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Indian National Congress


Indian National Congress Founded in 1885 by a narrowly based national elite, the Indian National Congress (INC) gradually transformed into a broadbased nationalist organisation from the beginning of the 20th century. The Anglo-Indian agitation against the Ilbert Bill during the viceroyalty of Lord Ripon served to underline the efficacy of an all-India political organisation as India's English educated politicians wished to speak effectively and authoritatively to the British rulers. Surendranath Benerjee, who had been playing a key role in organising nationalist forums like the indian association (1876) and the Indian National Conference (1883), welcomed the move of AO Hume, a retired British ICS officer, for establishing an organisation by the western educated upper class Indians to function as a 'safety valve' for the escape of growing resentment of Indians against British rule. Hume had the blessings of Viceroy Dufferin who accepted the idea of such an organisation as the 'loyal opposition' to the British Raj. Barrister WC Banerjee was chosen as the first president of the INC's inaugural session in Bombay in December 1885.

Surendranath Benerjee joined the INC at its second session in Calcutta in 1886. The INC was then not a full-fledged political party, rather a loose association of influential men in provincial politics trying to build up a national platform. Leading public figures such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Feroze Shah Mehta, Badruddin Tayabji, KT Telang and others associated themselves with the INC.

The Indian National Congress initially had little year round activity and was active only in its annual gatherings. Its delegates were mostly upper caste Hindus and its leaders primarily came from the legal profession. Known for their loyalty to the Raj, they did not like radical sort of political or social change and were interested in having some say in government administration and structures of political life. Until 1905 these moderate leaders confined themselves to political agitation by 'prayer-petition-protest'.

At the beginning the Muslims were not attracted to INC in significant numbers. Sir Sayyed Ahmad advised the Muslims to keep themselves away from INC in the interest of furthering Muslim solidarity. Aswini Datta, the mass leader of Barisal, described each of the sessions of the INC as 'three-day opera'. The moderate leaders of the INC believed that British rule in India was a good dispensation, which can be made better through negotiations. They shunned the violence of small groups of terrorists and revolutionaries in Bengal, the Punjab and Bombay provinces.

Viceroy Curzon's measure of partitioning the province of Bengal in 1905 evoked strong protest from the Bangali Hindu leaders and ultimately gave rise to militant politics of Aurobindo Ghosh, Bipin Chandra Pal, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai. The Calcutta-based swadeshi movement and the programme of boycotting British goods were instrumental in creating the extremist faction within the INC. The moderate and extremist leaders openly and violently clashed in the Surat session (1907) over the 'policy of mendicancy' pursued by the moderates. The INC suffered a split as the extremists came out of it. Congressmen were divided by personal animosities, and factionalism became endemic within the INC at national, provincial and local levels. Meanwhile, the muslim league (ML) was formed in 1906 to protect the interests of the Muslims.

When the British government involved India in Britain's war efforts in 1914 without consulting Indian opinion, strong Indian resentment against this policy brought the INC and the ML closer. The leaders of INC and ML entered into Lucknow Pact (1916) to strengthen India's demand for self-government. The growing popularity of the Home Rule Leagues led by Annie Besant and B.G Tilak and the Lucknow Pact persuaded the British government to promise in 1917 self-government on a gradual basis. But the political situation suddenly changed for the worse in the wake of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre in 1919.

By the 1920s the old uncertainties of imperial paternalism were gone. There were clear signs of the beginning of a more popular politics, being welded into a nationalist movement by a new leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who had experience of launching non-violent Satyagraha movement in South Africa and had emerged in Indian politics at this hour with his new technique of offering resistance to injustice. He received support from the Congress leadership and also from the national revolutionaries who agreed to give him a chance of realising his stated goal of achieving 'Swaraj' (self-government) in one year's time. Gandhi utilised the grievances of the Indian Muslims over the issue of Khilafat for forging unity among the Hindus and the Muslims against British imperialism.

