Indian National Congress – Its Origin And Growth

The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885 as a result of the initiative and efforts of A. O. Hume, a retired British officer from Poona (Pune). Sir W. C. Bonnerjee presided over the first session of the Indian National Congress held in Bombay (Mumbai). “The history of the Congress is really the history of India’s struggle for freedom,” said Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the veteran Congress leader and one of its presidents. In fact, long before the Congress came into being, there were several other organisations that wrested concessions from the British.

Forerunners of the Congress

The people of India did not reconcile to the British rule. As early as in 1829, Raja Rammohun Roy, Father of the Indian Renaissance and Nationalism, protested against the Jury Act and organised a petition signed by the Hindus and Muslims. This Act had made a clear-cut distinction between Europeans and Indians. It denied the Hindu and Muslim judges the right to try Europeans and Indian Christians.

In 1833, Devendranath Tagore organised the Landholders’  Society. The landholders of Bengal, Assam and Bihar came together to protect their interests through this Society. In 1843, the Bengal British India Society was formed to promote the interests of the natives by peaceful means. In 1851, the Bengal Society and the Landholders’ Society were merged to form the British Indian Association. It owned the Hindu Patriot, the first Indian paper. It was joined by many eminent Indians. It has been described as “pioneer in political agitation”.

In Madras (Chennai), the Madras Native Association was established in 1852. It submitted a petition to the British Parliament protesting against excessive taxation, demanding cheap and speedy justice, a better system of education, irrigation and public works, proposed economy in expenditure and grant of local self-government working for the welfare of people. If the Hindu Patriot was giving expression to the grievances of the people of Bengal, the Crescent did the same in Madras. The Crescent took up a crusade against the conversion of Hindus to Christianity, among other matters. In Poona, the public welfare work was carried on by eminent persons like S. H. Chiplonkar and K. L. Nulkar through Poona Sarvajanik Sabha.

In Bombay, the Bombay Association was formed on the initiative of Jagannath Sankarsett in January 1885. It was later replaced by the Bombay Presidency Association. It was led by eminent persons like Pherozeshah Mehta, Sir Dinshaw E. Wacha, Badruddin Tyabji, K. T. Telang and others.

In December 1885, after the Annual Conference of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, 17 prominent Indians from all parts of the country met “to find ways and means of bringing together Indian politicians to inaugurate a political movement—to promote a future advance towards Swaraj”. They formed themselves into a provisional committee as a potential forum for further consultations.

Prominent political leaders felt that an all-India organisation was necessary. Consequently, the India League came into being in 1875. This was soon replaced by the Indian Association, founded in 1876 by Surendranath Bannerjee, who could rightly be called ‘Father of the Nationalist Movement in India’. He was the first Indian to pass the Indian Civil Service Examination. The objects of the Indian Association included unification of the Indian people upon the basis of common political interests and aspirations, and creation of strong public opinion. It led the agitation against reduction in age requirements for competitions in England. The age was reduced to 19 years, which made it more difficult for Indians to go abroad and compete. It demanded raising the age for competition, a simultaneous competition to be held in India and greater association of Indians in administration. Surendranath Bannerjee toured the country and developed the movement into an all-India agitation. The Association also carried on agitations against the Vernacular Press Act.

Reaction against the
Ilbert Bill

The agitation carried on by the Anglo-Indians against the Ilbert Bill and its success taught a lesson to the natives. It was a lesson of struggle. Indians felt assured that the only way to get concessions from the British Government was by organising agitations. The Association took up the question of a representative government and campaigned for reform of the Councils. In December 1883, the Association held its first National Conference in Calcutta (Kolkata). Attended by delegates from all over the country, it was described as “the first stage towards a National Parliament”. In 1884, the Association welcomed Lord Dufferin, the then Governor-General of India, and presented to him a memorandum demanding reform of Councils and extension of their rights and powers, particularly the control of budget and the right of members to ask questions. The Second National Conference was held in Bombay in December 1885, on the eve of the Congress session. Its demands were the same as those of the Congress. These included Reform of Councils, modification of Arms Act with a view to giving Indians the right to bear arms, separation of the Judiciary from the Executive, reform of police administration, etc. The Association, thus, represented the political consciousness of that time. It would have become the premier political organisation of the country had the Congress not been founded at this time.

Formation of the Congress

The initiative for the formation of the Congress was taken by Allen Octavian Hume (1829-1912). He retired from the Civil Service in 1880 and settled in Simla. In 1883, he sent a letter to the ‘Graduates’ of Calcutta University to serve their motherland and work for the moral, material, social and political progress of the country. He made an appeal to find 50 men who could form a union for the task. Consequently, the Indian National Union was founded. This Union was changed into the Indian National Congress in 1885.

The first session of the Congress was held in December 1885 in Bombay. It was presided over by Sir W. C. Bonnerjee. This session expressed loyalty of the Indian people towards the British Government in clear and unequivocal terms. In a way, the Indian National Congress was formed to establish close cooperation between the British administration and the Indian people, and stabilise the relations between the two.

