The First World War broke out in August 1914. The Allied powers claimed that they were fighting the war for freedom and democracy. At the beginning of the war, some of the Indian nationalists took the British statesmen on their word. They offered the utmost support to the government’s war efforts. Their hope was that grateful Britain would soon reward India’s loyalty. These hopes were later shattered to pieces. The Congress was still divided between the moderates like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and the extremists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Surendra Nath Banerjee feared that the long delay by the government in introducing reforms would weaken the moderates’ hold upon the people. This came true. Annie Besant gave new hope to the country. “The moment of England’s difficulty is the moment of India’s opportunity.” She started the Home Rule League to be later supported fully by Tilak. It aimed at self-government for India within the British Commonwealth. She was more Indian than most Indians, a woman of profound courage and determination. The movement soon made a great impact upon the people. The newspaper, New India, edited by her from Madras, was eagerly awaited by the people and read with great enthusiasm.
Annie Besant was Irish by birth. She came to India in 1893. She founded the Central Hindu College in Benaras. It later became a full-fledged university. She loved our motherland passionately. She worked hard with utmost zeal and devotion for social and educational uplift of people, but gradually came to realise that until the nation was free, much could not be achieved. That made her take a plunge into politics. She championed the cause of building up India into a mighty self-governing community. For this, she started the publication of a weekly review captioned The Commonweal on January 2, 1914 with its cardinal programme of “religious liberty, national education, social reform and political reform.” She went to England with a view to forming an Indian party in Parliament but had no success. Her visit, however, aroused sympathy for India as she made many speeches there to support the cause of Indian freedom. She declared that the “price of India’s loyalty is India’s freedom.”
On her return to India, she started a daily newspaper New India on July 14, 1915—July 14 being the historic date of the fall of Bastille. Two months later, she placed before the nation her concept of self-rule in a speech at Bombay (now Mumbai) : “I mean by self-government that the country shall have a government by councils, elected by the people, and responsible to the House.” On September 28, 1915, Besant made a formal declaration that she would start the Home Rule League with “Home Rule for India” as its objective. She also declared that the League would be an auxiliary body to the Indian National Congress. The moderates did not like an idea of establishing another separate organisation for an objective for which the Congress stood. They thought that this would weaken the cause both organisationally and emotionally. Finding lack of support from them, she herself formally inaugurated the Home Rule League at Madras (now Chennai) in September 1916. It soon gained a big momentum. Its branches were established at Bombay, Kanpur, Allahabad, Benaras, Mathura, Calicut and Ahmednagar. She carried on her campaign through the medium of New India and The Commonweal. She also made an extensive tour of the country. She made very stirring speeches. She also distributed large quantities of literature about her Movement. This was bound to make an impact upon the nation. She won not only many adherents to her cause, but also captured the hearts of her opponents. Many eminent leaders like Motilal Nehru and Tej Bahadur Sapru thus joined her Home Rule Movement.
Tilak, who had great admiration for Besant, took a fancy to her idea of Home Rule. In fact, he wanted to reorganise the Nationalist Party immediately after his release from jail in 1914 with a view to making it a dynamic force on the national scene. He desired to cooperate with the Congress and go along with it if possible, but could also work on his own outside the Congress. Finding that the moderate leaders of the Congress were not enthusiastic about the Home Rule Movement to be started by Besant, he undertook an initiative on his own. He called a conference of nationalists at Poona (now Pune) in December 1915 where he got full support for his ideas. He implemented them later and established the Indian Home Rule League at Poona in April 1916. Its objective was to attain self-government within the British empire by constitutional means. Joseph Baptista and N. C. Kelkar were appointed the President and the Secretary of the League, respectively. Tilak did not formally accept any office in the organisation, but he was its guiding spirit. Through his writings in the Mahratta and Kesari, Tilak made the concept of Home Rule the popular catchword. This earned for him the title Lokmanya, i.e., respected by the people. He also made an extensive tour of the country. He advised the people to become fearless and imbibe the spirit of patriotism. Though the Home Rule Movements of Tilak and Besant functioned separately, they worked in close cooperation with each other. There was, however, informal understanding between them with regard to the sphere of their work. Tilak worked actively in Maharashtra and Central Provinces leaving the rest of the country to Besant.
