Monthly Archives: March 2009


The Birth of Indian National Congress

Today India is making rapid strides in various fields. With a population of more than one billion, Indian engineers and doctors are much sought of in developed countries. Many Indian businessmen are now in a buying spree, acquiring companies across the globe. The green and white revolution has enabled India to feed its vast majority of population. The country has acquired nuclear capability and our scientists have developed missiles and sent satellites to space. With a vast pool of talented and English educated people, India is the favourite destination for all MNCs for their back office work. In total within a span of sixty years, India is moving towards progress. All these could not have been possible but for the sufferings and sacrifice made by lakhs of freedom fighters whose only objective was the realization of a united and independent India. In this direction the part played by the Indian National Congress was unique.

Genesis of the Congress: The establishment of a highly centralized administrative system by the British, the introduction of modern English system of education, development in the field of transport and communications, the socio-religious reform movements, influence of historical researches, the role of the Indian press, both English and vernaculars in mobilizing public opinion and promoting nationalism were some of the factors which led to the growth of political consciousness among the educated Indians and the need to form an organization to vent their grievances. The reactionary policies of Viceroy Lytton like reducing the maximum age limit for the I.C.S.examination from 21 years to 19 years and the enactment of obnoxious laws like the Vernacular Press Act and Indian Arms Act saw organizations like the Indian Association formed by Surendranath Banerjee to undertake a tour of Northern India to organize people to protest especially against the reducing of maximum age limit for appearing for the I.C.S. examination. Even much earlier a host of organizations had been formed by Indians to safeguard their interests. In fact the beginning of nationalism can be traced in the speeches of Rajnarain Bose, the grandfather of Aurobindo Bose. In 1866 Rajnarain Bose issued a prospectus with a view to establish a ‘Society for the promotion of National feeling among the educated natives of Bengal‘. The object of the society was to resist the tendency of imitating the west by reviving old ideas, traditions and customs in every walk of life. Rabindranath Tagore in his autobiography says that he and his elder brother joined a secret society founded by Rajnarain Bose and got from him their first inspiration to free India. The ideas preached by Rajnarain Bose was enthusiastically taken up by Nabagopal Mitra, who started an annual gathering known as ‘Hindu Mela’ to promote national feeling, sense of patriotism and spirit of self help among Hindus. Special features of the gathering were rendering of patriotic songs, poems and lectures, review of political, social, economic and religious condition of India, exhibition of indigenous arts and crafts and performance of physical exercise. The ‘Hindu Mela’ met 14 times from 1867 to 1880.

But it was A.O.Hume an Englishman who conceived the formation of an organization of All-India nature, which he wanted to play the role similar to that played by the opposition party in the British Parliament. A.O.Hume was a retired government official and according to recent researches was an enlightened imperialist. It is said that he was alarmed at the growing gulf between the rulers and the ruled and was vary of the political motives behind the establishment of Indian National Conference in 1883 by S.N.Banerjee, who was popularizing the ideas and teachings of Italian nationalists like Mazzini and Garibaldi. Hence A.O.Hume decided to by-pass this Indian National Conference and instead organize a loyal political organization. Lala Lajpat Rai felt that the Indian National Congress was organized to serve as a ‘safety-valve’ for the growing unrest in the country and strengthen the British Empire. Dr.Raghuvanshi also maintains that the main purpose for A.O.Hume in organizing the Congress was to ‘save the British Empire‘. In March 1883, Hume addressed an open letter to the graduates of the Calcutta University in which he asked for fifty volunteers to join in a movement to promote the mental, moral, social and political regeneration of the people of India. He also secured the support and sympathy of public men both in England and India including the then Viceroy Dufferin. On 30th December 1885 the first session of the Indian National Congress was held at Bombay and attended by 72 delegates from different parts of India. The Congress was presided over by W.C.Bonnerjee. Some of the demands of the Congress included reform of the legislative councils, simultaneous holding of examination for the I.C.S. in India and England, reduction of military expenditure, abolition of Indian Council, etc.

The Congress sessions: The annual Congress session used to be like a fair with the pandal decorated with flowerpots, buntings and flags. There were stalls selling refreshments and attracted lot of curious visitors. The Presidential procession looked like a triumphal procession. He drove in a carriage amidst large cheering crowds gathered along the route. Student volunteers sometimes pulled his carriage. Holiday atmosphere prevailed.  In 1901 an industrial exhibition was held under the auspices of Calcutta Congress and it soon became a permanent feature of the annual Congress session. A.O.Hume was annually elected General Secretary and even after his departure from India he continued to be elected Honorary General Secretary. Dadabhai Naoroji, Pheroz Shah Mehta, W.C.Bonnerji, Dinshaw Wacha, Badruddin Tyabji, S.N.Banerjee, Gopal Krishna Gokale, Balagangadhar Tilak were some of the prominent Congressmen of the early period. As the proceedings of the Congress was in English only English knowing Indians came, as delegates and majority of them were lawyers or journalists. Big landlords like the Zamindar or Darbhanga, Vizianagram and Ramnad and Princes like the Maharaja of Mysore and Baroda provided funds for the annual Congress sessions in the beginning. Congress during that period spoke for all the classes and communities.

In 1887, the Congress published two pamphlets to woo the peasants. The first pamphlet, ‘A Conversation between Maulvi Fariduddin and Rambaksh of Kambakhtpur‘ written by Hume and the other ‘The Tamil Catechism‘, written by Veeraraghavachariar described the evils of landlordism and despotic government and advocated the establishment of representative government as the remedy. These pamphlets attracted the attention of the government, which felt that the Congress was going too far. In 1889, the British Committee of the Indian National Congress was set up at London with William Wedderburn as Chairman, William Digby as secretary and a number of Englishmen as members. The journal ‘Indian’ was started to propagate the Congress views.

