Modern History: West Bengal

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: September 13th, 2023

We have seen earlier that ‘Battle of Buxar’ gave a decisive victory to the British East India Company and laid the firm ground for the Britishers in the political sphere of the Indian subcontinent. 

  • With the ‘Treaty of Allahabad’ in 1765, British East India Company emerged aa a significant power.
  • Post the victory the whole Ganges valley lay at the Company’s mercy. Eventually, Shah Shuja surrendered, and Company became powerbroker throughout Oudh and Bihar.

But the ‘Company Rule’ was subsumed by the ‘British Crown’ after the Revolt of 1857 which then continued till 1947. [Buxar, a small fortified town located within the territory of Bihar on the banks of Ganga.]



British Rule in West Bengal

Mughal rule underwent dissolution with the formal grant of Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa by the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II on 12th August 1765.

  • Robert Clive gained the legal recognition of the status of English in Bengal.
  • Subsequently, the Bengal Province was reorganised as the largest sub-division of British India with its seat at Calcutta (now Kolkata).  

In this way the foundation of the British supremacy in Bengal laid. Bengal emerged as the economic, cultural and educational hub of the British Raj and contributed significantly to the industrial revolution in Britain.

Dual system of Administration

Dual government means a double system of administration. Robert Clive established it in Bengal with the surrender of Shah Alam II instead of a pension of 26 lakhs per annum. This system remained in force until 1772. 

  • With this, the Company got both Diwani Rights and Nizamat Rights over Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.
  • The English supervisors (Collectors) were appointed to control the revenues and Deputy Diwans were appointed (who were local Nawabs) to look after Diwani. 

Basically, the administration was divided between the Company and the Nawab, but the whole power was concentrated in the hands of the Company. The Nawabs remained as the mere pensioners of the East India Company.

Bengal Presidency

The Bengal Presidency, a colonial region of British India, consisted of undivided Bengal, i.e. East Bengal (present Bangladesh), West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Odisha and Tripura. In the 19th century, Bengal Presidency extended from the  North-West Frontier Province to Burma, Singapore and Penang. 

In 1905, Bengal proper was divided into West Bengal and Eastern Bengal and Assam. With further re-organisation in 1912, the presidency included Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam. In 1935, the Bengal Presidency became a province.

Some associated highlights:

  • Warren Hastings (1772-1785) integrated the presidency, thereby establishing British Imperial Rule over Eastern India. He also laid the foundation of civil service in India.
  • Lord Cornwallis introduced the Permanent Settlement in Bengal in 1793.
  • Permanent Settlement was an agreement between the British East India Company and the landlords of Bengal to settle the land revenue. Landlords were given the rights of the land if they paid a fixed revenue to the British Government. 

Note: Permanent Settlement was unsuccessful and was not introduced in the North-Western provinces. 

By the first half of the 19th century, the East India Company had brought major portions of India under its control.

Revolts and Rebellions in West Bengal Revolt of 1857

The Revolt of 1857 is marked the beginning of an armed revolution of the grandest scale. It was one of the most massive anti-colonial uprisings anywhere in the world in the 19th century. More than 1,25,000 soldiers of the Bengal Army joined the rebellion.

  • The Bengal Army formed the bulk of India’s three Presidency Armies. The army had been serving as the ‘sword arm’ of British Imperialism not only in India but also in other countries as well. 
  • The army was engaged in continuously fighting for its masters between 1839 and 1857 from China to Crimea. 

Reasons for the uprising

  • The usage of greased cartridges was particularly difficult for the Sepoys to accept due to their caste sensitivities.
  • They had little scope for promotion and had to bear constant humiliation by their officers as people of an inferior race.
  • Major social classes in India were adversely affected by the imperialism were from those areas were the Bengal Army Sepoys mostly came from. 
  • Some of the other reasons include hefty land tax. Also, the land rights of zamindars and peasants were being rendered increasingly vulnerable to forfeiture. 

Apart from the rural roots of the rebellion, there were also urban elements involved in it. Therefore, the revolt had its genesis in political, socio-religious, economic causes and military causes. The rebel soldiers immediately found a response in the civil population.

With simmering discontent the unrest showed itself in West Bengal, first in Dum-dum, in January 1857; then, Mangal Pandey enacted the first bold act of defiance, in March at Barrackpore. The revolt soon engulfed larger masses of the civil population.

