The Indian National Congress and India's Freedom Struggle


Foundation of INC

The Indian National Congress (INC), established on December 28, 1885, in Bombay (now Mumbai), holds immense historical significance in India's quest for liberation from British colonial rule. Founded with the intention of seeking constitutional reforms and representing the voice of the Indian people, the INC's establishment owes much to Allan Octavian Hume, a retired British civil servant.

During its inaugural session, 72 delegates, primarily from the educated elite, convened under the leadership of WC Bannerjee. At the outset, the INC aimed to create a platform for discussing Indian concerns and presenting them before the British government.

The INC's early demands focused on civil rights, equitable governance, and Indian representation. Over time, it sought extensive political rights and complete self-rule. Throughout India's struggle for independence, the INC played a pivotal role through peaceful means, unifying Indian leaders and the masses. Led by iconic figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the INC became the primary political party in India's independence movement, exemplifying the power of unity and perseverance in the pursuit of freedom.

The Safety Valve Theory around INC formation 

According to this theory, Hume established the Congress with the intention of it serving as a "safety valve" to release the increasing discontent among Indians. He persuaded Lord Dufferin not to hinder the Congress's formation for this purpose. Extremist leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai also believed in this "safety valve" idea. The Marxist historian's "conspiracy theory" was also influenced by the notion of a "safety valve," suggesting that the Congress was formed to prevent a popular uprising, with bourgeois leaders involved in the plan.

However, modern Indian historians challenge the "safety valve" concept. They argue that the Indian National Congress represented the aspirations of politically conscious Indians who wanted to establish a national body to voice their political and economic demands. Creating such an organization independently would have faced significant opposition from officials, making it challenging to form. Therefore, as Bipan Chandra suggests, the early Congress leaders used Hume as a "lightning conductor," uniting nationalistic forces even if appearing as a "safety valve" on the surface.

Important Leaders in the Early Phase 

The Congress convened annually in December, changing its location each time to different parts of the country. Some notable presidents during this early phase included Dadabhai Naoroji (thrice president), Badruddin Tyabji, Pherozshah Mehta, P. Anandacharlu, Surendranath Banerjee, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Ananda Mohan Bose, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Other prominent leaders involved were Mahadeo Govind Ranade, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sisir Kumar Ghosh, Motilal Ghosh, Madan Mohan Malaviya, G. Subramaniya Aiyar, C. Vijayaraghavachariar, and Dinshaw E. Wacha. In 1890, Kadambini Ganguly, the first woman graduate of Calcutta University, became part of the Congress.

What were the primary objectives?

The objectives of the Indian National Congress in its early stage were as follows:

(i) To establish a democratic, nationalist movement.

(ii) To engage and politically educate the public.

(iii) To create a central hub for the movement.

(iv) To foster friendly relations among nationalist leaders from different regions.

(v) To promote an anti-colonial nationalist ideology.

(vi) To present popular demands before the government, aiming to unify the people around common economic and political goals.

(vii) To cultivate a sense of national unity among people, transcending religious, caste, or regional differences.

(viii) To carefully foster and strengthen the sense of Indian nationhood.

How the newly founded Congress contributed to the Indian struggle?

The early nationalists, including leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji and R.C. Dutt conducted a thorough economic critique of British imperialism in India. They proposed the "drain theory" to illustrate how British rule exploited India, transforming it into a supplier of raw materials and food while importing finished goods and investing British capital. This led to India's economic backwardness and poverty.

To address these issues, the early nationalists demanded economic independence for India. They called for severance of India's economic subservience to Britain and the involvement of Indian capital and enterprise in developing an independent economy. 

Their campaign focused on reducing land revenue, abolishing the salt tax, improving plantation labor conditions, reducing military expenditure, and supporting modern industries through tariff protection and government aid. They criticized the oppressive bureaucracy, called for separating judicial and executive functions, and voiced concerns about an aggressive foreign policy that burdened the Indian treasury. Additionally, they emphasized increasing welfare expenditure, education, and agricultural improvement while demanding fair treatment for Indian labor abroad, where they faced discrimination.

