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Indian Independence: Nationalism Source 1

Indian National Congress

(Text from British Library exhibition notes: The Indian National Congress 1885-1985)

Members of the first Indian National Congress, 1885

Group photograph of the delegates of the 1885 First Indian National Congress, reproduced in: H.P.Mody, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta (Bombay, 1921). [shelfmark: IOL. T 10951]

The background

In April 1884 the Viceroy, Lord Ripon, wrote to Lord Kimberley, the Secretary of State for India, on a question of government policy which was becoming daily more pressing: 'You may rely upon it that there are few Indian questions of greater importance in the present day than those which relate to the mode in which we are to deal with the growing body of natives educated by ourselves in Western learning and Western ideas.'

The emerging English-educated Indian middle classes to whom Ripon referred were the product of an anglicised system of higher education which had been instituted in India some fifty years earlier in order to create, in the words of Thomas Babington Macaulay, 'a new class who may be the interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern - a class of persons Indian in colour and blood, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in interests.' By 1857, the year of the rebellion in India, some five hundred graduates a year in Bengal alone were seeking employment in the service of the East India Company. They found it almost impossible, however, to obtain positions in the Indian administration commensurate with their education and qualifications. The 1853 Charter Act theoretically opened up the covenanted Indian Civil Service, the cream of the administration in India, to all British subjects between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three. But entry was by means of a competitive examination which was held only in England. Aspiring Indian candidates, already burdened by the financial and social pressures involved in travelling overseas to sit the examination, were further handicapped when the upper age limit was progressively reduced from twenty-three in 1853 to nineteen by 1876. Convinced, in the words of one Viceroy, of the 'essential and insurmountable distinctions of race qualities', most British officials did not regard the educated Indian as suitable material for the more senior positions within the civil service. When, therefore, in 1863, exceptionally high marks in Arabic and Sanskrit enabled Satyendra Nath Tagore to become the first Indian to pass the entrance examination, the authorities in England were more than a little concerned. They reduced the marks allocated to these subjects and also cancelled a scholarship scheme which had been designed to enable nine Indian students to travel to England each year for higher education.

By 1887 only a dozen Indians had entered the covenanted service through open competition. With so few gaining admission, the majority of English-educated Indians turned instead to law and teaching or politics and journalism or sometimes a combination of both. Man Mohan Ghose, the first Indian barrister, read for the London bar after two failures in the civil service examination in 1864 and 1865. Woomesh Chandra Bonnerjee, the first president of the Indian National Congress in 1885, was also a lawyer. Dadabhai Naoroii, formerly professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at the Elphinstone College in Bombay, was instrumental in establishing the London India Society in 1865 and the East India Association, again in London, in 1866. Both were intended to influence British opinion on Indian questions. Surendranath Bancrica passed the civil service examination in 1869 but was dismissed in 1874. He turned to teaching, journalism and politics, became editor of The Bengalee and founded the Indian Association at Calcutta in 1876. The Indian Association was designed to stimulate public opinion in India on political questions and to unite Indians around a common political programme. It was the most important of a number of new political organisations which were being established in the Presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras. Unlike the older Presidency Associations which had been set up in the early 1850s to represent the interests of the landed aristocracy, the Indian Association at Calcutta and its counterparts in Bombay and lkladras were more representative of the new middle classes. Between 1876 and 1888, of forty-eight committee members of the Indian Association, thirty-one had university degrees, eight were journalists and sixty-eight per cent were lawyers. In 1877 Banerjea embarked on a nationwide tour, made possible by the development of railways and the continued spread of English as a common language, to gather support for the Indian Association's political programme of an increased age limit for the civil service examination, the holding of simultaneous civil service examinations in London and India, the extension of local self-government and increased Indian representation on the legislative councils. The activities of the Indian Association and the other presidency associations were also designed to influence Westminster. Convinced of what Banerjea described as the 'high character of British institutions', the English-educated Indian believed that he could secure redress in Britain for his grievances in India. For this reason the Indian Association deputed Lal Mohan Ghose to present a memorial (a statement of facts as the basis of a petition) on the civil service question in Britain in 1879 and in 1885 a three-man delegation was sent to Britain to present India's case during the general election.

