The Swadeshi Movement was launched in response to the British decision of partitioning Bengal. Viceroy Curzon announced the partition of Bengal in 1903 suggesting it had to be divided in order to carry out better administration. This division was based on two factors- language and religion. The Bengali population was divided and space was made for Hindi and Oriya speaking people so that the British did not have to worry about the Bengali majority. On the contrary the Hindus and Muslims were placed together to spark communal tensions.
To oppose this ‘divide and rule’ policy of Curzon, this campaign was started by the Moderates. It was led by KK Mitra, Surendranath Banerjee and Prithwishchandra Ray. The boycott of foreign goods was the USP of the movement. Other than that, people went on fasts and carried out processions barefoot. Rakhis were tied on the wrists to mark the symbolic unity of Hindus and Muslims. ‘Bande Mataram’ became the song of the hour. Most importantly, along with the boycott of foreign goods, the idea of ‘self-reliance’ or ‘Atmasakti’ was promoted.
This movement for the first time saw participation from various sections of Indian population. Earlier, only the Indian intelligentsia belonging to the upper classes played an active role in such movements. The Swadeshi movement was joined by the students, women including the Muslims. It took shape of a mass movement. Another first was the all-India aspect. The movement soon spread from Bengal to northern India and the Bombay & Madras provinces. The Bombay campaign was headed by Tilak while the Madras campaign was headed by Chidambaram Pillai.
The Indian National Congress (INC) also strongly condemned the partition of Bengal and gave its support to the Swadeshi movement. Gokhale was the President of the Congress at that time. An important point to remember is that at the Calcutta session of Congress in 1906, President Dadabhai Naoroji proclaimed that ‘self-government’ or ‘swaraj’ is the goal of the INC.
Swadeshi also gave inspiration to the fields of art and education. The importance of national education was highlighted during this movement and in 1906, the National Council of Education was established. Indian art forms were promoted with the founding of Indian Society of Oriental Art in 1907. Artist Nandlal Bose became the first recipient of the scholarship offered by this institution.
However, the movement couldn’t achieve the desired results. One main reason was the lack of planning and organisation. The whole campaign was also bereft of a strong leader. The internal conflict between the Moderates and Extremists continued to persist. Above all, the Swadeshi movement faced a lot of government repression. And since this was the first experience involving the masses, the movement could not be sustained for long.
Nevertheless, the Swadeshi Movement is considered to be a turning point in history. The mass participation including the women was a great achievement in itself. And most importantly, it was proven that the Indians were capable of taking bold political positions.