How did the functioning of INC evolve?

Over the years, the radical nationalists introduced innovative ideas at theoretical, propaganda, and programmatic levels. They employed various forms of protest, including the following:

  1.  Boycott of Foreign Goods: This involved boycotting and publicly burning foreign cloth, abstaining from foreign-made salt or sugar, and rejecting the use of foreign goods in rituals and ceremonies. This movement gained immense popularity and practical success.
  2.  Public Meetings and Processions: Mass mobilization was achieved through public gatherings and processions, which not only galvanized the people but also served as a means of expression.
  3.  Volunteers' Corps or 'Samitis': Organized groups like the Swadesh Bandhab Samiti and Swadeshi Sangam played a significant role in mobilizing the masses. These samitis conducted magic lantern lectures, swadeshi songs, physical and moral training, and social work during crises.
  4.  Creative Use of Traditional Festivals and Melas: Traditional festivals and events were utilized as platforms to reach out to the masses and convey political messages. Tilak's Ganapati and Shivaji festivals, as well as traditional folk theater in Bengal, were used for this purpose.

Moderates and Extremists - A comparison

The Indian National Congress (INC) during its early phase was divided into two main factions - the Moderates and the Extremists. Here is a comparison between the two groups:

Moderate Leaders 

1885 - 1905

  1.  Ideology: The Moderate leaders believed in constitutional methods and gradual reforms to achieve their goals. They were patient and preferred to work within the framework of British rule, seeking concessions through negotiations and petitions.

  2.  Goals: The Moderates aimed for greater Indian representation in the administrative and legislative bodies, civil rights, and more local self-governance while remaining loyal to the British crown.

  3.  Leaders: Prominent Moderate leaders included Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Pherozshah Mehta, and Surendranath Banerjea.

  4.  Approach: They advocated for cooperation and dialogue with the British authorities, hoping that the British government would eventually grant more rights and concessions to Indians.

  5.  Methods: Moderates used constitutional means like public meetings, press campaigns, and representation through petitions and resolutions to voice their demands.

Extremist Leaders 

1905 - 1910

  1. Ideology: The Extremists were more radical and assertive in their approach. They believed in direct action and confrontational methods to attain self-rule or Swaraj. They were less patient with the British and sought immediate changes.

  2. Goals: The Extremists demanded complete independence from British rule and were not willing to compromise on their demands. They aimed to challenge British authority and assert Indian identity and autonomy.

  3. Leaders: Prominent Extremist leaders included Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, and Lala Lajpat Rai.

  4. Approach: The Extremists emphasized mass mobilization, boycotts, and non-cooperation with the British government as a means to achieve their objectives.

  5. Methods: They organized public protests, promoted nationalistic fervor, and called for boycotts of British goods and educational institutions as part of their non-cooperation movement.

Despite their different approaches, both groups shared the common goal of achieving freedom from British rule and worked towards India's independence. Over time, the Extremists' influence grew, and their ideas played a crucial role in shaping India's struggle for freedom. The cooperation between the Moderates and Extremists eventually led to a more unified and potent movement that played a significant role in India gaining independence in 1947.

The Surat Split 

The Surat Split was a significant event that happened in the Indian National Congress in 1907. During the Surat session of the Congress, there were disagreements and conflicts between the two groups of leaders known as the Extremists and the Moderates.

The Extremists, led by leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, believed in more aggressive and radical approaches to fight for India's independence from British rule. They wanted to use protests and direct action to challenge British authority.

On the other hand, the Moderates, led by leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Dadabhai Naoroji, believed in a more patient and gradual approach. They preferred negotiations and constitutional methods to seek reforms and gradually gain more rights from the British.
Because of these differences, the Congress split into two factions, and they were unable to work together effectively. This division weakened the Congress for some time but eventually paved the way for more radical leaders like Tilak to have a greater impact on India's independence movement.

