History of the Indian National Congress

History of the Indian National Congress

From its foundation on 28 December 1885 till the time of independence of India on August 15, 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. And the Congress's foundations in democracy and multiculturalism helped make India a consistently democratic and free nation. The Congress was the strongest foundation and defining influence of modern Indian nationalism.


Founded upon the suggestion 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.


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, educated and wealthy people's institution.

Rise of Indian nationalism

Lokmanya Tilak was the first to embrace "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 the first Indian nationalist 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. 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 1906, the Congress was split into two. Tilak advocated what was deemed as "extremism". He wanted a direct assault by the people upon the British Raj, and the abandonment of all things British. 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 1907, considered the Congress as completely unsuitable for Indian Muslims.

World War I: the battle for the soul

"See also": World War I

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 favored 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".

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" passed on in 1920, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale had passed on four years earlier. Thus it was now entirely up to Gandhi's Congress to show the way for the nation.

The Gandhi era

"See also": Mahatma Gandhi, Satyagraha, Gandhism

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 in Champaran and Kheda. A whole new generation of leaders arose from different parts of India, who were committed Gandhians - Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, 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.

ocial 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
*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 (1937-1942)

When under the Government of India Act 1935, the Congress first tasted political power, 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 India.

The Socialists

The "Congress Socialist Party" was formed by young Congressmen like Asoka Mehta, Jaya Prakash Narayan, Narendra Dev and others, with the support of Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1936, the Congress would adopt socialism as its goal for the future free Government of India.

The radical followers of Subhash 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. (See Reginald Reynolds, Beware of Africans). 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 most prominent leader from Tamil Nadu resigned from the Congress to actively advocate supporting the British war effort.

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.

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

"See also": 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


The last series of political issues that the Congress Party of the Independence era contributed to was the creation of the Constitution of India and working the Constituent Assembly of India.

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 (especially in Patel's home state of Gujarat, where due to Patel's work, Kripalani received not one vote) 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 charismatic popularity. With the 1952 election sweep, the Congress became India's main political party.

ee also


*"Patel: A Life" Rajmohan Gandhi
*"My Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth", M.K. Gandhi
*"Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel", Narhari Parikh

External links

*Indian nationalism, Indian Independence Movement
*Satyagraha, Gandhism

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