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Dhaka Tribune

The undivided Dhaka

Update : 01 Oct 2016, 12:01 AM

By the middle of the 19th century it was becoming clear to British administrators and, without doubt, those whom they administered, that the traditional Bengal Presidency had become, or was becoming, unwieldy.

Both its sheer size and scale, and the diversity of geographical and commercial interests within it, together with its burgeoning population, meant that communications and exercise of authority in the extensive, waterlogged, often flooded, and river divided lands of Bengal -- and the many others that had accumulated around it -- were very difficult to manage.

With the continued rapid growth of population in Bengal, the most fertile and commercially vibrant of the lands in the subcontinent, who can doubt the difficulties?

The ever growing reach across more of South and South east Asia, and further parts of the subcontinent, were, despite an increasingly more professionally trained bureaucracy and the early years development of administratively invaluable technology (such as telegraphy and railways) -- hard to imagine, even today, quite how any level of administrative support and control could be effectively achieved.

The presidency, in the years following the 1857 rebellion, reached from the “north-west frontier” lands of the Khyber Pass, as far as Penang and Singapore.

It had been established in 1765, following the Battle of Buxar with, then, largely, only the lands of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa to manage.

Much had happened in the ensuing century and a half.

The original base of administration, independent of the other presidencies in the subcontinent, had been established long before the development of Calcutta, in Dhaka.

The Ganges especially, and the many other rivers of the region, facilitated, in the middle of the 17th century, the oversight of the many diverse trading activities of the East India Company. Since then, growth had been continuous, with the centre of the presidency shifted to the new city of Calcutta, from about the time of the death of Aurangzeb in 1707.

It is possible to speculate that since, at about the same time, the Bengal Nawabs shifted their headquarters westward, course alterations of the Ganges might have played some part in these changes.

By the end of the 19th century, the area and population administered from Calcutta, which by then also encompassed the totality of the sub-continent, since the Bengal Presidency head was also recognised as de facto Viceroy, was vastly in excess of any other administrative challenge in the British Empire -- arguably, within the entire world. It had become, simply, untenable.

It was Lord Curzon, who in 1905 finally grasped the nettle, and divided the presidency within Bengal itself.

Conspiracy theorists have, ever since, seen in the division an attempt to marginalise the Muslim population that represented something of a majority of the lands stitched together for administration from Dhaka; lands that were intrinsically more accessible, and simpler to communicate with and police from that administrative centre.

However, the bureaucratic minds that half a century later could, foolishly or conspiratorially, envision a new nation in two halves, divided not only by distance but even by religious beliefs, worked, perhaps, earlier in the century, more logically, as advisers to Curzon.

Curzon would return to Britain to a successful political career. Certainly, the administrative division created, provided something of a blue print to today’s nation state of Bangladesh, and the north eastern states of India.

Conspiracy theorists have seen in the division an attempt to marginalise the Muslim population that represented a majority of the lands; lands that were simpler to communicate with and police from that administrative centre

The creation of “Eastern Bengal and Assam,” reflected the belief that a marriage between the flourishing economy and continuously developing infrastructure of East Bengal, with the perception of the burgeoning economic prospects of Assamese territories which would depend for success on the Bengali infrastructure for realisation, was, potentially, an ideal match.

An administration in the region that clearly foreshadowed such contemporary philosophies as public and private enterprise working together, underlying developments such as communications in railways and industrial enterprise (in such as tea and oil), probably thought they had achieved an economic ideal, matched with the economic success of such flourishing industries as jute, rice, and fisheries.

The dilemma of developing education, at all levels, whilst reflecting traditional, especially religious undercurrents, was one recognised long before in both the Charter Act of 1833, and the Macaulay Report of 1854, and there had been endeavours to meet often complex requirements of individuals, families, and the economy.

But it is necessary, when considering how the “devolution” of authority and responsibility for education affected the provision, to recall the history, and, for nearly a century, the partisan pressures to influence it.

However, the period of 1905 to 1912 certainly saw a considerable advance in the provision within the territory, including a 20% increase in that provision, and also including the addition of such studies as Persian, Sanskrit, mathematics, history, and algebra and the development of colleges, especially in Dhaka. Together, with the embryo of what was to become the University of Dhaka, once known as the “Oxford of the East;” female colleges were also established in every district.

What is certain is that this short lived experiment in administrative change, made simultaneously with the far greater proposal for the removal of all national administration from Calcutta to Delhi, certainly provided a template for the inevitable consequences of the, subsequent, very evidently ill considered, Partition of 1947.

In fact, the development of the Assamese oil industry benefitted from the railway system of Bengal; and tea, similarly, was considerably enhanced as an industry with this development of communication. And Chittagong, to which the railways were focussed, offered port facilities that, at the time, seemed less vulnerable than those of Calcutta.

Certainly, this period marked the real beginnings of Chittagong as an international port; a port that now bears most of the flourishing international trade of Bangladesh.

The partition, administered from Dhaka, also saw considerable development of the system of river transport that continues to operate from Dhaka, even today. Previously, such river transportation was “secondary stage,” but now became a primary stage for even VIP travel, taken together with the developing railway system.

Around the world, such VIP travel underpins investment and administration to sustain and improve services.

At partition in 1947, especially in the climate of mutual hostility between increasingly militaristic regimes in Pakistan, and the civilian administration in India, many of these efficiencies of communication were irretrievably broken; only today hesitant moves are being made to recover those losses.

British administration had, traditionally, shifted in the summer months to cooler climes, and Shillong became the summer capital of the Dhaka based administration.

For the first time, too, the High Court in Dhaka was directly subordinated only to the Privy Council in London through the Council’s Judicial Committee.

It may well be no coincidence that in 1905, it was the Liberal Government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, with which Curzon, undoubtedly had close connection, that approved the administrative reorganisation.

Campbell- Bannerman was a free trade, laissez faire liberal, often referred to as “Britain’s first, and only, radical prime minister.” He was, also, in fact, the first leader, previously usually referred to as “First Lord of the Treasury,” to be officially known as prime minister.

On his retirement and death in 1908, he was followed by another liberal prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith.

But by 1911, when the division was rescinded, Asquith was leading a coalition administration, which may well have diminished the influence of those who had pioneered the original division.

Once again, Dhaka was reduced in its ability to strongly influence its own affairs, and those of the lands around, of which it would only return to primacy in 1947. And, even then, that influence was certainly diminished.

Hindus and Muslims alike were dubious of the benefits of the new province, each for many, and often, different reasons. And when, following the decision to reorganise administration to the new capital in Delhi, neither group effectively fought that decision.

It is, perhaps, easy with the benefit of hindsight to wonder whether, in fact, had Eastern Bengal and Assam been maintained as a centre of regional governance, both the modern history, and, indeed, geography, of Bangladesh might have been very different -- the fascination of the “what ifs” of history.

Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.

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