Foundation of the Indian National Congress and its Utility in the Freedom Movement

Conspiracy Theory

The foundation of the Indian National Congress in December 1885 was by no means a sudden event or historical accident but rather can be seen as the result of a process of political awakening that had been initiated in the late 1860s and 1870s and finally took a major leap forward in the late 1870s and early 1880s. The new political thrust noticeable in the period between 1875 and 1885 may be attributed to the younger, more radical nationalist intellectuals, most of whom entered politics during this period. These intellectuals initiated the process of establishing new associations as they came to perceive the older associations as too narrowly conceived in terms of their programmes, political activity and their social base as well. The British Indian Association, for instance, came to increasingly identify itself with the interests of the zamindars and thereby gradually lost its anti-British edge. On the other hand, the Bombay Association and the Madras Native Association had become reactionary and moribund. Thus the younger nationalists of Bengal led by Surendranath Banerjee and Ananda Mohan Bose founded the Indian Association in 1876. Again in Madras, figures like M. Viraraghavachariar, G. Subramaniya Iyer, P. Ananda Charlu and others founded the Madras Mahajan Sabha in 1884, while in Bombay, the more militant intellectuals like K.T.Telang and Pherozeshah Mehta formed the Bombay Presidency Association in 1885. The other provincial towns like Lahore, Amritsar, Meerut, Kanpur, Aligarh, Poona, Ahmedabad, Surat, Patna or Cuttack did not remain unaffected either by the agitations that were launched on national issues. This development of political consciousness cutting across regional barriers may be ascribed to the fact that Western education and English language and discontent over common issues had formed a bond between these regional elites. However, most of the demands raised by these associations remained unfulfilled, and by 1885 the formation of an all-India political organisation came to be recognised as an objective necessity by nationalists all over the country. The Indian Association in December 1883 organised an All-India National Conference and raised the call for another one in December 1885. So the possibility of the emergence of a national body was clearly in the air. Thus the Indian National Congress was formed at a national convention held in Bombay in December 1885 under the presidency of W.C.Bonerjee.

Safety-valve or Conspiracy Theory

A.O.Hume, a retired British civil servant, being highly involved in this process as it was, in fact, he who toured across the subcontinent and spoke to prominent political leaders in the three presidency towns and meet in a national conference; has given rise to a wide range of controversy regarding the origins of the Indian National Congress. The controversy began with the publication of Hume’s biography written by William Wedderburn, another ex-civil servant, in 1913. Wedderburn claimed that Hume had come across seven volumes of secret reports in 1878 that betrayed that there was large-scale discontent brewing among the lower classes and a conspiracy to overthrow the British rule by force. Hume, being highly disturbed by these reports, met Lord Dufferin and together, they decided to establish an organisation with the educated Indians that would essentially serve as a safety valve by means of opening up a line of communication between the rulers and the ruled and thereby inhibit a mass revolution. The Congress, therefore, was concluded to be a creation of British rule. For a long time, this safety valve theory was asserted by all shades of historians ranging from the earlier nationalist historians to the imperialist historians who in turn utilized it as a means for discrediting the Congress to the Marxist historians who again developed a conspiracy theory from this. Thus we can see that R.P.Dutt concluded that the Congress was born through a conspiracy to thwart a popular uprising in India, and the Indian bourgeois leaders too were a party to it. However, the safety valve and conspiracy theories have been thoroughly discredited in recent researches whereby it has been shown that those alleged seven volumes of secret reports have never been traced in any archives in India or London in the very first place. Secondly, as has been pointed out by various historians that the contemporary structure of the British information system in the 1870s clearly negated the possibility of existence of so many volumes of secret reports. Info 1Besides, no reference concerning the existence of such reports have been found elsewhere except for in Wedderburn’s biography which too mentions that these reports were supplied to Hume by religious gurus and not procured from any official sources. Finally, the opening up of Lord Dufferin’s private papers exploded the myth of Dufferin’s sponsorship of either Hume or the Congress for it revealed that he had albeit met Hume in Simla in May 1885, but nevertheless did not take him seriously. He then gave definite orders to the Government of Bombay to be cautious about the delegates who were going to meet in the city. Scholars now more or less unanimously agree that this account of the seven volumes of secret reports was more of a fiction penned by a friendly autobiographer to portray Hume as a British patriot who intended to save the British Empire from an impending crisis.

