From its foundation on 28 December 1885 until
the time of independence of India on 15 August 1947, the Indian National Congress was the
largest and most prominent Indian public organization, and central and defining influence of the
Indian Independence Movement. Although initially and primarily a political
body, the Congress transformed itself into a national vehicle for social reform and human
upliftment. The Congress was the strongest foundation and defining influence of modern
Indian nationalism. 1885–1907 Founded upon the authority of British civil
servant Allan Octavian Hume, the Congress was created to form a platform for civic and
political dialogue of educated Indians with the British Raj. After the First War of Indian
Independence and the transfer of India from the East India Company to the British Empire,
it was the goal of the Raj to support and justify its governance of India with the aid
of English-educated Indians, who would be familiar and friendly to British culture and
political thinking. Ironically, a few of the reasons the Congress grew and survived in
the era of undisputed British hegemony, was through the patronage of British authorities,
Anglo-Indians and a rising Indian educated class.The theory of safety valve has also
been associated with the birth of congress. It says that congress provided a platform
to Indians to bring out their resentment vocally. Its initial aim was to divert the minds of
Indians from any sort of physical violence. Hume embarked on an endeavour to get an organization
started by reaching-out to selected alumni of the University of Calcutta, writing in
his 1883 letter that, “Every nation secures precisely as good a Government as it merits.
If you the picked men, the most highly educated of the nation, cannot, scorning personal ease
and selfish objects, make a resolute struggle to secure greater freedom for yourselves and
your country, a more impartial administration, a larger share in the management of your own
affairs, then we, your friends, are wrong and our adversaries right, then are Lord Ripon’s
noble aspirations for your good fruitless and visionary, then, at present at any rate
all hopes of progress are at an end and India truly neither desires nor deserves any better
Government than she enjoys.” In May 1885, Hume secured the Viceroy’s approval
to create an “Indian National Union”, which would be affiliated with the government and
act as a platform to voice Indian public opinion. On 12 October 1885, Hume and a group of educated
Indians also published “An Appeal from the People of India to the Electors of Great Britain
and Ireland” to ask British voters in 1885 British general election to help support candidates
sympathetic to Indian public opinion, which included opposition to the levying of taxes
on India to finance the British Indian campaigns in Afghanistan and support for legislative
reform in India. The appeal was a failure, and was interpreted by many Indians as “a
rude shock, but a true realization that they had to fight their battles alone.” On 28 December
1885, the Indian National Congress was founded at Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College in Bombay,
with 72 delegates in attendance. Hume assumed office as the General Secretary, and Womesh
Chandra Bonnerjee of Calcutta was elected President. Besides Hume, two additional British
members were members of the founding group, William Wedderburn and Justice John Jardine.
The other members were mostly Hindus from the Bombay and Madras Presidencies.
Reactions Many Muslim community leaders, like the prominent
educationalist Syed Ahmed Khan, viewed the Congress negatively, owing to its membership
being dominated by Hindus. The Orthodox Hindu community and religious leaders were also
averse, seeing the Congress as supportive of Western cultural invasion.
The ordinary people of India were not informed or concerned of its existence on the whole,
for the Congress never attempted to address the issues of poverty, lack of health care,
social oppression and the prejudiced negligence of the people’s concerns by British authorities.
The perception of bodies like the Congress was that of an elitist, then educated and
wealthy people’s institution. Rise of Indian nationalism Bal Gangadhar Tilak was the first to take
up and support Swaraj as the national goal. The first spurts of nationalistic sentiment
that rose amongst Congress members were when the desire to be represented in the bodies
of government, to have a say, a vote in the lawmaking and issues of administration of
India. Congressmen saw themselves as loyalists, but wanted an active role in governing their
own country, albeit as part of the Empire. This trend was personified by Dadabhai Naoroji,
considered by many as the eldest Indian statesman. Naoroji went as far as contesting, successfully,
an election to the British House of Commons, becoming its first Indian member. That he
was aided in his campaign by young, aspiring Indian student activists like Muhammad Ali
Jinnah, describes where the imagination of the new Indian generation lay.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak was among the first Indian nationalists to embrace Swaraj as the destiny
of the nation. Tilak deeply opposed the British education system that ignored and defamed
India’s culture, history and values, defying and disgracing the India culture. He resented
the denial of freedom of expression for nationalists, and the lack of any voice or role for ordinary
Indians in the affairs of their nation. For these reasons, he considered Swaraj as the
natural and only solution in the abandonment of all the British things and to protect the
Indian economy from the diabolic exploitation of the British, and their biased and discriminatory
policies . He was backed by rising public leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat
Rai, who held the same point of view. Under them, India’s three great states – Maharashtra,
Bengal and Punjab region shaped the demand of the people and India’s nationalism.
The moderates, led by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Pherozeshah Mehta and Dadabhai Naoroji held
firm to calls for negotiations and political dialogue. Gokhale criticized Tilak for encouraging
acts of violence and disorder. But the Congress of 1906 did not have public membership, and
thus Tilak and his supporters were forced to leave the party.