Following the Surat Split, the Indian National Congress achieved reunification through the efforts of prominent leaders like Tilak and Besant, who acted as mediators. They emphasized reconciliation and compromise to mend the internal differences. With the emergence of Gandhi's leadership, the Congress refocused on mass movements, allowing shared demands and objectives to bring the party members together. Joint sessions and meetings promoted mutual respect and understanding among the factions, ultimately leading to a stronger, united Congress in the fight for India's independence.

Important movements and campaigns by the INC

The Indian National Congress (INC) initiated several significant campaigns and movements starting from the Swadeshi Movement in 1905:

  • Swadeshi Movement (1905)
    The Indian National Congress actively supported and promoted the Swadeshi Movement, making it a nationwide campaign. INC leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji, R.C. Dutt, and GK Gokhale carefully analyzed the political economy of British rule in India and put forward the "drain theory" to explain British exploitation. They advocated for severance of India's economic subservience to Britain and the development of an independent economy through Indian capital and enterprise. The INC's involvement in the Swadeshi Movement aimed to foster national pride, self-reliance, and economic independence.

  • Non-Cooperation Movement (1920-1922)
    The INC, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, initiated and led the Non-Cooperation Movement. This movement called for non-cooperation with British authorities, including boycotts of British institutions, courts, and products. The INC played a central role in mobilizing the masses to participate in acts of civil disobedience, protests, and non-violent resistance. The support for this movement demonstrated its commitment to passive resistance and its ability to unite the Indian populace against British rule.

  • Khilafat Movement (1919-1922)
    In 1920, the Indian National Congress formed an alliance with the Khilafat leaders. Mahatma Gandhi and the Khilafat leaders pledged to unite their efforts in advocating for both the Khilafat cause and Swaraj (self-rule for India). To exert more significant pressure on the colonial government, the Khilafatists actively participated in the non-cooperation movement, a widespread campaign of peaceful civil disobedience throughout the country.

  • Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-1934)
    The INC, with Mahatma Gandhi at the forefront, organized the Civil Disobedience Movement. The Congress played a crucial role in mobilizing the masses to participate in acts of civil disobedience, protests, and non-violent resistance against British salt laws and other oppressive measures. The INC's contribution in this movement demonstrated its ability to galvanize the masses in pursuit of India's independence. The party launched the Salt Satyagraha as part of the Civil Disobedience Movement. The Congress actively promoted and supported the iconic Dandi March, which became a symbol of non-violent resistance and inspired millions of Indians to make their own salt. The INC's involvement in the Salt Satyagraha showcased its commitment to passive resistance and its role in inspiring popular movements.
  • Individual Satyagrahas (1940-1941)
    The INC, with Mahatma Gandhi's advocacy, encouraged prominent leaders to undertake individual acts of civil disobedience. By supporting the Individual Satyagrahas, the Congress amplified the demand for self-rule and made the British government aware of India's determination to attain independence. The INC's involvement in the Individual Satyagrahas further reinforced its role as the leading force in India's fight for independence.

  • Quit India Movement (1942)
    The INC, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and other prominent leaders, initiated the Quit India Movement. The Congress's call for the immediate withdrawal of British rule resonated with millions of Indians, igniting mass protests and inspiring national unity in the fight for independence. The INC's contribution in this movement showcased its determination and resilience in pursuing India's freedom and self-rule.

Congress Rule in Provinces 

In the early months of 1937, elections were held for provincial assemblies in India. The Indian National Congress (INC) won and formed ministries in several provinces like Bombay, Madras, Central Provinces, United Provinces, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, and NWFP. During the 28 months of Congress rule in these provinces, they made efforts to promote the welfare of the people and focused on various areas.

  1. Civil Liberties: The Congress ministries took significant steps to ease restrictions on civil liberties. They repealed laws granting emergency powers, lifted bans on certain organizations and publications, and allowed greater freedom of the press. Confiscated arms and licenses were returned, and the police's power was curbed, leading to the release of political prisoners and revolutionaries.