It is nevertheless undeniable that Hume did, in fact, play a very crucial role in the founding of the Indian National Congress, but in a very different way than that asserted by the safety valve theory or conspiracy theory. The Congress, it must be noted here at least in its initial years, was by no means a radical organisation in terms of political behaviour. Rather it in fact was a cautious association that sought to alleviate what leaders like Surendranath Banerjee perceived as unpleasant aspects of the un-British rule in India. Besides, figures like W.C.Bonerji were quite vocal in asserting that the organisation was by no means a nest of conspirators and disloyalists. The Congress leaders, according to some scholars, seem to have involved Hume in the process in order to assuage any sort of official suspicion. This contention is clearly proved by Gokhale’s writing in 1913 where he cautioned that any attempt by Indians to form and all-India organisation would attract the unfriendly attention of the authorities who would in turn, in some way or the other successfully suppress the movement. Thus some scholars have concluded that even if Hume and other English liberals had hoped to use Congress as a safety valve, the Congress leaders, in turn, hoped to utilize Hume as a lightning conductor.

Economic Critique of Colonialism

The Indian National Congress played a crucial role in the course of the freedom movement, and it was, in fact, the aegis under which mainstream nationalism grew. The Congress, in its initial years, which is commonly referred to as the ‘Moderate’ phase, albeit was not very radical and highly limited, be it in terms of its objectives or its course of political action, but it nevertheless engendered a new and modern trend in Indian political tradition. The moderates sought to unite the Indians into a nation and to 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 that could achieve the unification of Indian people on the basis of common economic and political programme. One of the greatest contributions of the Moderates was that they successfully furnished a nationalist ideology which in turn demanded a thorough understanding of colonialism. This was immensely important, for it must be remembered that an ideological struggle that clarifies the concept of we as nation against colonialism as a common enemy was highly imperative for a national struggle. The Moderates achieved this development of a nationalist ideology by means of their idea of economic nationalism. The Moderates Info 2realized and expounded accordingly that the essence of British imperialism lay in the subordination of the Indian economy to the 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 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. The Moderates were 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. 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.

Alienation of Muslims

The Congress, albeit should be credited for engendering the process of arousing political consciousness and furnished the idea of a nation united by the same problem of economic exploitation by colonialism, it nevertheless was fraught with various foibles right from the very beginning. The mainstream Indian nationalism, which grew under the aegis of the Indian National Congress, failed to encompass all sections of the Indian society and was, in fact incessantly contested from within the Indian society. This consequently culminated in a spate of alternative visions of nation, represented by a variety of minority or marginal groups who repeatedly challenged and negotiated with the Congress. The Muslims were the first ones to challenge this version of nationalism of the Congress. A large section of the Muslim population did not consider the Congress to be their representative right from the very beginning, and instead, prominent Muslim leaders like Dir Sayyid Ahmed Khan concluded it to be the representative of the majority Hindus. However, he should not be confused for an anti-nationalist, but nevertheless favoured a different conception of nation, which according to him was a federation of communities having entitlement to different kinds of political rights that in turn would depend on their ancestry and political importance. The Muslims, therefore, being an ex-ruling class, would have a special place within the framework of the new cosmopolitan British Empire. This clearly contrasted the Congress’s vision of nation as per which it consisted of individual citizens. The increasing Muslim alienation ultimately culminated in the formation of the All India Muslim League in 1906. It must be noted here that the League did not demand for a separate homeland right from the beginning, rather initially it sought to search for a distinctive political identity with a demand for protection of their political rights as a minority community through the creation of a separate electorate. It must be remembered that the conceptualisation of a Muslim nation was by no means merely the imagining of the Muslim League and Jinnah alone, and one of its many contributors was, in fact that the constant sneering by an intransigent secularist leadership of the Congress.