Once the Home Rule Movement started spreading like wildfire, the government decided to crush it. In July 1916, the authorities instituted a case against Tilak for certain speeches he made from the platform of the Home Rule League. They asked him to furnish a personal bond of Rs. 20,000 with two sureties of Rs. 10,000 each for ensuring good behaviour for a year. Tilak appealed to the Bombay High Court. It set aside the order. A security of Rs. 2,000 was also obtained from the New India, the daily published by Besant. That was later forfeited and a new security of Rs. 10,000 was levied. Besant appealed to the Privy Council against this order which rejected her appeal. This compelled her to sell her two Presses where the New India and Commonweal were printed. These papers reappeared barely three days later under another editor. If the authorities hoped to crush the movement, they were proved to have mistaken. The movement gained new momentum every day. On January 17, 1917, the Home Member of the Government of India wrote in a secret report : “The position is one of great difficulty. Moderate leaders can command no support among the local classes who are being led at the heels of Tilak and Besant.” He, therefore, recommended to the Secretary of State for India to grant the reform proposals sent to him.
Various provincial governments now decided to
ban the entry of Tilak and Besant in their provinces. The Madras government
warned the people against the extravagant demands of the Home Rule League and
issued orders for the internment of Besant. A storm of resentment and anger
swept the whole nation. There were protests abroad also. The result was that
the moderates lost their hold over the Congress. Besant was elected the
President of the Indian National Congress at Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1917. In
her presidential address she thundered, “India demands Home Rule for
two reasons: one essential and vital, the other less important but weighty. First, because freedom is the birthright of every nation; secondly, because her most important interests are now made subservient to the interests of the British empire without her consent and her resources are not utilised for her greatest needs. It is enough only to mention the money spent on her Army, not for local defence but for Imperial purposes, as compared with that spent on primary education.” Her address bore a striking contrast to the presidential address of the former Congress leaders.
The Indian Home Rule League of Tilak had 14,000 members on its rolls at the end of the first year of its birth. At the annual session of the League at Nasik, he explained how his organisation was totally different from the Indian National Congress. He told that the Congress was only a deliberative body which passed a few pious resolutions from time to time. But his Home Rule League was totally revolutionary. It worked zealously for achievement of its goal. He, therefore, did not want his Home Rule League to have a long and arduous existence but would like to wind it up at the earliest once the Home Rule was granted to India by the British government. The workers of the Home Rule League were, therefore, very active. They did their utmost to carry the message of the League to the remotest corner of the country. The local governments soon became apprehensive of their activities and sent anxious reports to the Viceroy. They apprised the Secretary of the State for India of the situation, “Mrs. Besant, Tilak and others are fomenting with great vigour the agitation for immediate Home Rule and in the absence of any definite announcement by Government of India as to their policy in the matter, it is attracting many of those who hitherto have held less advanced views. The agitation is having mischievous effect on public feeling throughout the country.” Perhaps, the warning reached the right ears of E. S. Montague who made his historic announcement on August 20, 1917 declaring responsible government as the goal of British policy in India. There could be no doubt about it that this declaration of the British government was the result of the exertions made by the Home Rule Leaguers. The influence of the Home Rule Movement was not confined to the boundaries of India. Sir Subrahmaniya Aiyar, retired Judge of Madras High Court, wrote a letter to President Wilson of America on June 24, 1917, the publication of which caused a furore in the British Parliament. Montague denounced the letter as “disgraceful” over which Aiyar renounced his titles of KCIE and Diwan Bahadur. The letter, however, had wonderful impact in the United States, where a Home Rule League came to be established in New York. It started a monthly journal called Young India. Many national leaders from India like Lala Lajpat Rai and K. D. Sastri visited America and made extensive tours there to enlighten the public opinion and win support for the cause of India’s freedom. In 1918, Tilak wrote to Clemenceau, President of the Peace Conference, requesting him to solve the Indian problem so that India might become a leading power in Asia and a powerful steward of the League of Nations in the East for maintenance and promotion of peace in the world. A Home Rule League for India was also established in London. Besant sent a stirring message to its British members, “Help us to become a free Commonwealth under the British Crown and we will bring our manpower to secure the world peace. Our people have died in your war for freedom. Will you consent that the children of our dead shall remain a subject race ?” The activities of the Home Rule Leaguers soon brought the results. The Labour Party Conference at Nottingham passed a unanimous resolution in 1918 in favour of the Home Rule for India. The Home Rule Movement thus marked a turning point in our freedom struggle. It focussed the public attention on the point whether the country could win its freedom with the guidance of the armchair politicians or that they would have to exert fully and devote all their capabilities and energy to serve the motherland to break the shackles of our slavery. The new ideal soon became a torch bearer to all our patriots and helped to bring freedom nearer to our doors.