The Origin of the Indian National Congress

  • Many Indians were planning to establish an all India organization of nationalist political workers.
    • But the credit for organizing the first meeting of the Indian National Congress goes to A.O. Hume, who was a retired English Civil Servant. and who had chosen to stay back in India after the retirement.
    • It was Hume who toured across the sub-continent talked to prominent political leaders in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta and persuaded them to meet at a national conference that was initially supposed to meet at Poona. He was on a very good term with Lord Ripon, who was the viceroy of India at that time.
  • He was of the view that the emergence of educated class should be accepted as a political reality and that timely steps should be taken to provide the right channel to the expression of the grievances of this class. He believed that efforts must be made to satisfy the ambitions of this class.
  • Lord Rippon also shared with his views. A.O. Hume strenuously consolidated the network of contacts, which he established. In Mumbai, he met and discussed with the leaders, who were influential in the presidency, the program of political action to be adopted by the educated Indians.
  • On 1 March 1883, A.O. Hume addressed students of Calcutta University urging them to form an association for the mental, moral, social, and political regeneration of the people of India.
  • One of the main aims of Hume is facilitating the establishment of the National Congress to offer an outlet “a safety valve” to the rising popular dissatisfaction against the British rule.
    • As Hume put it: “A safety valve for the escape of great and growing forces generated by our own action was urgently needed and no more efficacious safety valve than our Congress Movement could possibly be devised.”
  • The “safety valve” theory is, however, a small part of the truth or even false.
    • More than anything else, the National Congress represented the urge of the politically conscious Indians to set up a national organization to work for their political and economic advancement.
    • National movement was growing in the country as a result of the work­ing of powerful forces.
  • As for the question of the role of A.O. Hume, if the founders of the Congress were such capable and patriotic men of high character, why did they need Hume to act as the chief organizerof the Congress?
    • The Indian leaders, who cooperated with Hume in starting this National Congress, were patriotic men of high character, who willingly accepted Hume’s help as they did not want to arouse official hostility towards their efforts at such an early stage of political activity.
    • Considering the size of the Indian subcontinent, there were very few political persons in the early 1880s and the tradition of open opposition to the rulers was not yet firmly entrenched.
  • The efforts of A.O. Hume yielded results and he organized the first session of the Indian National Congress at Bombay in the hall of Gokuldas Taj pal Sanskrit College On 20th December (Monday), 1885.
    • It was presided over by Womesh Chandra Banerjee of Bengal and attended by 72 delegates.
    • W.C. Banerjee was one of the first ever Indian barristers and one of the foremost legal luminaries of the day, his election established a healthy precedent that the president should be chosen from a province other than the one in which the Congress was being held.
  • The foundation of the Congress was the natural culmination of the political work of the previous
    years: By 1885, a stage had been reached in the political development of India when certain basic tasks or objectives had to be laid down and struggled for.

    • Moreover these objectives were correlated and could only be fulfilled by the coming together of political workers in a single organization formed on an all- India basis.
    • The men who met in Bombay on 28 December 1885 were inspired by these objectives and hoped to initiate the process of achieving them.
    • The success or failure and the future character of the Congress would be determined not by who founded it but by the extent to which these objectives were achieved in the initial years.
  • With the foun­dation of the National Congress in 1885, the struggle for India’s freedom from foreign rule was launched in a small but organized manner. The national movement was to grow and the country and its people were to know no rest till freedom was won.

Nature and Character of the early INC (Phase of moderate leaders - 1885-1905)