Mass Movement

Another foible of the Congress was that it primarily proved to be an elitist body, at least in its initial years. The change in this trend is noticeable only after the arrival of Gandhi. The mainstream nationalist movement in India prior to the arrival of Gandhi, which grew primarily under the aegis of the Indian National Congress, has been concluded by some scholars to be a movement representing the classes as opposed to the masses. For nationalist movement prior to this was primarily dominated and participated by only a limited group of Western educated professionals belonging to certain specific castes and communities, linguistic and economic groups, mainly residing in the three Presidency towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Apart from these other sections of the society like the lower caste Hindus or the Muslims, the peasants, both the rich ones and the landless remained distanced from the mainstream nationalist movement, thus leading the colonial government to conclude that the Congress was being run as a closed shop by a microscopic minority. The Gandhian movements marked a clear deviation from this path. Gandhi, having realized the pluralist nature of the Indian society, was able to bring within his aegis the various constituents of the Indian society, the best example of this being the Muslim community. Gandhi successfully aligned with the younger generation of the Muslim leaders by supporting the Khilafat issue. By means of emphasizing its anti-British aspects and underplaying its pan-Islamic tendencies, Gandhi was able to successfully unite the Hindus and the Muslims in a common battle against the British. Above all, Gandhi was able to go beyond the elite leaders and appeal to directly to the Indian peasantry, thereby ensuring popular support for the nationalist movement. This can, to a great extent, be attributed to his novel idea of nationalism. Contrary to the earlier politicians who sought to fashion a nationalist ideology based on the ideas borrowed from the West, Gandhi concluded that the ideology must be essentially rooted in India and its ancient civilization. He was convinced that popular loyalties in India were far more determined by religion rather than the institution of class. He thus successfully utilised various religious idioms to appeal to the vast reserve of the masses and ensure their participation in the nationalist movement. This should nevertheless not be equated with the revivalism of the earlier politicians, for contrary to them, Gandhi was referring to religious morality and not history. His goal being a moral goal was, therefore an utopian goal, one which was unattainable and ever-elusive. Gandhi was, nevertheless, in this case, not introducing a novel idea. For the history of mass movement in India can be traced back to the 1890s in the movements organised by Tilak, the activities of the Punjab extremists and most importantly, the Swadeshi movement in Bengal in 1905-08, all of which had already laid the foundation for agitational politics in India. Besides, the mass mobilisations carried out by the Home Rule Leagues of Tilak and Annie Besant sowed the seeds for the success of Gandhi’s initial satyagraha movements. However, contrary to Gandhi’s original intentions of carrying out not just any mass upsurge but a controlled mass movement that would strictly adhere to its prescribed path; the masses repeatedly proved to go beyond the boundaries of Gandhian politics, thereby deviating from his ideals, but paradoxically while at the same time believing that they were following their messiah into a new utopian world of Gandhian Raj. The Chauri Chaura incident of 1922, when the villagers burned alive twenty-two policemen in the local police station under the conviction that destruction of the Thana in fact, signalled the coming of the Gandhian raj.