Achievement of early Congressmen: They did lot of spadework and their methods- the use of press for propaganda and publicity, submitting petition, memorandums and passing resolutions and sending deputations all brought about political maturity among the Indians. The main achievement of the early Congressmen was the appointment of a Public Service Commission presided over by Charles Aitchison in 1886. On the recommendation of this Commission, the age of admission to the Civil Service was raised to 23. The Act of 1892 for the first time introduced elective elements in the Central Legislature. The efforts of the Congress resulted in the House of Commons to pass a resolution for simultaneous holding of I.C.S. examination in London and India and the appointment of the Welby Commission to enquire on Indian expenditure. But the greatest service of the early Congressmen was that they focused public attention on the fact that Indian poverty was largely due to the colonial exploitation of Indian economic resources by the British.

Attitude of the government towards Congress: In the beginning the official attitude towards the Congress was sympathetic. Dufferin arranged a tea party to the Congress delegates attending the second Congress session (1886) at Calcutta. In 1887 the Governor of Madras also gave all facilities for the Congress when its third session was held at Madras. But later the government became hostile to the Congress and barred government officials from attending Congress meetings. It also encouraged communalists like Syed Ahmed Khan from issuing a call to the Muslims not to join the Congress.

Response from Karnataka to Congress activities: Kolachalam Venkatarao of Bellary, Bhausaheb Bhate of Belgaum and Narayan Chandavarkar of Karwar were some of the leaders from Karnataka who took active interest in the activities of the Congress in its early stage. Alur Venkata Rao (Dharwad), Srinivasrao Kaujalgi (Bijapur) and Gangadharrao Deshapande (Belgaum) were other early Congressmen from Karnataka. Kolachalam Venkatarao belonged to a scholarly family and was a leading lawyer. He was a philanthropist who endowed the widow’s home in Bellary with Rs 500 and Rs 20,000 for an orphanage. He constructed the Town Hall at Bellary at a cost of Rs 50,000 and furnished it with a free library. He also brought a house at a cost of Rs 7,000 to be used as girl’s school. Narayan Chandavarkar was elected President of the Lahore Congress session in 1900. Earlier in 1893 A.O.Hume visited North Karnataka and was given a warm welcome in Belgaum and Dharwad. His presence among the people of Karnataka infused an intense spirit of nationalism in them.

In Karnataka Balgangadhar Tilak and his papers Kesari and the Maratha were the real harbingers of modern nationalism, especially in North Karnataka area. Kannada journals like Rajahamsa, Karnataka Vritta, Dhananjaya, Swadeshabhimani, Vrittanata Chintamani, etc., spread the gospel of nationalism.

Plague and famine havoc: In 1897 Bubonic plague broke out in Bombay and then spread to Poona. Its mortality was so high in Bombay that queues had to be formed at the cremation grounds and burial places. People fled in panic from their homes and thus spread the epidemic. Even official deserted their posts of duty and it took some months for the seriousness of the situation to dawn upon the authorities. On 4th February 1897 the Epidemic Disease Act was passed and it gave sweeping and drastic powers to the authorities to detain streamer passengers and cargo, to examine railway passengers and to remove those affected to hospitals. Any house could be searched and any person compulsorily segregated without notice. It was the execution of the last two measures, which was entrusted to British soldiers that caused the greatest distress and anger in Poona. Suspected patients were summarily taken to hospitals and their relations to segregation camps. Houses were forcibly entered and defiled; valuable property was destroyed and bonfire were made of furniture, clothes and bedding under the pretext of disinfection.

In Karnataka the epidemic spread to Dharwad, Hubli, Gadag and many other places including Bangalore. A segregation camp was opened in Dharwad. The fear of the soldiers who were entrusted with relief operations may be gauged by the fact that, when in Dharwad the people in the city’s market square heard of the arrival of the soldiers, they left their belongings and ran away. Unable to bear the highhandedness of the military officers, a pious man by name Hayagrivachar committed suicide in Dharwad.

Famine, which followed plague, took heavy toll of lives. Tilak raised his voice against the highhandedness of the Revenue officers, who forced the people to pay the revenue by selling their properties or by obtaining loans at ruinous interest from moneylenders. He sent volunteers of the Sarvajanik Sabha to create awareness among the people about the provision of the Famine Code and asked the people not to be scared by the demands and threats of the collecting officials. His wrote in Kesari – “Will you kill yourself by timidity and starvation?” “Can you not be bold, even in the grip of death?” In June 1897, as a reprisal against the highhandedness of the authorities in carrying out plague regulations, the Chapekar brothers murdered Plague Commissioner Rand and Lt. Ayerest. The government charged Tilak for inciting the murders with his writings and sentenced him to 18 months rigorous imprisonment. This move caused a wave of resentment throughout India. In North Karnataka patriotic dramas such as Bhavani Talwar, Simhagad, Bapu Gokhalyachi Pagadi were staged in all the important towns. In Dharwad a dramatic troupe called ‘Sri Shivaji Arya Samaj’ was formed and it enacted nationalist dramas like Rana Bheemadeva. Another important personality who infused self-confidence among Indians and prepared them to fight the forces that were undermining their freedom and culture was Swami Vivekananda. According Alur Venkata Rao, the Swamijis speeches especially during his short stay at Belgaum roused the people of Karnataka to a pitch of national enthusiasm as nothing else did.