  • From the beginning the INC tried to eliminate regional differences. The first congress declared that one of its major objectives would be the “development and consolidation of those sentiments of national unity”.
  • The decision to hold congress every year in different parts of the country and to choose the president from a region other than the one where the session was being held was meant to break regional barriers and misunderstandings.
  • The first INC in 1885 was attended by 72 non-official Indian representatives, and they included the people apparently from various walks of life, or belonging to ‘most classes’, as claimed by the official report of the Congress. There were lawyers, merchants and bankers, landowners, medical men, journalists, educationists, religious teachers and reformers.
  • Indian National Congress in its early career was never a radical organization, as the culture of the opposition to the government had not yet taken roots. So they were cautious reformers seeking to alleviate certain unpleasant aspects of what Surendranath Banerjee described as the “un-British rule” in India and their method was sending prayers, petitions and memoranda.
  • W.C. Banerjee, the president of the first Congress, made it clear at the very outset that it was not “a nest of conspirators and disloyalties”, they were thoroughly loyal and consistent well-wishers of the British Government. This explains why the founder of the Indian National Congress had to involve A.O Hume in their project.
  • Gokhale wrote in 1913 that any attempt by the Indians to form an all India organization would immediately attract the unfriendly attention of the authorities.
    • He further wrote that, “If the founder of the Congress had not been a great Englishman, the authorities would have at once found some way or the other to suppress the movement”. Thus, “if Hume and other English liberals hoped to use Congress as a safety-valve, the Congress leaders hoped to use Hume as a lightning conductor”.
  • In this way, the Congress movement started in India as a limited elitist politics for limited reforms.
    • But nevertheless, it represented a new and modern trend in Indian political tradition.
    • Despite its limitations, it sought to forge an overarching national unity and raised a very important political demand: the basis of the government should be widened and the people should have their proper and legitimate share in it. It was from her that the mainstream of Indian nationalist politics began to flow.
  • The Indian National Congress was completely under the control of moderate leaders during 1885-1905. In the initial years, the Congress leaders did not want the Congress to function as political party .They simply sought autonomy in internal affairs under the British suzerainty. They expressed their immense faith in the sincerity of the British government.
  • They wanted that the Congress should work within the constitutional limits. The Congress proceedings were organized in the most orderly and efficient manner. A strict parliamentary procedure was observed in moving, discussing, and passing the resolutions.
  • During the early years, the moderates pleaded for introduction of policies, which would transform India economically, socially, and politically. The moderates appealed for self-rule for India. They favoured gradual reforms and their demands also remained moderate.
  • The means chosen by them to achieve the ends were very well within the constitutional limits. In the initial phase, the educated middle class dominated the National Congress. Early Congressmen had an absolute faith in the effectiveness of peaceful and constitutional agitation.
  • The holding of the annual session of the Congress was a significant method of its propaganda.
    • The Congress leaders had trust in the essential sense of justice and kindness of the British nation. But, they were all under illusion that the British rule in India would be beneficial.
    • So, their aim was to educate Indian public and make it conscious of its rights.
  • The National Congress took pride in the British connection and regarded the British government not as an antagonist, but as an ally.
    • The Moderate Congress leaders were aware of the fact that India was a nation in the making. They had consistently worked for the development and consolidation of the idea of national unity irrespective of region, religion, or caste.
  • They made a modest beginning in this direction by promoting close contacts and friendly relations among the people from different parts of the country.
    • The economic and political demands of the moderates were structured with a view to unify the Indian people on the basis of a common political program.
  • From the beginning, the Congress was conceived not as a party but as a movement.
    • Except for agreement on the very broad objectives, it did not require any particular political or ideological commitment from its activists. It also did not try to limit its following to any social class or group.
    • As a movement, it incorporated different political trends, ideologies and social classes and groups so long as the commitment to democratic and secular nationalism was there.

Objectives of the early Indian National Congress 1885

  • To promote the feeling of national unity; to weld India into a nation; to help create an Indian people; development and consolidation of feeling of national unity irrespective of race, caste, religion and provinces, to meet the imperialist charge that Indians were not a people or nation but a mere grouping of hundreds of diverse races, languages, castes and religions.
  • To create a national political platform or programme on which all Indians could agree and which could serve as the basis for all-India political activity
  • Politicization of the people and the creation of public interest in political questions and the training and organization of public opinion in the country.
  • The creation of an all-India political leadership. Such a leadership on a country-wide level did not exist in the 1880s. Allied to this was the need to train a common band of political workers or cadre to carry on political work.
  • Recording of the opinions of educated classes on pressing problems. Laying down lines for future course of action in public interest.
  • In 1888, it was decided that no resolution would be passed if it was objected to by an overwhelming majority of Hindu or Muslim.
  • A majority clause figured in a resolution adopted in 1889 demanding reform in the legislative councils.
  • All objectives of moderates as described earlier in this chapter.
  • Social Reforms were not part of the agenda. Congress was to be a political body to represent political aspirations of the Indian people as a whole and not a platform to discuss social reform.This was mainly due to aim to creation of political unity in India.
  • Early Congress mainly believed in bourgeoise path of socio-economic political development.

Social Composition of Early Congress Leadership

  • It had uneven representation and total exclusion of non-elite groups of Indian society.
  • The Composition of the delegates at the first congress reflected the changing patterns of organised political life in India, the western educated professional groups gradually taking the lead over the landed aristocrats.
  • There were lawyers, merchants, bankers, landowners, medical men, journalists, educationaists, religious teachers and reformers. About 18.99% of the delegates who attended the congress sessions between 1892 and 1909 were landlords; the rest were lawyers (39.32%), traders (15.10%), journalists (3.18%), doctors (2.94%), teachers (3.16%) and other professionals (17.31%).
  • They predominantly belonged to the high caste Hindu communities and this pattern continued for two decades.
  • Bearing the exception of Bombay politician, Badruddian Tyabji, mostly were Hindus. Between 1892 and 1909, nearly 90% of delegates who attended congress sessions were Hindus and only 6.5 % were Muslims. Among Hindus, 40% were Brahmins and rest were upper caste Hindus.