Alienation of Non-Brahmans

Now, although it is undoubtedly true that the coming of Gandhi brought about major qualitative and quantitative changes in the Congress led nationalist movement, but Gandhi too failed to ensure for the Congress the absolute support of the Non-Brahman castes or the untouchable groups. This can, to a great extent, be attributed to the Gandhian ideas on untouchability and the removal of the same, which came to perceived by leaders like Ambedkar to highly problematic and was therefore strongly criticized. Gandhi was of the opinion that the problem of untouchability was essentially a problem of the self, which in this case was the collective Hindu self. Thus he perceived the movement for the annihilation of untouchability as a sacred ritual of self-purification. Thus for Gandhi, the question of untouchability was essentially a religious one and that too one that was internal to Hinduism. Now since Gandhi perceived the movement to obliterate untouchability as a sacred ritual of self-purification, it placed a great deal of responsibility on the caste Hindu self. This is quite clear from Gandhi’s own words. As per him, it was the responsibility of the caste Hindus to embrace their suppressed brethren and sisters as their very own, whom they would have to invite to their temples, to their homes and to their schools. He further stated that the untouchables in the villages had to be made to feel that their shackles have been broken, that they are in no way inferior to their fellow villagers, that they are worshippers of the same God as the other villagers and hence lastly entitled to the same rights and privileges that the latter enjoy. This process of self-purification by means of the realisation of sin and practice of penance would ultimately create a sort of halo that would envelop the caste Hindu, which would look almost spiritual. This process of self-purification resulted in a subtle way in the glorification of the individual self. This process endowed upon the caste Hindu a sort of heroic stature, which in turn culminated in the further dwarfing of the Harijan personality. Thus Ambedkar concluded that the panacea for the plight of the untouchables suggested by Gandhi placed the agency completely in the hands of the upper caste Hindus, but failed to take into cognizance the individual agency of the untouchables and therefore did not delineate the measures to be taken by the untouchables to free themselves. As mentioned earlier the question of untouchability for Gandhi was essentially a religious question. According to a section of historians, Gandhi’s campaign, though succeeded in undermining the moral and religious basis of untouchability, but failed to deal with its economic and political roots. So, historians have concluded that it dignified the untouchables but failed to empower them. The Gandhian approach failed to convince Dalit leaders like Ambedkar, who was in favour of political solution which could be achieved by securing guaranteed access to education, employment and political representation for the Dalits. The Dalit leaders were of the opinion that if given a proper share of economic and political power, the gates of temples would automatically open for them as well. Besides not only Gandhian philosophy, but the program of work of his Harijan Sevak Sangh was also fraught with contradictions. This organisation tended to be highly patronising in nature whereby the leaders, who were primarily upper-caste Hindus, distributed soaps among the untouchables suggesting them to be clean, eat well and have pure vegetarian food in order to ensure their incorporation into the Hindu society, thus clearly affirming the purity-pollution norms that constituted the very base of the system of untouchability. Gandhi was of the opinion that the problem of untouchability was essentially a problem of the self, which in this case was the collective Hindu self. Thus he perceived the movement for the annihilation of untouchability as a sacred ritual of self-purification. Thus for Gandhi, the question of untouchability was essentially a religious one and that too one that was internal to Hinduism. Now since Gandhi perceived the movement to obliterate untouchability as a sacred ritual of self-purification, it placed a great deal of responsibility on the caste Hindu self. This is quite clear from Gandhi’s own words. As per him, it was the responsibility of the caste Hindus to embrace their suppressed brethren and sisters as their very own, whom they would have to invite to their temples, to their homes and to their schools. He further stated that the untouchables in the villages had to be made to feel that their shackles have been broken, that they are in no way inferior to their fellow villagers, that they are worshippers of the same God as the other villagers and hence lastly entitled to the same rights and privileges that the latter enjoy. This process of self-purification by means of the realisation of sin and practice of penance would ultimately create a sort of halo that would envelop the caste Hindu, which would look almost spiritual. This process of self-purification resulted in a subtle way in the glorification of the individual self. This process endowed upon the caste Hindu a sort of heroic stature, which in turn culminated in the further dwarfing of the Harijan personality. Thus Ambedkar concluded that the panacea for the plight of the untouchables suggested by Gandhi placed the agency completely in the hands of the upper caste Hindus, but failed to take into cognizance the individual agency of the untouchables and therefore did not delineate the measures to be taken by the untouchables to free themselves. As mentioned earlier the question of untouchability for Gandhi was essentially a religious question. According to a section of historians Gandhi’s campaign though succeeded in undermining the moral and religious basis of untouchability, but failed to deal with its economic and political roots. So, historians have concluded that it dignified the untouchables but failed to empower them. The Gandhian approach failed to convince Dalit leaders like Ambedkar, who were in favour of political solution which could be achieved by securing guaranteed access to education, employment and political representation for the Dalits. The Dalit leaders were of the opinion that if given a proper share of economic and political power, the gates of temples would automatically open for them as well. Besides not only Gandhian philosophy, but the program of work of his Harijan Sevak Sangh was also fraught with contradictions. This organisation tended to be highly patronising in nature whereby the leaders, who were primarily upper caste Hindus, distributed soaps among the untouchables suggesting them to be clean, eat well and have pure vegetarian food in order to ensure their incorporation in the Hindu society, thus clearly affirming the purity-pollution norms that constituted the very base of the system of untouchability.

