28th December 1885: The Indian National Congress was founded

One of the world’s largest and oldest political parties of its kind, the Indian National Congress was founded on December 28, 1885, by members of the Theosophical Society. The Congress led India to Independence in 1947 after a long but remarkably peaceful struggle.

When the formation of the Congress is talked about the role of a single individual — Alan Octavian Hume — who organised the first Congress Session in 1885, often comes into focus. For many decades there was a widespread belief that Hume and other liberal-minded British officials thought that the creation of a political outfit would channelize much of the discontent among Indians over various aspects of the British rule into something more benign. However, the so-called ‘safety valve’ theory has been questioned by historians in the post-Independence era who say that many social, cultural, political and economic forces operating in the aftermath of the 1857 revolt were, in fact, responsible for the eventual birth of the party.

On the issue of why Indians were not visibly at the forefront of the campaign to start the Congress in the 1880s, Gopal Krishna Gokhale remarked in 1913: “No Indian could have started the Indian National Congress…if an Indian had…come forward to start such a movement embracing all India, the officials in India would not have allowed the movement to come into existence. If the founder of the Congress had not been a great Englishman and a distinguished ex-official, such was the distrust of political agitation in those days that the authorities would have at once found some way or the other to suppress the movement.”

It is believed that the idea of the Congress took concrete shape during a meeting of the Theosophical Convention in Madras in December 1884. In March 1885 a notice was issued convening a meeting of the first Indian National Union at Poona(now Pune) in December of the same year.

But the session was eventually held in Bombay from December 28 to December 31, 1885, and attended by 72 delegates, with W.C. Bannerjee in the chair. Other important delegates included Dadabhai Naoroji, Justice Ranade, Pherozeshah Mehta, K.T. Telang and Dinshaw Wacha. Defining the objective of the Congress, the president spoke of the “promotion of personal intimacy and friendship among all the more earnest workers in our country’s cause in the parts of the empire and eradication of race, creed or provincial prejudice and fuller development of national unity”.

In the initial years Congress sessions were limited to debates.  But the spirit of nationalism and national purpose were clear from early on. Dadabhai Naoroji, who was re-elected president at the Lahore Session in December 1893, memorably remarked: “Let us always remember that we are children of our mother country. Indeed, I have never worked in any other spirit than that I am an Indian and owe duty to my work and all my countrymen. Whether I am a Hindu or a Mohammedan, a Parsi, a Christian, or of any other creed, I am above all an Indian. Our country is India, our nationality is Indian.”

The historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in Caravan magazine in March 2010: “In the first few decades of its existence, the Indian National Congress built a network of branches spread across the country. The most intense Congress activity was in Eastern India, where the major figures included Surendranath Banerjee and Bipin Chandra Pal, and in Western India, where the acknowledged stalwarts were Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. With their sophisticated intellectual cultures, Bengal and Maharashtra were in the vanguard — but the Congress had a reach and presence in North and South India as well.”

In the first two decades after its formation, the Congress was dominated by a group of leaders who came to be known as the ‘Moderates’. They favoured orderly progress and constitutional agitation. But by 1907, a rival group, the ‘Extremists’, who adopted a more aggressive approach towards British rule, also came into prominence.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the most famous of the ‘Extremists’, in his address to the Indian National Congress in 1907, calling for a boycott of British goods and resistance to British rule, said: “Two new words have recently come into existence with regard to our politics, and they are Moderates and Extremists. These words have a specific relation to time, and they, therefore, will change with time. The Extremists of today will be Moderates tomorrow, just as the Moderates of today were Extremists yesterday. When the National Congress was first started and Mr. Dadabhai’s views, which now go for Moderates, were given to the public, he was styled an Extremist, so that you will see that the term Extremist is an expression of progress.”  

Later, with Mahatma Gandhi returning from South Africa and leading the nationalist movement, Satyagraha and passive resistance became the main aspects of Congress strategy and thinking, from the 1920s. Leaders such as Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru Rajendra Prasad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad rose to prominence in the party and carried on the independence movement which in the early 1930s became a full-fledged struggle forIndia’s freedom.

The Congress of the pre-Independence era had an accommodative character, representing diverse opinions and ideologies and members from across the nations. As Guha writes: “[T]he Indian National Congress is one of the great political parties of the modern world. It has a lineage and record of achievement comparable to that of the Labour Party in Great Britain, the Social Democratic Party in Germany, and the Democratic Party in the United States. From its beginnings in 1885 its ambitions were immense, these contained in its very title, with the last, definitive word indicating that it would not be sectarian, but embrace Indians of all shapes and sizes, or castes and communities.”

Also on this day:

1932 — Dhirubhai Ambani, Indian business tycoon and founder of Reliance Industries, was born  

1937 — Ratan Tata, businessperson who led the Tata Group, was born

1940 — A.K. Antony, union defence minister, was born  

1952 — Arun Jaitley, Bharatiya Janata Party leader, was born  

1960 — Dev Benegal, film director and screenwriter, was born 

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