Contrasting British responses to the demands of educated Indians could be seen in the attitudes and policies of two successive Viceroys: Lord Lytton (1876-1880) and Lord Ripon (1880-1884). A romantic and imaginative Tory, Lytton set out to bring India's foreign policy into line with British imperial policy. Determined to thwart the Russians in Central Asia, he attempted to turn Afghanistan into a client state. The result was the second Afghan war between 1878 and 1880. Within India, Lytton attempted to rally the Indian aristocracy to the imperial cause by organising a lavish durbar at Delhi in 1877 at which Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. For the Indian middle classes, Lytton had nothing but contempt. Describing them as the product of a 'very shallow English education', Lytton ignored their grievances and chose to discriminate against their interests. He was responsible for an Arms Act, from which Europeans and Anglo-Indians were exempt, which required Indians, with certain aristocratic exceptions, to pay a license fee in order to possess weapons, and also a Vernacular Press Act which empowered local governments to demand deposits from the editors and publishers of Indian-language newspapers as guarantees against the publication of seditious articles.

Lord Ripon, Lytton's successor, had an entirely different approach. An exponent of Gladstonian liberalism who had served as Under-Secretary of State for India some twenty years earlier, Ripon set out to correct the impression that Indian interests were always sacrificed to those of Britain. Convinced that the Indian middle classes could no longer be ignored, Ripon was prepared to meet their legitimate aspirations. He repealed the Press Act, proposed an amended Arms Act without the clauses favourable to Europeans and Anglo--Indians, introduced legislation to extend local self-government and considered fresh means to facilitate the entry of Indian candidates into the Indian Civil Service. But in pressing ahead with his reform proposals, Ripon reckoned without the opposition of the European and Anglo-Indian community in Bengal which came to a bitter and controversial head over the Ilbert Bill in 1883. The Bill, which took its name from Sir Courtenay Ilbert, the Law Member of the Viceroy's Council, was designed to remove an anomaly whereby an Indian magistrate could try a European offender in the Presidency towns but not in the countryside. It roused the unofficial European and. Anglo -Indian community of planters and merchants in the Bengal countryside to furious protest. They formed a European and Anglo-Indian Defence Association which launched a vitriolic attack against the liberal policies of the Viceroy. Their clamour revived racist fears and passions which had lain dormant since the rebellion of 1857 After a year of intense agitation by the Bill's opponents, Ripon was persuaded to accept a compromise which gave Europeans the right to claim that if they were brought to court at least half of the jury should be European.

The Indian National Congress

Ripon left India in 1884 with his liberal reputation still intact. Nationwide demonstrations which were organised in his honour quite overshadowed the arrival of the new Viceroy, Lord Dufferin. But the controversy over the Ilbert Bill had effectively invalidated Ripon's efforts to secure an improvement in the position of the Indian middle classes. Educated Indian leaders drew their own conclusions from the agitation. They became aware that they could not expect too much from even a sympathetic Viceroy like Ripon. They had also received an object lesson in the arts of political organisation and manipulation from the European and Anglo-Indian Defence Association. Both considerations emphasised to the Indian leaders the need for more concerted action at the national level. With this in mind, Surendranath Banerjea was instrumental in convening a National Conference in Calcutta at the end of 1883.