There are different viewpoints as to why A. O. Hume, a retired British bureaucrat, founded the Congress. One view is that he founded it with the blessings of Lord Dufferin to save the Empire from violent overthrow. It was to act as ‘His Majesty’s Opposition in the House of Commons’. The middle class intelligentsia was sought to be brought under it so that their agitation could be directed on constitutional lines, lest they should become revolutionary or radical. Lala Lajpat Rai and Sir W. Wedderburn held this view strongly. Hume himself considered the Congress as a “safety valve for revolutionary discontent”. According to Wedderburn, the repressive legislation denying political liberties like the freedom of the press, freedom of association and local self-government, independence of the universities and police repression brought India within a measurable distance of a revolutionary outbreak and Hume intervened to save the British rule from an imminent revolution.

Whatever might have been the reasons of Hume, there was an idea of some sort of an all-India organisation to coordinate the activities of different organisations functioning in various provinces. The Congress soon became the medium for political aspirations of the Indian people. Lord Dufferin, who had blessed the foundation of the Congress, described it as a revolutionary body. It soon became the “platform of anti-imperialism” and was described by bureaucrats as the “factory of sedition”.

Aims and Objectives of Indian National Congress

The Congress started as an organisation of the educated middle class in India, consisting of businessmen, professional lawyers, medical men, teachers, professors, etc. In the initial stages, its main aim was to secure the right of recruitment of Indians in the higher civil services under the British administration. Thus, to begin with, the Congress was just a non-political association of Indian intelligentsia who simply wanted to get some concessions from the British authorities through appeals, memoranda and petitions. During the period between 1897 and 1908, people of India became very restless on account of the oppressive and thoughtless policy of British bureaucracy in India. In 1906, the Congress adopted the resolution of “self-government”. The extremist movement led by Lal-Bal-Pal (Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal) and the Home Rule Movement of Dr. Annie Besant became very strong. From 1919 onwards, began the Gandhi era in Congress. The Congress became a mass movement and a united platform for the struggle for independence.

The First Phase :
Era of Cooperation

The first session of the Congress was held in Bombay in December 1885 under the presidentship of W. C. Bonnerjee. It  was attended by 72 delegates which included Dadabhai Naoroji, K. T. Telang, Pherozeshah Mehta, D. E. Wacha,
P. Rangia Naidu, P. Ananda Charlu, M. Viraraghav Achariar, amongst professors, lawyers, editors, writers and scholars. The main demands put forward at this session included: (1) Reform of Legislative Councils and acceptance of election in place of nomination as a principle to constitute them; (2) A simultaneous examination for the ICS to be held in India and England; (3) Reduction of military expenditure; (4) Opposition to the annexation of Upper Burma with India.

Thus, the demands were very moderate and limited. The Congress was then just a forum for the expression of minor demands of the educated community of India.

At the second session, attended by 434 delegates, the Congress demanded reform of Councils with 50 percent elected and 50 percent nominated members. They conceded indirect election and the right of the Government to override the Councils. This demand was repeated at the subsequent sessions till the Councils Act of 1892 was passed. It loyally accepted the Act and, in 1893, it thanked the Government for its liberal spirit in giving effect to the Act, though it recommended some minor amendments.

The Congress went on becoming more popular year after year. The third session held in Madras was attended by 607 delegates; the fourth and fifth sessions (in Allahabad and Bombay) by 1,248 and 1,889 delegates, respectively. However, it remained a middle class-dominated and loyalist organisation. In 1895, Surendranath Bannerjee called it an organisation of “educated community”. Presiding over the Congress in 1890, Pherozeshah Mehta said that the Congress was not the “voice of the masses”; it was the duty of the “educated compatriots” to interpret their demands. In 1886, Dadabhai Naoroji assessed the loyalty of the Congress to the British in the following words: “We are loyal to the backbone.” He appealed to the Government not to drive the Congress into opposition. Ananda Mohan Bose, President of the Congress in 1898, said that the educated classes of India “are the friends and not the foes of England—her natural and necessary allies in the great work that lies before her.” The Congress, thus, did not represent masses, nor had it the representatives of the peasants, the workers and the common masses. Its demands were limited to have the greater association of educated Indians in the Councils and services. It was, by and large, an organisation of newly arising middle class in the Indian society which consisted of enterprising industrialists, progressive businessmen, and aspiring intellectuals like professors, lawyers and doctors.

It may be further pointed out that the Indian National Congress was predominantly a Hindu organisation, even though the sixth session was attended by 156 Muslims out of 702 delegates (22 percent), as compared to two Muslims in the first session and 33 in the second. The nature of its demands could not and, did not, attract Muslims who were backward in education at that time. The first phase of the Congress ended with the passage of the Act of 1892 and its loyal acceptance by the Congress.   

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