Lord Curzon's Role as Viceroy: An In-Depth Overview

Lord Curzon's Role as Viceroy: An In-Depth Overview
“When the Cabinet used the expression ‘ultimate self-government’ they  probably contemplated an intervening period of 500 years.”                             

  • Lord Curzon

George Nathaniel Curzon (11 January, 1859- 20 March, 1925) was a British statesman and foreign secretary, actively involved in shaping British policy. He assumed the role of India's Viceroy from 1899 to 1905, becoming the youngest Viceroy at 39. 

His tenure was marked by controversy and significant consequences. Before his appointment, Curzon extensively traveled to various Asian countries, gaining insights into India, Ceylon, Afghanistan, China, Persia, Turkestan, Japan, and Korea, which influenced his approach as Viceroy. While he had vast experience in the East, his actions as Viceroy were met with differing opinions and criticisms.

Lord Curzon held strong racist beliefs and firmly believed in Britain's "civilizing mission" in India. He expressed derogatory views about Indians, describing them as possessing "extraordinary inferiority in character, honesty, and capacity."

                               Socio Economic Status  of the Indian society during late 1800s

During the period of 1890-1900 under British Raj, India experienced challenging economic and social conditions that were shaped by colonial policies and exploitative practices:

Economic Conditions

  • Agricultural Crisis: The Indian agricultural sector faced numerous challenges, including over-reliance on cash crops, land revenue demands, and lack of irrigation facilities. The exploitation of farmers through high taxes and unfair land tenures exacerbated rural distress.

  • Deindustrialization: British policies favored the import of British manufactured goods, leading to the decline of traditional Indian industries. This deindustrialization had severe repercussions on skilled artisans and handicraft workers, contributing to unemployment and poverty.

  • Economic Drain: India experienced significant economic drain, where resources were extracted for British gain. Large sums of wealth were transferred to Britain, leading to a drain of capital and hindering India's economic growth.

Social Conditions

  • Poverty and Famines: Poverty was rampant, and famines occurred in various regions due to food shortages and inadequate relief measures. The lack of a comprehensive and compassionate approach by the British authorities resulted in loss of lives and suffering.

  • Cultural Suppression: Indian culture and traditions were undermined, and English was promoted as the medium of instruction, limiting the access to education for many Indians. Traditional practices were viewed with disdain and sometimes suppressed.

  • Discriminatory Policies: Discrimination was prevalent in various aspects of governance, with unequal treatment of Indians and British subjects. Indians faced limited opportunities for growth in administrative and other positions of power.

Overall, the economic and social conditions of India during this period were marked by exploitation, impoverishment, and the erosion of traditional values, contributing to growing discontent and the rise of nationalist sentiments against British rule.

Foreign Policy 

  • North-West Frontier Policy: Unlike his predecessors, Lord Curzon adopted a policy of consolidation and strength in the north-western regions of India. He strategically controlled Chitral and constructed a vital road linking Peshawar and Chitral, ensuring improved security in the area. Additionally, Curzon withdrew small British troops stationed in the Khyber Pass, Khur Valley, and Waziristan, leading to reduced tensions with the tribal communities and cost savings.

  • Afghan Policy: Curzon's Afghan policy was shaped by political and economic interests, as well as concerns about Russian expansion in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf area. There was an initial estrangement between the British and Afghans, but an agreement was eventually signed with Abdur Rahman, the Afghan Amir. Under this agreement, the British committed to providing financial aid to Afghanistan, thereby securing their interests and fostering better relations.

  • Policy towards Persia: Maintaining British influence in the Persian Gulf area was crucial due to the ambitions of Russia, France, and Turkey to extend their influence in the region. To safeguard British interests, Lord Curzon personally visited the Persian Gulf area in 1903 and took firm measures. These actions aimed to strengthen British influence and protect their economic and political stakes in the region.

  • Relations with Tibet: Curzon's Tibet policy was also influenced by concerns about Russian dominance in the region. When he assumed office, trade relations between Tibet and British India had ceased. Curzon's efforts focused on reviving these relations, leading to a trade agreement. Tibet agreed to pay a significant indemnity to the British, thus fostering improved relations and securing British interests in the region.

Major Administrative reforms 

Calcutta Corporation Act (1899)

As part of administrative reforms, Lord Curzon introduced the Calcutta Corporation Act of 1899, aimed at improving the administration of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. The legislation decreased the count of elected representatives while increasing the number of appointed officials, aiming to deny Indians their right to self-governance. 

In response, 28 members of the Corporation resigned in opposition, causing it to transform into a government department with the majority composed of English and Anglo-Indians. The act brought significant changes to the corporation's structure and functioning, leading to improved urban governance and enhanced civic services in the city.

British currency declared Legal Tender (1899)

In 1899, Lord Curzon made the British currency legal tender in India at a rate of one pound equal to fifteen rupees. He also reduced the salt tax rate from 2.5 rupees to 1.33 rupees per maund. The tax applied to those with an annual income of over Rs. 500, but income-tax payers received some relief. Curzon supported financial decentralization by abolishing the Central Government's practice of taking over the provinces' yearly savings.

Railway Commission (1901)

Curzon initiated efforts to enhance and monetize the Indian railways. In 1901, he formed a Railway Commission, led by Mr. Robertson, which presented its recommendations after two years. Curzon approved the suggestions, resulting in the expansion of railway lines. He restructured the Railway Department, separating it from the Public Works Department and establishing a Railway Board with three members to oversee its management. The railways were reorganized on a commercial basis, with profitability becoming its main objective.