The Safety-valve thesis relating to the birth of the Congress

  • Hume’s involvement in the formation of INC gave rise to a lot of controversy regarding the origins of Congress. The safety-valve theory or the conspiracy theory, which was deduced from this simple fact, was for a long time subscribed to by all shades of historians, in the right, left and center. It was even accepted by some of the stalwarts of nationalist movement. In recent researches, however, it has been thoroughly discredited.
  • The theory (safety-valve) originated from William Wedderburn’s biography of Hume published in 1913.
    • Wedderburn, another civil servant, wrote that in 1878, Hume had come across seven volumes of secret reports at Simla which showed that there had been seething discontent among the lower classes and a conspiracy to overthrow British rule by force.
      He became disturbed, met Lord Dufferin and together they decided to establish an organization with educated Indians. This would serve as a safety valve by opening up a line of communication between the rulers and the ruled and would thus prevent a mass revolution. The congress was in this way the creation of British rule.
  • This safety-valve theory was believed by the earlier nationalist historians; the imperialist historians used it to discredit Congress and the Marxist historians developed a conspiracy theory from this.
  • In his Young India published in 1916, the Extremist leader Lala Lajpat Rai used the safety-valve theory to attack the Moderates in the Congress. Having discussed the theory at length and suggested that the Congress ‘was a product of Lord Dufferin’s brain,’ he argued that ‘the Congress was started more with the object of saving the British Empire from danger than with that of winning political liberty for India.
  • More than a quarter century later, R. Palme Dutt’s authoritative work India Today made the myth of the safety-valve a staple of left-wing opinion. R.P Dutt, for example, wrote that Congress was born through a conspiracy to forestall a popular uprising in India and the Indian bourgeoisie leaders were a party to it.
  • In 1939, M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS chief, had also found the safety-valve theory handy in attacking the Congress for its secularism and, therefore, anti-nationalism. In his pamphlet “We” Golwalkar complained that Hindu national consciousness had been destroyed by those claiming to be ‘nationalists’ .
  • The liberal C.F. Andrews and Girija Mukherji fully accepted the safety-valve theory in their work, “The Rise and Growth of the Congress in India” published in 1938. They were happy with it because it had helped avoid ‘useless bloodshed.’

A) In the 1950s, these safety-valve or conspiracies theories were proved to be wrong because:

  • First of all, those seven volumes of secret reports have not been traced in any of the archives either in India or London.
  • Historians argue that given the structure of British information system in the 1870s, it was highly unlikely that so many volumes of secret reports have existed.
  • Hume was Secretary to the Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce. How could the Secretary of these departments get access to Home Department files or CID reports? Also he was then in Simla while Home Department files were kept in Delhi; they were not sent to Simla.
  • If Congress was founded out of the fear of an outbreak, why did Hume and British officialdom wait for seven long years? (Report in 1878 and congress in 1885)
  • Wedderburn writes that a warning of the threatened danger came to Hume ‘from a religious Guru of Tibet.’
    • According to Wedderburn’s biography of Hume, in 1878, the evidence of the seven volumes was shown to Hume by the Gurus who had sent reports by thousands of Chelas.
    • Though Hume was in fact student of Eastern Religions and impressed by Gurus, but why should Hume believe that these reports ‘must necessarily be true?’
  • Further proof offered for the safety-valve theory was based on W.C. Bannerjee’s statement in 1898 in Indian Politics that the Congress, ‘as it was originally started and as it has since been carried on, is in reality the work of Dufferin.’
    • He stated that Hume had, in 1884, thought of bringing together leading political Indians once a year “to discuss social matters” and did not “desire that politics should form part of their discussion.”
    • But Dufferin asked Hume to do the opposite and start a body to discuss politics so that the Government could keep itself informed of Indian opinion.”
  • Clearly, either W.C. Bannerjee’s memory was failing or he was trying to protect the National Congress from the wrath of the late 19th century imperialist reaction, for contemporary evidence clearly indicated the opposite. All the discussions Hume had with Indian leaders regarding the holding of an annual conference referred to a political gathering.
  • Neither Dufferin and his fellow-liberal Governors of Bombay and Madras nor his conservative officials were sympathetic to the Congress.
    • It was not only in 1888 that Dufferin attacked the Congress in a vicious manner by writing that he would consider ‘in what way the happy despatch may be best applied to the Congress,’ for ‘we cannot allow the Congress to continue to exist.”
  • Dufferin openly castigate Congress for its dubious motives. He criticized it for representing a “microscopic minority” and this statement if anything else, explodes the safety valves or conspiracy theory. In fact, from the end of May 1885, Dufferin had grown cool to Hume and began to keep him at an arm’s length.
  • Historians now more or less agree that the story of seven volumes of secret report was a fiction created by a friendly biographer Wedderburn to portray Hume as British patriot who wanted to save the British Empire from an impending crisis.
  • The fact that Hume played a crucial role in the foundation of the Congress, however, remains, although this role might have been grossly exaggerated in the safety valve or conspiracy theories. But even if Hume had not taken any initiative, in India in the 1870s and 1880s, the formation of national organization was clearly in the air.
  • In reality, Hume was a political liberal, who had clear idea about growing discontent among Indians. So he visualised an all India organisation which would represent Indian interest and act as an opposition.
  • During May June 1886, Duffrin described Hume as “Cleverish, a little cracked, excessively vain and indifferent to truth” , his main fault being that he was one of the chief stimulus of Home Rule Movement.
  • To conclude, it is high time that the safety-valve theory of the genesis of the Congress was confined to the care of the mahatmas from whom perhaps it originated.

