Lakhnauti, the capital of Bengal was known as ‘Balghakpur’ or the ‘City of Rebellion’ and was one of the earliest provinces to assert its independence. The control of Delhi Sultanate over Bengal was always dubious. The succession of Mongol raids which kept the Sultans of Delhi occupied on their northwestern frontier also encouraged rebellion in Bengal.
Taking advantage of its profuse wealth, the remoteness from the capital, the impossibility of military movements in the rainy season, and facilities for naval warfare with which the Turks of upper India were unfamiliar, the governors of Bengal openly deified the authority and frequently behaved as independent rulers. Remittances of revenue were seldom regular and sometimes ceased altogether.
Bengal caused much trouble to the Delhi Sultans, Iltutmish (1210-1236) and Balban (1266- 1287). Since the death of Balban, Bengal became virtually independent. The control of the Delhi Government was again established during the reign of Sultan Ghyasuddin Tughluq (1320-25) of the Tughluq dynasty, who asserted his authority over the province in 1324.
During the reign of Muhammad-bin-Tughluq (1325- 51), cracks appeared in the mighty fabric of the Delhi Sultanate. Bengal was lost to the Sultanate as a result of a rebellion. Muhammad bin Tughluq never had the leisure to attempt the recovery of the province. Ultimately in 1345 Bengal became independent and was ruled by the Ilyas Shahi dynasty and the Husain Shahi dynasty.
There was a brief interregnum of Raja Ganesh. The two campaigns of the Delhi Sultan Firoz Shah Tughluq (1351-1388), against Ilyas Shah and his son in 1353 and 1359 were the last attempts of a Sultan to assert his authority, one that ended in failure.
Though Ghyasuddin Mahmud Shah, the last ruler of the Husain Shahi dynasty was expelled from Bengal by the Afghan, Sher Khan Sur, the independence of Bengal was however, revived under an Afghan dynasty and Bengal remained an independent kingdom until it was annexed by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1576.
From the time of Murshid Quli Khan, who became the Subadar or Nawab of Bengal in 1717, Bengal became practically independent. Due to the dissensions and weakness of the Mughal emperors the Bengal Nawabs practically ruled independently on heridity. British rule was firmly established in Bengal towards the end of the 18th century.
There was a phenomenal progress in every sphere of life and Bengal played a pioneering role in the growth of political consciousness. Rightly has it been noted that “the ideas of nationalism, patriotism and political organisation on Western lines were first developed in Bengal and then spread to the rest of India.
This is a simple historical truth which older generations of political leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji, DE Wacha, BG Tilak and GK Gokhale have all emphasized”. The first political association ~ the Bengal British Indian Society established in 1843 ~ furnished the model of similar institutions to other provinces in India. The Swadeshi movement in Bengal began in 1905 as a protest against the Partition of Bengal.
Rabindranath Tagore who responded swiftly to political agitations, was the poet of patriotism. “Tagore has sung Bengal into a nation”, wrote Ezra Pound. In the Daily Chronicle, Ramsay Macdonald wrote how by song and worship, largely the songs of Tagore, “Bengal was creating India”.
The struggle against the British, conducted in a novel manner by the Bengalis. was taken up by the rest of India. Referring to the Swadeshi movement, Lala Lajpat Rai observed in 1905: “I think the people of Bengal ought to be congratulated on being leaders of that march in the van of progress. And if the people of India will just learn that lesson from the people of Bengal, I think the struggle is not hopeless.”
Other leaders from different parts of India also echoed similar sentiments. Indeed, all the characteristic features, which marked the Indian struggle for freedom, may be traced to the Swadeshi movement. Rightly has it been noted that “Sri Aurobindo practised non-cooperation and passive resistance during the Swadeshi movement long before Gandhi”.
Sri Aurobindo wrote a series of articles on ‘Passive Resistance’ in the Bande Mataram in April 1907. The masterly exposition of the doctrine of ‘Passive Resistance’ played an important role in India’s struggle for freedom in the hands of Gandhiji. In 1919, Rabindranath relinquished his knighthood as a mark of protest against the Jalianwallabag massacre.
He came out not only with a statement, but a “gesture that betokened his utter condemnation of British rule in India”. He wrote a strong but dignified letter to the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford in May 1919 which eloquently expressed the outraged feelings of the entire country. The anti-British overtones in many of his essays constituted an unreserved condemnation of British treatment of India.
(The writer is a former Associate Professor, Department of History, Sivnath Sastri College, Kolkata.)