The Indian National Congress, which eventually proved to be the aegis under which mainstream nationalism grew, was founded in 1885. The first twenty years of Congress is usually referred to as the Moderate phase as it witnessed a broad uniformity in terms of objectives and methods of activity. The first main objective of these early nationalists, who are popularly referred to as the Moderates, was to unite the Indians into a nation and create an Indian people.
However, they were also aware of the fact that India being a nation in making and Indian nationhood being at a nascent stage could not be taken for granted as an established fact. Rather the feeling of national unity had to be consolidated and for this purpose, it was necessary to arouse political consciousness among the masses and organise public opinion. Thus, the economic and political demands of the Moderates were framed in such a way which could achieve the unification of Indian people on the basis of common economic and political programme. This article will be looking into this very process of nation making and the arousal of political consciousness that the former demanded, which was engendered by the Moderates and also examine as to how far the Moderates succeeded in their endeavour.
Measures taken by Moderates for Consolidating the Idea of a Nation
The colonial administrators and ideologues often utilized the idea of Indians not being a nation but rather a mere geographical expression for justifying their not granting freedom to them. The Moderates though did not completely disprove this, they repeatedly asserted that India was now on the path of becoming a nation. However, they also took cognisance of the need to inform the people regarding this objective process which in turn necessitated the development and consolidation of the feeling of national unity irrespective of region, caste or religion.
For the purpose of overcoming the impediment of regional differences that stood in the path of national unity, the Moderates decided to rotate the Congress session among different parts of the country and that the President would belong to a region other than where the respective session was being held. Eventually, to address the problem of religious diversity, a rule was made in the session of the year 1888 that no resolution would be passed if opposed by an overwhelming majority of Hindu or Muslim delegates. Primarily this was done to eliminate the fear of the minorities and ensuring their presence in the mainstream nationalist movement. Hume in fact made a strong attempt to ensure Muslim support by utilizing the personal contacts of Badruddin Tyabji. He even sought to rally peasant support in 1887 through two popular pamphlets translated into twelve languages.
Such efforts were nevertheless short-lived and mostly unsuccessful. The Aligarh Muslim elite was still apprehensive regarding the possible domination of Hindus in the elected councils. The 1893 riots further aggravated the problem of Muslim alienation, and the percentage of Muslim delegates in Congress fell drastically during the period between 1893 to 1905. However, the Congress leaders were not much perturbed by those developments at that point of time as there was not yet any rival Muslim organization. Not much attempts were made to entice Muslim opinion and support in the period after 1887-1888. The peasant strategy of Hume was abandoned as well on the ground of inciting intense official suspicion and hostility.
Measures taken by the Moderates to arouse Political Consciousness among the Masses
The Moderates acknowledged that if they had to create a united public opinion on political questions then it is important to arouse political consciousness among the masses. Thus, the second major objective of the Congress leaders was to achieve the arousal, training, organisation and consolidation of public opinion.
For this purpose, they utilized several methods. Firstly, the Moderate leaders held meetings where speeches of high political and intellectual calibre was made and secondly, during these meetings they took up those popular grievances and decided to fight for those rights which Indians had in common in relation to the rulers. The early nationalist also rigorously used the sphere of the Press to carry out a daily critique of the Government. Besides, they also sent numerous petitions and memorials to high government officials and the British Parliament which though apparently seemed to be addressed to the Government, but in reality, were addressed to the people, as per leaders like Gokhale, with the help of which they intended to educate the Indian people.
Economic Critique of Colonialism
Although Moderates were taking several initiatives to arouse political consciousness among the masses, they acknowledged the need of having a nationalist ideology. As has been pointed out by some historians, it was immensely important to evolve an understanding of colonialism for ensuring the development of nationalist ideology for there can hardly be a national struggle without an ideological struggle that clarifies the concept of we as a nation against colonialism as common enemy. This development of a nationalist ideology by means of their idea of economic nationalism is probably one of the greatest contributions of the Moderate leaders. The Moderates realized and expounded accordingly that the essence of British imperialism lay in the subordination of Indian economy to British economy whereby India came to be transformed into a supplier of food stuffs and raw materials to the metropolis and a field for the investment of British capital. Thus the leaders started powerful agitations nearly through all the important official economic policies. The nationalist economic agitation was initiated by the assertion of increasing impoverishment of the country, which in view of the Moderates was neither inherent nor unavoidable. It was by no means a visitation from God or nature, but rather something that was entirely man made and therefore capable of being explained and removed. The development of modern industry was concluded to be the panacea for this problem and the means for ensuring economic development. The Moderates unanimously concluded the complete economic transformation of the country on the basis of modern technology and capitalist enterprise to be the primary goal of all their economic policies. However, the early nationalists also cautioned that this industrialization had to be based on Indian and not foreign capital.
Limitations of the Moderates
Despite the various measures taken by the Moderates, their movement nevertheless was to a great extent weakened by their narrow social base. This was however not an accident but a conscious decision.
It must be noted here that the Moderates lacked the political faith in the masses owing to their social, cultural and political backwardness, and hence concluded that national leadership should remain in the hands of the few educated rather than the masses. However, what they failed to take into account is that the masses alone possessed the qualities of heroism and sacrifice, which were one of the major requirements of a prolonged anti-imperialist struggle and that the masses alone could provide the real force behind their political demands.
While a section of historians is of the opinion that given their narrow social base, the Moderates fought for the social classes that they came from themselves alone, others hold that this was not the case on the ground that its policies championed the cause of all Indians and represented nationwide interest against colonial exploitation.
In spite of the failure of the Moderates in mobilizing the masses and organising mass movements, we can hardly overlook the fact that it was nevertheless successful in waging an ideological struggle against colonialism and imperialism which sowed the seeds later day nationalism, be it Extremist, revolutionary-terrorist, Gandhian or even socialist. Their economic critique of colonialism served as a major blow for the moral foundation of the British rule in India and also corroded the belief that was inculcated by the rulers that the British were the mai-baap of the masses in India. This corrosion of faith in the inherent goodness of British rule inevitably spread to the political field as well whereby the later nationalist leaders came to link almost every important economic question with the politically subordinated status of the country. The Moderates thus paved the way for powerful mass agitations and mass movements in later times. Thus it may be concluded that despite their own failure to organize the masses, the Moderates were nevertheless successful in creating a public opinion by means of their economic agitation against the colonial rule, for it was precisely their economic critique of colonialism which if not initiated but definitely strengthened the idea of colonial exploitation sowing the seeds for the later day demand for freedom from such exploitation by means of political freedom. They succeeded in consolidating the idea of a nation which irrespective of its various differences was united in terms of its exploitation that stemmed from subordination to British rule.
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