  2. Agrarian Reforms: Although there were constraints that prevented a complete overhaul of the agrarian structure, the Congress ministries passed laws related to land reforms, debt relief, forest grazing fee, arrears of rent, and land tenures. However, most benefits went to statutory and occupancy tenants, and agricultural laborers did not see significant improvements.

  3. Attitude Towards Labor: The Congress aimed to advance workers' interests while promoting industrial peace. They sought to reduce strikes and encouraged compulsory arbitration before striking. Mediation efforts were made between labor and capital to improve workers' conditions and secure wage increases. However, critics on the left were not fully satisfied with this approach.

  4. Social Welfare Reforms: The Congress ministries focused on social welfare by implementing measures such as prohibition in certain areas, welfare programs for Harijans, attention to education, public health, sanitation, encouragement to khadi (handspun cloth), prison reforms, and support for indigenous enterprises.

  5. Extra-Parliamentary Mass Activity: Apart from governance, the Congress engaged in extra-parliamentary mass activities. These included mass literacy campaigns, setting up Congress police stations and panchayats, presenting mass petitions to the government through Congress Grievance Committees, and supporting people's movements in various states.

Overall, the Congress ministries made efforts to bring positive changes to the lives of people during their time in power, despite facing constraints and challenges. They worked towards greater civil liberties, agrarian and social reforms, and upliftment of the masses through various activities and initiatives.

Prominent INC leaders at the time of Independence

Post-1940 to 1950, the Indian National Congress (INC) saw the rise of prominent leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, known as the "Iron Man of India." Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), Jayaprakash Narayan, and Lal Bahadur Shastri were also influential figures. Together, they played pivotal roles in India's struggle for independence and in shaping the nation's path after gaining freedom. Their contributions laid the foundation for India's development as a sovereign and democratic nation.

Evaluation of INC 

The Indian National Congress (INC) played a pivotal and indispensable role in India's freedom struggle. Its contribution can be evaluated from several perspectives:

  1. Mass Mobilization: The INC served as a unifying platform for various communities and regions across India. It mobilized millions of Indians from different walks of life and brought them together with the common goal of achieving independence from British colonial rule. Through its extensive network and mass campaigns, the INC awakened a sense of national identity and unity among the people.

  2. Non-Violent Resistance: The INC, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, popularized the concept of nonviolent civil disobedience as a powerful weapon against colonial oppression. By embracing non-violence, the INC demonstrated to the world the strength of moral and ethical principles in the face of injustice, making India's freedom struggle an inspiration for other movements worldwide.

  3. Strategic Approach: The INC adopted a multi-pronged and strategic approach to the freedom struggle. It combined political activism, civil disobedience, and negotiations with the British authorities. The INC's ability to adapt its strategies and tactics to changing circumstances was crucial in sustaining the movement over several decades.

  4. Inclusivity: The INC was inclusive in its approach and represented various ideologies, religions, castes, and classes within India. It incorporated the voices of both moderates and extremists, making it a broad-based movement that addressed the diverse aspirations of the Indian populace.

  5. International Recognition: The INC's freedom struggle gained international attention and support. It garnered sympathy and solidarity from various countries, which increased pressure on the British government to address India's demands for independence.

  6. Political Leadership: The INC produced visionary leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh, and many others who played instrumental roles in shaping India's destiny. Their leadership skills and determination inspired millions and guided the nation through its most challenging times.

  7. Transition to Democracy: The INC's commitment to democratic principles and practices laid the foundation for India's democratic governance after independence. It established the norms of parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech, and the rule of law, which have endured in India's political landscape.

  8. Symbol of India's Struggle: The INC became synonymous with India's struggle for freedom. Its tri-color flag, national songs, and slogans like "Swaraj" and "Quit India" resonated with the masses, creating a deep emotional connection to the idea of a free India.

Overall, the Indian National Congress's significance in India's freedom struggle lies in its ability to galvanize the masses, promote non-violent resistance, provide visionary leadership, and lay the foundation for an independent and democratic India. Its enduring legacy continues to shape India's identity and remains a symbol of the nation's struggle for freedom and self-determination.


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