Gandhi launched in 1920 his non-cooperation movement which was the first truly national and popular political campaign against the British government. Gandhi's strategy boosted the significance of the INC in Indian politics. The INC undoubtedly owed much of its success into building itself as the organisations of mainstream nationalism in the 1920s to Gandhi and a number of other leaders like Motilal Nehru, Madan Mohan Malavya and Chitta Ranjan Das. Later emerged a new generation of leaders who were content to work with Gandhi and submit to his authority. Prominent among this group were C Raja Gopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad and Sardar Vallabbhai Patel. Subhas Chandra Bose was initially a part of this group but soon was unwilling to submit to Gandhi. Though the INC accepted in 1929 complete independence of India as its goal, its main aim was to force concessions from the British imperialists. Through the Non-Cooperation Movement (1920-22) and the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-34) Gandhi exercised his charisma over millions of men and women to make INC a mass-based political forum.

When the British government arranged the Round Table conferences and offered the 'communal award' for reservation of seats in legislatures for different communities and scheduled castes, Gandhi resisted it by undertaking a fast unto death, but the superior skill of political dialogue and divisive strategy of the British imperialism ultimately got Gandhi and the INC outwitted. The Government of India Act (1935) did not introduce full responsible government at the central level but introduced responsible autonomy at the provincial level. There was much resentment within the INC against the proposed federation with the 'native states' and the formidable 'special power' in the governor general's hand.

An inner pressure group of leftists and socialists within the INC was formed in 1934 styled as the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) with Acharya Narendra Dev as chairman and Jayaprakash Narayan as general secretary. Nehru and Subhas Bose sympathised with the cause of socialism but did not formally join the CSP. The leaders and workers of the Communist Party of India, which was banned at that time, worked through the CSP. The group of MN Roy and the Krishak Sabha maintained close contact with the INC and the CSP. The consolidation of leftist forces within the INC caused some consternation in Gandhi and the rightist camp of the INC.

In the elections held in 1937 under the Government of India Act 1935, the INC achieved great successes in the general seats and formed its own government in six Hindu-majority provinces. It failed electorally in Sind and the Punjab and became the single largest party in Assam, Bengal and North-west Fortier Province. In Bengal the INC's decision to reject the coalition offer from AK Fazlul Huq's Krishak Praja Party paved the way for the Muslim League-Krishak Praja Party coalition. The ML's desire to form a coalition government with the INC in UP was also sabotaged by Nehru's insistence on ML accepting the 'congress creed'. In order to take the wind out of the leftist sail Gandhi nominated the leftist leader Subhas Bose as the Congress president at the Haripura session (1938). Bose refused to be an obedient disciple of Gandhi, and showed dynamic leadership bent on a massive struggle against imperialism and laying the broad principles of planned economic development of India. Gandhi and the rightist leaders refused to re-elect Bose for the next year, but their nominee was defeated by Bose with the help of the leftists. This confrontation eventually pushed Bose out of the INC. Meanwhile, the ML adopted the lahore resolution (1940) calling for establishing independent Muslim states in the subcontinent. In 1941, Bose left India to Europe and from there to the East Asian war theatres to launch armed struggle against British imperialism.

Gandhi launched the quit india movement in August 1942, which went in a violent way and was suppressed quickly. This was followed by a series of negotiations between the British government, the INC and the ML for transfer of power. Viceroy Wavell called all concerned parties to the Simla Conference in June-July 1945, but nothing concrete emerged. The search for a consensus between the INC and ML proved illusive.

Between December 1945 and February 1946 fresh elections were held in which the Indians were found to be clearly divided in their allegiance to the INC and the ML. Meanwhile there was a massive popular upsurge against British rule in the wake of the trial of the officers of Indian National Army of Subhas Bose, followed by revolts in the Royal Indian Navy in February 1946 and also wide discontent in the army, police and civil service. The British Prime Minister Attlee announced the appointment of a high power cabinet mission for negotiation with the Indian leaders. The mission recommended a Constituent Assembly and a responsible interim government to be formed by Indian ministers. The ML's demand for Pakistan was not accepted, but a grouping of provinces was recommended to accommodate the demand for powerful provinces on the communal divide. Both the Congress and the League grudgingly accepted the recommendations, but the whole plan was ruined as Nehru indiscreetly asserted the INC's rights to proceed on constitution making without any precondition. This attitude alienated Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the ML which began sabotaging Nehru's interim cabinet and organised violent campaigns to force the British government to concede the demand for partition of India in early 1947. Attlee sent Lord Mountbatten as the new viceroy and set the deadline of June 1948 for ending British rule in India. Things now began moving fast. The partition of India took place on 14 August 1947. [Asok Kumar Mukhopadhyay]