  • The major centres of revolt include- Kanpur, Lucknow, Bareilly, Jhansi, Gwalior and Arrah in Bihar.
  • The Revolt of 1857 lasted for more than a year and was suppressed by the middle of 1858.
  • On July 8, 1858, fourteen months after the outbreak at Meerut, peace was finally proclaimed by Lord Canning.

Partition of Bengal

Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, carried out the partition of Bengal on 16th October 1905 on the grounds of better management. The partition separated the mostly Muslim eastern areas from the largely Hindu western areas. 

  • During the partition, the provincial state of Bengal had the Hindi speaking region of Bihar, the Odia speaking regions of Orissa (Odisha) and the Assamese speaking region of Assam.
  • The former province of Bengal was divided into two new provinces: ‘Bengal’ (which comprises of western Bengal and the province of Bihar and Orissa) and Eastern Bengal and Assam, with Dacca as the capital of the latter.

Following the partition, an anti-British movement formed in opposition

This movement involved non-violent and violent protests, boycotts and even an assassination attempt against the Governor of the new province of West Bengal. 

  • After partition, Hindu resistance exploded as the Indian National Congress began the Swadeshi movement. The people believed that the division of Bengal was the policy of ‘divide and rule’ of British. People were furious that the centre of interest and prosperity of Bengal that was Calcutta would be divided into two governments

Due to these political protests, the two parts of Bengal were reunited in 1911 and a new partition divided the province on linguistic, rather than religious grounds.

Note: Bengal underwent partition twice; first in 1905 and second in 1947. These partitions left a permanent mark on the history and psyche of the people of Bengal.

  • The predominantly Hindu West Bengal became a province of India, and the predominantly Muslim East Bengal became a province of Pakistan. 
  • Later, East Bengal became an independent country, Bangladesh after the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. 
  • The land that links West Bengal in India and Bangladesh is known as ‘Teen Bigha Corridor’.    

Chakma Revolt

Chakma, the largest ethnic tribe of Bengal (now in Bangladesh), was brought under the direct control of the colonial government. In 1733, the Chakma chief Shermast Khan had obtained a Zamindari Sanad for Chakla Rangunia, a hilly tract.

  • The revolt by Chakmas carried out to oppose the enhanced rent in the Rangunia estate. It was asserted under the leadership of Ranu Khan, the diwan of the Raja.
  • Ranu Khan was the supreme military leader and followed guerrilla tactics to oust the company from the Hill Tracts. 

Chuar Rebellion

In 1798-99, the Chuar Rebellion, a massive rebellion that broke out in South-West Bankura district and North-West Midnapore district.

  • The British East India Company and some Zamindars of Midnapore were engaged in curbing the revolution ruthlessly and subsequently was suppressed.
  • Employing the usual policy of dive and rule it was further crushed down.

Santhal Rebellion

In 1855, the uprising of the Santhals began as a tribal reaction to and despotic British revenue system. Before the British advent in India, Santhals resided in the hilly districts of Manbhum, Barabhum, Chhotanagpur, Palamau and Birbhum. 

  • Santhals are known to live an agrarian lifestyle. But under the British regime, the landlords and moneylenders allured them by goods and loans, and gradually they became bonded labour to them.
  • Santhals resented the oppression by revenue officials, police, moneylenders, landlords in general by the outsiders (whom they called Diku). 
  • Under the leadership of Sidhu and Kanhu, Santhals rose against their oppressors, declared the end of the Company’s rule and asserted themselves independent in 1854.

This uprising holds its significance as it spread in Bengal.


Indigo Revolution

It is regarded as the peasant movement. In 1859, the farmers revolted against the Indigo Planters as the farmers got no Profit growing Indigo. The areas where it was produced mainly was- Burdwan, Bankura, Birbhum, North 24 Parganas and Jessore (now in Bangladesh).

Note: Dinabandhu Mitra wrote ‘Neel Darpan’ against this exploitation, which was later translated by Michael Madhusudan Dutta.

Chittagong Uprising

The Chittagong uprising is the armoury raids carried by revolutionaries in Chittagong, Bangladesh. The first raid was carried out on 18th April 1930 and aim was to destroy the British armouries and disrupt the railway and communication lines. Surya Sen, Nirmal Sen, Kalpana Dutta, Anant Singh and Lokenath Bal were prominent leaders of this uprising.