But with Tilak’s arrest, all hopes for an Indian offensive were stalled. The Congress
lost credit with the people, while Muslims were alarmed with the rise of Tilak’s Hindu
nationalism, and formed the All India Muslim League in 1906,sponsored by British Raj, considering
the Congress as completely unsuitable for Indian Muslims..
World War I: the battle for the soul When the British entered the British Indian
Army into World War I, it provoked the first definitive, nationwide political debate of
its kind in India. Voices calling for political independence grew in number.
The divided Congress re-united in the pivotal Lucknow session in 1916, with Bal Gangadhar
Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale adorning the stage together once again. Tilak had considerably
moderated his views, and now favoured political dialogue with the British. He, along with
the young Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mrs. Annie Besant launched the Home Rule Movement to
put forth Indian demands for Home Rule – Indian participation in the affairs of their own
country – a precursor to Swaraj. The All India Home Rule League was formed to demand
dominion status within the Empire. But another Indian man with another way was
destined to lead the Congress and the Indian struggle. Mohandas Gandhi was a lawyer who
had successfully led the struggle of Indians in South Africa against British discriminatory
laws. Returning to India in 1916, Gandhi looked to Indian culture and history, the values
and lifestyle of its people to empower a new revolution, with the art of non-violent civil
disobedience he coined Satyagraha. Ibrar A Khan
Champaran and Kheda Mahatma Gandhi’s success in defeating the
British in Champaran and Kheda gave India its first victory in the struggle for freedom.
Indians gained confidence that the British would be thwarted, and millions of young people
from across the country flooded into Congress membership.
The Battle for the soul A whole class of political leaders disagreed
with Gandhi. Bipin Chandra Pal, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Annie Besant, Bal Gangadhar Tilak
all criticized the idea of civil disobedience. But Gandhi had the backing of the people and
a whole new generation of Indian nationalists. In a series of sessions in 1918, 1919 and
1920, where the old and the new generations clashed in famous and important debates, Gandhi
and his young supporters imbued the Congress rank-and-file with passion and energy to combat
British rule directly. With the tragedy of the 1919 Amritsar Massacre and the riots in
Punjab, Indian anger and passions were palpable and radical. With the election of Mohandas
Gandhi to the presidency of the Indian National Congress, the battle of the party’s soul was
won, and a new path to India’s destiny forged. Motilal Nehru, Lala Lajpat Rai and some other
stalwarts backed Gandhi. Lokmanya Tilak, whom Gandhi had called The Father of Modern India
died in 1920, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale had died four years earlier. Thus it was now entirely
up to Gandhi’s Congress to show the way for the nation.
The Gandhi era Expansion and re-organization
In the years after the World War, the membership of the Congress expanded considerably, owing
to public excitement after Gandhi’s success in Champaran and Kheda. A whole new generation
of leaders arose from different parts of India, who were committed Gandhians — Jawaharlal
Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rajendra Prasad, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari,
Narhari Parikh, Mahadev Desai — as well as hot-blooded nationalists aroused by Gandhi’s
active leadership — Chittaranjan Das, Subhas Chandra Bose, Srinivasa Iyengar.
Gandhi transformed the Congress from an elitist party based in the cities, to an organization
of the people: Membership fees were considerably reduced.
Congress established a large number of state units across India – known as Pradesh Congress
Committees – based on its own configuration of India’s states on basis of linguistic groups.
PCCs emerged for Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat — states that did not yet exist and were
spread over hundreds of princely states outside British India.
All former practices distinguishing Congressmen on basis of caste, ethnicity, religion and
sex were eliminated — all-India unity was stressed.
Native tongues were given official use and respect in Congress meetings – especially
Hindustani, which was adopted for use by the All India Congress Committee.
Leadership posts and offices at all levels would be filled by elections, not appointments.
This introduction of democracy was vital in rejuvenating the party, giving voice to ordinary
members as well as valuable practice for Indians in democracy.
Eligibility for leadership would be determined by how much social work and service a member
had done, not by his wealth or social standing. Social development
During the 1920s, M.K. Gandhi encouraged tens of thousands of Congress volunteers to embrace
a wide variety of organized tasks to address major social problems across India. Under
the guidance of Congress committees and Gandhi’s network of ashrams in Gujarat, Maharashtra,
Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, the Congress attacked:
Untouchability and caste discrimination Alcoholism
Unhygienic conditions and lack of sanitation Lack of health care and medical aid
Purdah and the oppression of women Illiteracy, with the organization of national
schools and colleges Poverty, with proliferating khadi cloth, cottage
industries Ascendance to power Under the Government of India Act 1935, the
Congress first tasted political power in the provincial elections of 1937. It performed
very well, coming to power in eight of the eleven provinces where elections were held.
Its internal organization bloomed in the diversity of political attitudes and ideologies. The
focus would change slightly from the single-minded devotion to complete independence, to also
entertaining excitement and theorizing about the future governance of the nation. However,
when the Viceroy Lord Linlithgow declared India a belligerent in World War II without
any consultation with the elected representatives of the people, the Congress ministries resigned.
