Its Genesis

The 1857 revolt was suppressed. The British Empire in India was saved. Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India and the new policy was ushered in. It was even more reactionary and in the long run proved very harmful. The native princes were now to be used as British tools and propped as bulwark against forces of resistance and progress. Government was no longer to encourage social reform. The benign rule was thus to carefully preserve decaying aristocracies, superstition and warring dogmas and cults. These were to provide the pattern for British imperialism with its foundations laid deep in the religious differences, caste and untouchabilitly and the feudal states and the aristocracy.

Economic and Political discontent

The policy of economic exploitation, however, became even worse though more subtle. Mass unrest was the inevitable result of the ever growing poverty and helplessness of the peasantry.

The common people, Hindus and Muslims, struggled against the terrible oppression, wherever they could and with whatever weapons they could muster. There was a new English educated class which was used to run the Government machinery. I was great admirer of everything Western which lent its support to the Government.

The belief of the educated classes in the English tradition of liberal thought and institutions received setbacks as a result of various Government measures. The Freedom of the press, introduced earlier by Metcalfe, was soon done away with. The vernacular Press was gagged in 1878 and the Bengali Amrita Bazar Patrika had to change overnight into an English garb. The Arms Act was passed in 1879. This disillusionment advanced further when the Illbert Bill to abolish "Judicial discrimination, based on racial distinction" had to be virtually dropped on account of fierce opposition by the European community and the Civil Service. The Europeans did not hesitate to threaten the Viceroy, Lord Ripon, with violence if the Bill was passed. Indians learned the lesson at this time. In 1853 the first Cotton Mill was established in Bombay. The number of mills rose to 156 by 1880. This was an alarming progress and under pressure of Lancashire, all duties on cotton imports into India were removed in 1882.

Social Renaissance

It was not merely the economic exploitation and the sense of political subjection that gave birth to the Congress. For fifty years and more before the birth of the Congress, the leaven of national rejuvenation had been at work. In fact national life was in a state of ferment as early as in the times of Rammohan Roy, who could in a way be regarded as the prophet of Indian Nationalism and the father of modern India. He had a wide vision and a broad outlook. While it is true that the socio-religious condition of his day was the subject of his special attention in his reformist activities, he had nevertheless a keen sense of the grave political wrongs by which his country was afflicted at that time and made a strenuous effort to seek an early redress of those wrongs. Rammohan Roy was born in 1776 and passed away at Bristol in 1833. His name is associated with two great reforms in India, namely, the abolition of Sati and the introduction of Western learning in the country. In the closing period of his life he chose to visit England and his passion for liberty was so great that when he reached the Cape of Good Hope he insisted on his being carried to a French vessel where he saw the flag of liberty flying, so that he might be able to do homage to that flag, and when he saw the flag he shouted, "Glory, Glory, Glory to the Flag." Although he had gone to England primarily as the ambassador of the Moghul Emperor to plead his cause in London, yet he took the opportunity to place some of the pressing Indian grievances before a Committee of the House of Commons. He submitted three papers, on the Revenue system of India, the Judicial system of India, and the Material condition of India. He was honoured by the East India Company with a public dinner. When in 1832 the Charter Act was before Parliament he vowed that if the Bill was not passed he would give up his residence in the British dominion and reside in America.

The Universities were established in 1858 and the High Courts and the Legislative Councils in India between 1861 and 1863. Just before the "mutiny", the "Widow Re-marriage Act" was passed as also the Act relating to conversion into Christianity. In the sixties of the nineteenth century, an intimate contact was established with Western learning ­and literature. Western legal institutions and Parliamentary methods were inaugurated, to mark a new era in the field of law and legislation. The impact of Western civilization on the East could not but leave a deep impress upon the beliefs and sentiments of the Indian people who came directly under its influence.

The only parts of the country which had received some education on modem lines were the provinces of Bengal, Bombay and Madras. The number of educated men even in these provinces was small. In the work of settlement that followed the mutiny, these educated men found ample scope for their ambition. These races of Babus began to think like their English masters, admired and emulated everything that came from the West.

Soon, however, there was a reaction against this process of denationalisation which assumed various forms, some of a synthesis of the West and the East and others of a revivalism going to the past.

Brahmo Samaj & Prarthana Samaj

The germs of religious reform planted in the days of Rammohan Roy became widespread. Keshab Chandra Sen on whose shoulders fell the mantle of Rammohan Roy spread the gospel of the Brahmo Samaj far and wide and gave a new social orientation to its tenets. He turned his attention to the temperance movement and made common cause with the temperance reformers in England. He was largely responsible for the passing of the Civil Marriage Act III of 1872.