Women’s Participation

Despite its inherent limitations, the immense contributions of Congress can hardly be neglected. As mentioned earlier, the idea of economic nationalism of the Moderates sowed the seeds for further nationalist agitation in the future. The Congress should also be credited for organising such major all-India movements such as the Non-cooperation and the Civil Disobedience movement, which though ended in failure but nevertheless left an essential imprint on the course of the freedom struggle. The Indian National Congress indeed succeeded in creating political and nationalist consciousness, and this was probably best manifested during the Quit India Movement. For it must be noted here that, unlike the earlier nationalist movements, this one was primarily led by the masses as most of the major Congress leaders were arrested right in the beginning of the movement. Another major contribution of the Congress in the freedom movement was bringing women within its aegis, which was even more prominently noticeable from the time of Gandhi. The Gandhian movements marked a major rupture in the story of women’s involvement in the nationalist movement. In contrast to the earlier notions of ideal Indian womanhood that concentrated on the aspect of motherhood, Gandhi shifted the focus to sisterhood by negating women’s sexuality. His clarion call to women was full of religious metaphors that by no means appeared to be subversive of the traditional values about femininity. Gandhi, although used the examples of Sita-Damayanti-Draupadi as role models for women who were perceived as no slaves of their husbands, but rather ones who were capable of making immense sacrifices for their family; but while addressing Muslim women, he avoided such references which might appear to be strictly Hindu and instead and simply appealed to them to make sacrifice for their country and Islam. Gandhi by no means subverted the traditional concept of Indian womanhood, and neither did he invert the doctrine of two separate spheres, which is the private and public, but rather ensured political participation by creating a space for politics in the home. Women’s participation in Gandhian movements can be traced back to 1913 when in South Africa; Gandhi involved women in public demonstrations. Women actively participated in the Rowlatt Satyagraha Info 3and the Non-cooperation movement as well, though Gandhi prescribed a very limited role for them in case of the latter that merely involved boycott and swadeshi. Women nevertheless claimed for themselves a greater active role. For example, in November 1921, thousands of women greeted the Prince of Wales in Bombay, followed by the participation of Basanti Devi, wife of C.R.Das, his sister Urmila Devi and niece Suniti Devi in open demonstration in the streets of Calcutta and courting arrest in December. It must be noted here that Gandhi succeeded in appealing to not just women from respectable middle class families but also marginalised women such as prostitutes and devadasis, though Gandhi himself was hesitant to involve them. The threshold was in fact reached during the Civil Disobedience movement when thousands of women participated in the illegal manufacture of salt, picketing foreign cloth and liquor shops and also participated in processions. Besides, some women in Bengal even got involved in violent revolutionary movements, and contrary to the Swadeshi movement, they actually shot pistols at magistrates and governors rather than being restricted to mere supportive roles.

Gandhi’s immense appeal to women may be attributed to the fact that he portrayed women’s service to the nation as a part of their religious duty. Given his emphasis on non-violence and maintenance of respectable image of female satyagrahis, Gandhi remained well within the limits of accepted norms of feminine behaviour, and thus, the men were assured that their women were safe in Gandhi’s hands. Thus basically, the women participated because their male guardians wanted them to do. Besides, given the fact that most of women who participated came from families where the men were already involved in Gandhian movements, the public role of women merely came to be perceived as an extension of their domestic roles as mothers, wives, sisters or daughters. Thus some historians are of the opinion that such traditionalist moorings were the reason as to why this politicisation was possible and as to why it failed to promote to any significant extent social emancipation of women in India. The Congress was by no means interested in women’s issues and never included women in any decision making process, but rather merely allowed for some symbolic presence. Nevertheless, we can hardly overlook the fact that despite these foibles, such active participation of women, especially of those from respectable families which even at times amounted to going jail and suffering indignity and despite that coming back to their families without any stigma attached undoubtedly echoed a remarkable change in Indian social attitudes. Besides, albeit not openly deviant but certain women were nevertheless slowly pushing the boundaries of their autonomy by manipulating various cultural metaphors such as that of the extended family. Mention may be made of Bi Amman, the elderly mother of Shaukat and Muhammad Ali, who not only actively participated in the Khilafat movement but even more importantly at a mass meeting in Punjab lifted her veil and addressed the crowd as her children concluding that a mother did not require a veil in front of her children thereby including the whole nation in her extended fictive family.

 References

  1. Bandyopadhyay,Sekhar. From Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Modern India. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2009.
  2. Nagaraj, D.R. The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: The Dalit Movement in India. India: Permanent Black, 2010.
  3. Palshikar, Suhas. “Gandhi-Ambedkar Interface: When Shall the Twain Meet?” In Economic and Political Weekly, Vol31, No.31.
  4. Gandhi, M.K. “Statement on Untoucability”. In The Past of the Outcaste: Readings in Dalit History By Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and Yagati Chinna Rao. Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan Private Limited, 2017.
  5. Sarkar, Sumit. Modern India, 1885-1947. Delhi: Macmillan Publishers India Ltd, 1983.
  6. Chandra, Bipan. India’s Struggle for Independence,1857-1947. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1988.
  7. Chandra Bipan, Tripathi Amalesh, De Barun. Freedom Struggle. New Delhi: National Book Trust, India, 1972.

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