The radical followers of Subhas Chandra Bose, believers in socialism and active revolution
would ascend in the hierarchy with Bose’s 1938 election to the Congress presidency.
The “Traditionalists” According to one approach, the traditionalist
point of view, though not in a political sense, was represented in Congressmen like Sardar
Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, C.Rajagopalachari, Purushottam Das Tandon, Khan Abdul Ghaffar
Khan and Maulana Azad, who were also associates and followers of Gandhi. Their organizational
strength, achieved through leading the clashes with the government, was undisputed and proven
when despite winning the 1939 election, Bose resigned the Congress presidency because of
the lack of confidence he enjoyed amongst national leaders. A year earlier, in the 1938
election, however, Bose had been elected with the support of Gandhi. Differences arose in
1939 on whether Bose should have a second term. Jawaharlal Nehru, who Gandhi had always
preferred to Bose, had had a second term earlier. Bose’s own differences centred on the place
to be accorded to non-violent as against revolutionary methods. When he set up his Indian National
Army in South-east Asia during the Second World War, he invoked Gandhi’s name and hailed
him as the Father of The Nation. It would be wrong to suggest that the so-called traditionalist
leaders looked merely to the ancient heritage of Indian, Asian or, in the case of Maulana
Azad and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Islamic civilization for inspiration. They believed,
along with educationists like Zakir Husain and E W Aryanayakam, that education should
be imparted in a manner that enables the learners also to be able to make things with their
own hands and learn skills that would make them self-supporting. This method of education
was also adopted in some areas in Egypt.. Zakir Husain was inspired by some European
educationists and was able, with Gandhi’s support, to dovetail this approach to the
one favoured by the Basic Education method introduced by the Indian freedom movement.
They believed that the education system, economy and social justice model for a future nation
should be designed to suit the specific local requirements. While most were open to the
benefits of Western influences and the socio-economic egalitarianism of socialism, they were opposed
to being defined by either model. The final battles
The last important episodes in the Congress involved the final step to independence, and
the division of the country on religious lines. Quit India
See also: Quit India Movement Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, the prominent
leader from Tamil Nadu resigned from the Congress to actively advocate supporting the British
war effort. it was started in 1942 Indian National Army Trials
During the INA trials of 1946, the Congress helped to form the INA Defence Committee,
which forcefully defended the case of the soldiers of the Azad Hind government. The
committee declared the formation of the Congress’ defence team for the INA and included famous
lawyers of the time, including Bhulabhai Desai, Asaf Ali, and Jawaharlal Nehru. QUIT INDIA
BILL passed on 8 Aug 1942. Royal Indian Navy Mutiny
Some members of the Congress initially supported the sailors who led the Royal Indian Navy
Mutiny. However they withdrew support at the critical juncture, when the mutiny failed::.
Partition of India Within the Congress, the Partition was opposed
by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Saifuddin Kitchlew, Dr. Khan Sahib and Congressmen from the provinces
that would inevitably become parts of Pakistan. Maulana Azad was opposed to partition in principle,
but did not wish to impede the national leadership. 1947 – 1952: Transformation
Constitution The last serie
In the Assembly and Constitution debates, the Congress attitude was marked by inclusiveness
and liberalism. The Government appointed some prominent Indians who were Raj loyalists and
liberals to important offices, and did not adopt any punitive control over the Indian
civil servants who had aided the Raj in its governance of India and suppression of nationalist
activities. A Congress-dominated Assembly adopted B.R.
Ambedkar, a fierce Congress critic as the chairman of the Constitution draft committee.
Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a Hindu Mahasabha leader became the Minister for Industry.
The Congress stood firm on its fundamental promises and delivered a Constitution that
abolished untouchability and discrimination based on caste, religion or gender. Primary
education was made a right, and Congress governments made the zamindar system illegal, created
minimum wages and authorized the right to strike and form labor unions.
Leadership Change In 1947, the Congress presidency passed upon
Jivatram Kripalani, a veteran Gandhian and ally of both Nehru and Patel. India’s duumvirate
expressed neutrality and full support to the elected winner of the 1947, 1948 and 1949
presidential races. However, a tug of war began between Nehru
and his socialist wing, and Patel and Congress traditionalists broke out in 1950’s race.
Nehru lobbied intensely to oppose the candidacy of Purushottam Das Tandon, whom he perceived
as a Hindu revivalist with “problematic” views on Hindu-Muslim relations. Nehru openly backed
Kripalani to oppose Tandon, but neglected courtesy to Patel upon the question.
With Patel’s tacit support Tandon won a tight contest, and Nehru threatened to resign. With
Patel’s convincing, Nehru did not quit. However, with Patel’s death in 1950, the balance
shifted permanently in Nehru’s favor. Kripalani, C. Rajagopalachari and Tandon were marginalized,
and the Congress Party’s election fortunes began depending solely on Nehru’s leadership
and popularity. With the 1952 election sweep, the Congress became India’s main political
party. References Further reading
Patel: A Life Rajmohan Gandhi My Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments
with Truth, M.K. Gandhi Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Narhari Parikh
See also Indian nationalism, Indian Independence Movement