Socio-Religious Movements in West Bengal

  1. Fakir-Sannyasi Resistance Movement

In 1760, the Fakir-Sannyasi Resistance Movement was organised and led by Majnu Shah, a Sufi saint of Madaria sect and gathered momentum in 1763.

  • Their main target was the Company kuthi, revenue kacharis of zamindars loyal to the Company rulers, and the houses of their officials. It was a violent movement.
  • By 1767, the attack of the rebels intensified in Rangpur, Rajshahi, Koch Bihar, Jalpaiguri and Comilla.
  • To check the activities of the rebels in North Bengal an Enghsh army was sent to Rangpur in 1767 under Captain De Mackenzee.

Fakir-Sanyasi rebellion sustained for more than a decade. Subsequently, in a battle against the Company army under Lieutenant Brenan in Kaleswar area, the revolution was crushed on 26th January 1788.

 2. Socio-Religious Movement

In the 17th century, Bengal witnessed an intellectual awakening that was in some way like the Renaissance in Europe. This movement questioned existing orthodoxies, particularly concerning women, marriage, the dowry system, the caste system and religion.

  • One of the earliest social movements that emerged during this time was the ‘Young Bengal Movement’ introduced by an Anglo-Indian Henry Louis Vivian Derozio that adopted rationalism and atheism as the common denominators of civil conduct among upper caste educated Hindus.
  • With tremendous influence over the students, he played a prominent role in substantiating the revolution by encouraging them to freely discuss all subjects- social, moral and religious matter.

Prominent Derozians are Krishna Mohan Banerjee, Sib Chandra Deb, Hara Chandra Gosh, Ramgopal Ghosh, Ramtanu Lahiri Rasik Krishna Mallick, Peary Chand Mitra, Dakshinaranjan Mukherjee, Radhanath Sikdar etc.

 3. Brahmo Samaj

In 1828 Brahmo Samaj was founded in Calcutta by Raja Rammohan Roy and is regarded as one of the most rigorous reformist movements responsible for the making of modern India. 

  • The Brahmo Samaj does not accept the authority of the Vedas, has no faith in avatars (incarnations) and does not insist on belief in Karma (casual effects of past deeds) and samsara (the process of death and rebirth).
  • The Brahmo dharma discards Hindu rituals and adopts some Christian practices in its worships. It denounces polytheism, image worship and the caste system. 
  • Debendranath Tagore founded Tattwabodhini Sabha in 1839 as a small group of the Brahmo Samaj, but in 1859, it was dissolved back Into Brahmo Samaj by him. 
  • He tried to retain some of the traditional Hindu customs. Also, condemned idol Worship, discouraged pilgrimages, ceremonies and penances among the Brahmos.
  • Under the dynamic leadership of Kesab Chandra, its branches were opened outside Bengal in the Uttar Pradesh, the Punjab, Bombay, Madras and other towns. But his liberal and cosmopolitan outlook brought about a split in the Brahmo Samaj. 

Note: Keshab Chandra Sen and his followers left Samaj in1866 and formed the Brahmo Samaj of India. Debendranath’s Samaj henceforth came to be known as the Adi Brahmo Samaj.

 4. Vedanta Movement or Ramakrishna Movement

Ramakrishna Mission is an organisation which forms the core of a worldwide spiritual movement. Also known as the Vedanta Movement, it was founded by Swami Vivekananda on 1st May 1897 at Belur Math in Howrah, West Bengal. 

  • The mission aims at the harmony of religions and promoting peace and equality for all humanity. It subscribes to the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta. 
  • The mission conducts extensive work in healthcare, disaster relief, rural management, tribal welfare, elementary and higher education and culture. 
  • The mission bases its work on the principles of Karma Yoga.

 5. Swadeshi Movement

The Swadeshi Movement had its genesis in the anti-partition movement which started with the partition Bengal by the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. This movement started in Bengal in 1905 and continued till 1911. 

  • Marked the beginning of a new form of mobilisation, the movement gave an original orientation to the politics through its policies of boycott, passive resistance, mass agitation, etc.
  • It was the most successful movement of the Pre-Gandhian era. 
  • The chief architects of this movement were Aurobindo Ghosh, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai, etc. 

