“Long long before the World War, all politically conscious people lived as on a volcano,” the Russo-German historian and philosopher Fedor Stepun wrote in the early part of the 20th century. In the decade before the war, the volcanos had started to seethe. Revolution broke out in Russia in 1905, the Mexican revolution began in 1910, and the revolution ending imperial rule in China took place the following year. In Ireland, the Home Rule bill of 1912 inched the country closer to the free state that would be secured a decade later. And in India during these years, a British attempt to divide the province of Bengal launched a movement that would become more destabilising to the Raj, economically and politically, than the rebellion of 1857.
In 1905 the viceroy, George Nathaniel Curzon, partitioned Bengal on the stated grounds that it was too big for the British to administer. But there was a political objective too: to isolate the mainly Muslim eastern districts of the province from the irritating political activism of Calcutta’s Hindu intellectuals. As Herbert Risley, Curzon’s home secretary and architect of the Indian census, put it, “Bengal united is a power, Bengal divided will pull in several directions.” Division, it was hoped, would also weaken an increasingly contentious Congress party, which was seeking greater representation in government.