Famine Commission (1902)

Lord Curzon established the Famine Commission during his time as Viceroy of India to address recurring famines. The commission studied the causes, impacts, and recommended measures to prevent and mitigate famines. They suggested developing irrigation projects, creating food reserves, implementing early warning systems, improving transportation, and promoting crop diversification. While their recommendations were a step forward, India continued to face food crises in the future.

Appointment of Police Commission (1902)

In 1902, Lord Curzon appointed the Police Commission, headed by Sir Andrew Frazer, to review the police administration in India. The commission conducted an extensive assessment of the police force's functioning and proposed reforms to enhance law and order and improve the efficiency of the police system.

Appointment of Universities Commission and Indian Universities Act (1904)

Acknowledging the significance of education in nation-building, Lord Curzon appointed the Universities Commission in 1902. The commission's recommendations led to the passage of the Indian Universities Act in 1904, which aimed to revamp higher education in India. The act facilitated better governance and administration of universities, fostering intellectual growth and research in the country.

Ancient Monuments Preservation Act (1904)

Valuing India's rich historical and cultural heritage, Lord Curzon introduced the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904. This act aimed to safeguard and preserve important archaeological sites and monuments throughout the country, ensuring their protection for future generations.

Younghusband's Mission to Tibet (1904)

Under Lord Curzon's administration, Colonel Francis Younghusband led a military expedition to Tibet in 1904. The expedition aimed to establish British influence in the region and open up trade routes. It resulted in the Treaty of Lhasa, granting a degree of British control over Tibet's foreign affairs.

Establishment of the Department of Commerce and Industry

Recognizing the vital role of economic development, Lord Curzon established the Department of Commerce and Industry in 1905. The department focused on promoting trade, industry, and economic growth in India. It played a pivotal role in formulating policies to boost the country's industrial and commercial sectors.

Partition of Bengal (1905)

The Partition of Bengal was a significant administrative decision undertaken during Lord Curzon's tenure as Viceroy of India. It involved dividing the province of Bengal into two separate entities: Eastern Bengal and Assam, and the rest of Bengal, which included present-day West Bengal and Bangladesh. The decision was announced on October 16, 1905, and was scheduled to take effect on October 16, 1906.

An announcement was made to create a new province called East Bengal and Assam, with a population of 3.1 crore and a Muslim-Hindu ratio of 3:2. In contrast, the western Bengal province was predominantly Hindu.

Reasons behind the Partition

Lord Curzon cited several reasons for the partition, which he believed would enhance administrative efficiency and improve governance in the region. The main reasons included administrative convenience and addressing developmental imbalances between the two regions.

Controversy and Opposition

The partition sparked widespread protests and opposition from various segments of society in both Bengal and the rest of India. The decision faced vehement resistance due to nationalist sentiments, concerns about cultural unity, economic consequences, and religious divisions.

Protests and Boycott

The partition evoked widespread resentment and opposition across India, uniting various sections of the Congress, including the Moderates and the Radicals, against it. 

The resistance led to the Swadeshi movement, with Bengal as its epicenter, but its influence extended to other regions like deltaic Andhra, where it was called the Vandemataram Movement. The protest involved boycotting British goods, particularly textiles, and promoting swadeshi (indigenous) products. Protesters organized marches and demonstrations, chanting Vande Mataram to express their patriotism and challenge colonial rule. Samitis (committees) emerged throughout Bengal with numerous volunteers. 

Rabindranath Tagore played a significant role, leading marches and composing patriotic songs like 'Amar Sonar Bangla' (My Golden Bengal), which later became the national anthem of Bangladesh. The message of patriotism and Bengali nationalism also found expression in popular theater known as Jatras.

Repeal of the Partition

In response to the intense opposition and unrest, the British government decided to annul the partition in 1911. On March 12, 1912, Bengal was reunified as a single province. Although the partition was revoked, its impact on the Indian freedom movement and nationalist sentiments remained significant.

Legacy and Significance

The Partition of Bengal left a deep impact on India's political landscape. It acted as a catalyst for the Indian independence movement, fostering a sense of unity and nationalism among Indians against British colonial rule. The opposition to the partition further strengthened the resolve of Indians to fight for their rights and independence, setting the stage for more significant movements in the years to come.

Army Reforms Curzon-Kitchener Controversy

In 1902, Lord Kitchener took charge as the Commander-in-Chief in India and introduced crucial reforms to modernize the Indian Army. The army was reorganized into the Northern Command and the Southern Command, with each division consisting of three brigades, two comprising Indian battalions and one comprising English battalions. Additionally, India established factories to manufacture advanced weaponry like guns, gunpowder, and rifles, providing the army with state-of-the-art equipment. To enhance the soldiers' effectiveness, a rigorous assessment called the 'Kitchener Test' was implemented for each battalion.

A notable dispute arose between Lord Curzon and Lord Kitchener, the Commander-in-Chief of India's armed forces, over military reforms and control of the army. The controversy led to Lord Curzon's decision to resign as Viceroy in 1905, marking the end of his administrative tenure in India.

Evaluation of Curzon as an administrator

Lord Curzon's administration in India had a significant impact, with a mix of progressive reforms and controversial decisions shaping the nation's path towards independence. 

While his policies demonstrated efficiency and initiative, they also sparked resentment among Indians due to his autocratic approach and divisive actions like the partition of Bengal. Curzon's role in enhancing British influence in the Middle East and Central Asia reflected imperial ambitions. His legacy remains complex, leaving a lasting impact on India's political, economic, and cultural landscape, contributing to the growth of the Indian nationalist movement that led to independence in 1947.

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