6. Formation of Muslim League and Anushilan Samiti

  • The Muslim League, the first organisation of the Islamic community fighting for independence in India, was founded in 1906. 
  • The Anushilan Samiti was founded in 1906 by Pramathanath Mitra. The Samiti challenged British rule in India by engaging in militant nationalism.
  • Anushilan Samiti had two prominent branches known as Dhaka Anushilan Samiti centred in Dhaka and Juganatar Anushilan Samiti focused at Calcutta. 

 7. The Communist Movement in Bengal

In1930s, Bengal was one of the leading centres of activity of the Communist Party of India. The most prominent communist movement was the Tebhaga movement which was initiated by the Kisan Sabha of Bengal in 1946. 

  • Tebhaga means ‘three shares’ of harvests. 
  • The movement resulted in clashes between Jotedars and Bargadars.

 8. Ahl-e-Hadith Movement

Ahl-e-Hadith is the adherents of Shariah-based on hadith and sunnah. They launched the movement in the second half of the 19th century for reviving Islam based on its fundamental principles. 

  • As a religious revivalist movement, Ahl-e-Hadith is committed to the practice of the sunnah of the great Prophet Muhammad. 
  • The Ahl-e-Hadith movement in India has been founded on four pillars, i.e. belief in pure Unitarianism, the Sunnah of the great Prophet Muhammad, enthusiasm for jihad or holy war and submission to Allah.

Note: Ahl-e-Hadith insists on taking all decisions based on the holy Quran and Hadith and not by applying the methodology of Qiyas or analogy.

  • In 1914, the Bengali and Assamese students of Maulana Sayyid Miyan Nadhir Husain formed Bengal and Assam wings of Anjuman-i-Hadith’. 
  • After 1947, the headquarters of the organisation was shifted from Calcutta to Pabna. The Anjuman-e-Ahl-e-Hadith’ was formed inWest Bengal in 1951.

 9. Khadya Andolan (Food Movement)

The Food Movement of 1959, carried out in post-independence India, was the turning point in the history of class struggle in West Bengal. The food insecurity had reached alarming proportions in rural and urban areas.

  •  On 31st August 1959, a massive mass demonstration was organised in Calcutta where hundreds and thousands arrived from the villages under the leadership of Kisan Sabha.
  • At the end of the meeting, 80 people died, and the violent action taken by police wounded many. 
  • The effect of the Food Movement was so intense that it changed the political scenario of the state.

 10. Naxalbari Movement

This is a movement of post-independence India. It was carried out in the year 1972 by the peasants of Naxalbariin Darjeeling district of West Bengal. The Naxalbari Movement tried to protect the interests of the peasant and the labouring classes and cover all ethnic (including tribes) and caste groups.

  • It was mainly led by local tribals and the radical communist leaders of Bengal. 
  • This event created split in the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) was born.

Note: The uprising got moral support from the communists of Nepal and China. The prominent leaders of this movement were Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal, Jangal Santhal, Mahadev Mukherjee, Vinod Mishra, Dipankar Bhattacharya, etc.


Some of the recent movements are:

1. Nandigram Violence

It is one of the recent violent outbreaks of 2007 took place in Nandigram, East Midnapore, West Bengal. This event occurred in the aftermath of a failed project by the Government of West-Bengal, under the former Communist rule, to acquire land for a Special Economic Zone(SEZ).

  • The SEZ controversy started when the government of West Bengal decided that the Salim Group of Indonesia would set up a chemical hub under the SEZ policy at Nandigram.
  • It was a violent movement in which police shot dead at least 14villagers and wounded 70 more.

 2. Singur Movement

This movement was carried out in the aftermath of an announcement of the small car factory by Tata Motors on 18th May 2006.

  • Tata Nano Singur Controversy refers to the controversy generated by land acquisition of the proposed Nano factory of Tata Motors at Singur in Hooghly district, West Bengal, India.
  • The project was opposed massively, and the unwilling farmers were given political support by West Bengal’s opposition leader Mamata Banerjee. 
  • The protest had turned turbulent as many of the internationally framed social activists, and Bengali intellectuals like, Medha Patkar, Arundhuti Roy, Mahasweta Devi protested against the allocation of factor site which was fertile multi-crop land.
  •  Tata Motors then decided to pull off from Singur in October 2008 and a new factory in Sanand, Gujarat was established in subsequent years.

Note: In 2016, the Supreme Court quashed the West Bengal government’s acquisition of 997 acres of agricultural land for Tata Motors and ordered its return to 9,117 landowners.

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