British Attitude towards Early Congress

  • Initially the official attitude towards Congress was of neutrality and indifference if not favourable.In this spirit, Dufferin gave a garden party to delegates attendinng second Congress session in Calcutta(1886). Governor of Madras gave facilities to the organisers in 3rd session of Madras in 1887.
  • The 1888 Allahabad Session of INC was presided by George Yule, who became first Englishman to do so.
  • But soon it became apparent(by 1887) that INC would not be confined to limited role, British became hostile. British could not tolerate the political awareness spreading among common people.
  • Third session of Madras in 1887 was presided by Badaruddin Tyabji. The word Self Governance was mentioned. In 1887, Dufferin attacked the Congress in a public speech and ridiculed it as representing only a microscopic minority of the people and Congress demands as a big jump into the unknown.
    • Earlier in 1886 he wrote about the role of national press: There can be no doubt there is generated in the mind of those who read those papers a sincere conviction that we are all of us enemies of mankind in general and India in particular.
  • In 1890, Government employees were forbidden from participating or attending Congress meetings.
  • George Hamilton, Secretary of State for India accused Congress for possessing seditious and doubled sided character. In 1900, he complained to DadabhaiNaroji that: You announce yourself as a sincere supporter of the British rule, but you denounce the conditions and consequences which are inseparable from the maintenance of that rule. E
    • arlier in 1897, he wrote to Viceroy Elgin: The solidarity, which is growing of native opinion and races and religions in antagonism to our rule frightens me as regards of the future.
  • Despite its moderate methods and its emphasis on loyalty to British crown, the INC failed to secure any substantial concession from the government.
  • Realising that the growing unity of the Indian people posed a major threat to their rule, the British authorities also pushed further the policy of divide and rule. They encouraged Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan (Aligarh Movement), Raja Shiva Prasad of Benaras, and other pro- British individuals to start anti- Congress movement.
  • The British attitude became even more hostile to the Congress under Lord Curzon. He said that the Congress was tottering to its fall and one of my greatest ambitions while in India was to assist it to a peaceful demise.
    • The government under Curzon wanted to weaken the nationalist elements in general and Congress in particular by driving the wedge amongst the leader in the name of religion and communalise the Indian politics by partitioning Bengal in 1905, on communal grounds.
  • While just after Revolt of 1857, British had repressed the Muslim upper classes and favoured in Hindu middle and upper classes, after 1870 they made an attempt to turn upper and middle class Muslim against the national movement.T
    • hey exploited the controversy around Hindi and Urdu to promote communal feelings. Cow protection movement by orthodox Hindus was also used.
    • Kimberley, the Secretary of State for India wrote to Landsdowne, the Viceroy in 1893 that movement makes all combinations of Hindu and Muslims impossible and so cuts at the root of the Congress agitation for formation of united Indian people.
  • An effort was made to turn traditional feudal class against the new intelligentsia, province against province, caste against caste etc.
  • To create split in the nationalist rank, British adopted more friendly approach towards either the conservatives or moderate sections. The moderate sections were appeased by making many concessions like passing Indian Council Act of 1892, increasing maximum age of recruitment in Civil Services etc.
  • By Education Act of 1903, strict control on university education was applied as British thought that spread of education is causing nationalism.
  • The leaders belonging to the older associations like British Indian Association were sought to be appeased and turned against the radical Congress leaders.
  • After Swadeshi Movement of Bengal, British adopted a new policy of “Repression-Conciliation-Suppression” under which they repressed the militant leadership first, then tried to win over the moderates and finally tried to suppress militant leadership completely and then they ignored moderates.
    • Moderates and extremists both fell into this trap. Earlier British had felt that moderate led Congress will be easily finished because it was weak and without popular base. But after Bengal Movement policy was changed.

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