A handful of British civil servants who were sympathetic to the aspirations of the educated Indians were likewise convinced of the need for a national organisation. They included Sir William Wedderburn, A Bombay civil servant, at whose suggestion in 1883 Dadabhai Naoroji established the Voice of India, a monthly digest of extracts from the local Indian press, and Allan Octavian Hume, a Bengal civil servant with specialist knowledge of Indian agriculture and an absorbing interest in ornithology. Hume had come to India before the 1857 rebellion with a bias in favour of the educated Indian inherited from his radical father. Eccentric and egocentric, he regarded him-self as an authority on Indian opinion and never ceased to convey to a succession of Viceroys his own obsessive fear that another rebellion would ensue if the British persisted in their disregard for the aspirations of educated Indians. Passed over for a younger but less able man for a vacancy on the Viceroy's Council and then deprived of his post as secretary to the Bengal government, Hume retired from the civil service in 1882 but continued to act as an unofficial and self-appointed go-between between the official world of the Indian government and the world of the educated Indian. In May 1885 he informed the Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, that he and his Indian colleagues intended to form an Indian National Union. Plans were being made to hold its first conference at Poona towards the end of the year with Lord Reay, the governor of Bombay, in the chair and with other officials in attendance. Dufferin did not object to a conference but thought it 'absurd' that a governor should be invited to preside over a meeting which would inevitably criticise government policy and formulate impossible demands. In the event a conference was convened, but without Lord Reay and not at Poona as originally planned because of an out-break of cholera. Instead it was held at Bombay on 28, 29 and 30 December 1885. Before the conference opened the decision was taken to change the name from the Indian National Union to the Indian National Congress.

The Bombay meeting in December 1885 was attended by seventy-two representatives, over half of whom came from the Bombay Presidency with smaller numbers attending from Madras, Bengal, the North-Western Provinces and the Punjab. One speaker described the proceedings as 'the beginning of a national political life', a sentiment echoed in the Indian press. The Indian Mirror referred to the Bombay meeting as 'an important chapter in the history of British rule in India', while the Hindu wrote of Indians commemorating 'the birth of their national unity'. Such claims were perhaps somewhat exaggerated. Although it continued to gather support, attracting over 1200 people to its fourth meeting at Allahabad in 1888, the early Congress did not represent a significant new force. In terms of its aims, support and methods, it was no different from the presidency political associa-tions out of which it had grown. It continued to press for simultaneous civil service entrance ex-aminations in London and India and for reform of the legislative councils. It continued to represent the interests of the middle class professions and had a membership based on an overwhelming preponderance of lawyers. It continued to believe that it could influence government policy in India by orchestrating publicity and propaganda campaigns in Britain. In 1889 a British Committee of the Indian National Congress was established in London and in 1892, at the second attempt, Dadabhai Naoroji secured election to the House of Commons. In Britain, Congress spent more money than it did in India and it also had a journal, which was more than it had in India. Between annual sessions in India, Congress was scarcely visible and was kept alive by the untiring efforts of Hume who became its first General Secretary.

The Bombay Congress of 1885 was nonetheless significant in that it represented the first occasion on which representatives of the Indian middle classes who shared similar interests, values and aspirations had come together in what they clearly regarded as a national forum. Henceforth the annual session became the high point of the political year, as well as a major social event. The leaders of the early Congress were anxious to dispel the notion that theirs was a disloyal movement. When, in his presidential speech at the second Congress at Calcutta in 1886, Naoroji put the question: 'Is this Congress a nursery for sedition and rebellion against the British government?', the delegates cried 'no, no', and when, continuing, he asked, 'or is it another stone in the foundation of the stability of that Government?', the answer came back 'yes, yes'. Congress therefore stood, not for the ending of the Raj, but for reforms within the continuing framework of British rule. The British, however, remained unresponsive to the aspirations of Congress. Within only three Years Dufferin was writing of Congress as that 'infinitesimal section of the Indian community' which had been 'tinctured either directly or indirectly with an infusion of European education, European political ideas, and European literature'. Lord Curzon, Viceroy at the turn of the century, was even more dismissive. Believing that Congress was 'tottering to its fall', it became his ambition to 'assist it to a peaceful demise'. This contemptuous attitude, allied to Curzon's partition of Bengal in 1905, persuaded a younger generation of Congress supporters that constitutional methods were futile and that they would have to become more militant. It was not, however, until Gandhi emerged as a national leader at the end of the First World War that Congress was transformed into a mass movement with the popular support needed to spearhead the campaigns which led to India's independence in 1947.