The Brahmo Samaj of Bengal had its repercussions all over the country. In Poona, the movement assumed the name of Prarthana Samaj under the leadership of M. G. Ranade, who, it will be remembered was the founder of the Social Reform movement which for long years continued to be an adjunct of the Congress. One feature, however, to this reformist movement was a certain disregard for the past and a spirit of revolt from the time-honoured and traditional beliefs of the country, which arose from an undue glamour presented by the Western institutions and heightened greatly by the political prestige associated with them.

Arya Samaj

The Arya Samaj in the North-West founded by the venerable Swami Dayanand Saraswati, and the Theosophical movement from the South furnished the necessary corrective to the spirit of heterodoxy and even heresy which the Western learning brought with it. Both of them were intensely nationalistic movements, only the Arya Samaj movement which owed its birth to the inspiration of the great Dayananda Saraswati was aggressive in its patriotic zeal, and while holding fast to the cult of the infallibility of the Vedas and the superiority of and the infallibility of the Vedic culture was at the same time not inimical to broad social reform. It thus developed a virile manhood in the Nation which was the synthesis of what is best in its heredity, with what is best in its environment. It fought some of the prevailing social evils and religious superstitions in Hinduism as much as the Brahmo Samaj had battle against polytheism, idolatry and polygamy.

Theosophical Movement

The Theosophical movement while it extended its studies and sympathies to the wide world, laid special emphasis on a rediscovery as well as a rehabilitation of all that was great and glorious in the Oriental culture. It was this passion that led Mrs. Besant to start a college in Benares, the holy city of India. The Theosophical activities, while developing a spirit of international brotherhood, helped to check that sense of rationalist superiority of the West and planted anew a cultural centre in India which attracted the savants and scholars of the West once again to this ancient land.

Ramakrishna Mission

The latest phase of national renaissance in India prior to the Congress was inaugurated in Bengal by that great sage, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who later found in Swami Vivekananda his chief apostle carrying his gospel to East and West. The Ramakrishna Mission is not merely an organisation wedded to occultism or realism, but to a profound transcendentalism which, however, docs not ignore the supreme duty of "Loke-Sangraha" or social service.

This "Cyclonic Hindu", as Vivekananda was called in America, carried the message of India not only to America or Europe, Egypt, China and Japan but was himself influenced greatly by the West and preached a dynamic new gospel of regeneration in India, from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas. He stressed on the necessity for liberty and equality and the raising of the masses. He wanted to combine the Western progress with Indian spiritual background. The one constant refrain of his speech and writing was Abhay "Be fearless, be strong for weakness is sin, weakness is death."

A contemporary of Vivekananda and yet belonging to a much more later generation was Rabindranath Tagore. The Tagore family played a great part in various reform movements during the 19th Century in Bengal. It gave us Abhindranath Tagore and others, great spiritual leaders and artists. The influence of Tagore over the mind of India and the stamp that he has left in the domain of literature, poetry, drama, music, social and educational reconstruction and political thought is unsurpassed in its beauty and depth. It is a marvel of human personality and mind affecting and giving colour to successive generations. The contribution of Tag ore has been of a synthesis of the East and West, of the modern and the ancient and of the international with the rising national tide in the country.

These currents and movements were the real lifeblood of the new national consciousness, urge and their embodiment that took shape partly and developed from stage to stage in the form of the Indian National Congress.

The Idea of an All-India Organisation

The credit for the birth of the Congress is often sought to be given to Alan Octavian Hume, who with the blessings of the Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, inaugurated it. The British are thus said to be the foster parents of the Indian nationalism. It is true that Hume was the organiser of the Congress Session in 1885. But it will be seen that the Congress was the natural and inevitable production of various political, economic and social forces.

The more alert among the English administrators were not unaware of the rising unrest in the country. "A reckless bureaucratic Government sat at this time trembling upon the crumbling fragments of a mendacious budget on the one side and the seething and surging discontent of multitudinous population on the other". Mr. Hume collected widespread evidence of the imminence of a "terrible revolution" by the half-starved and desperate population and set about to find ways and means of directing the popular impulse into an innocuous channel.

He wrote a letter to "Graduates of Calcutta University" on March 1, 1883 and the "Indian National Union" was formed in 1884, in response to this, for constitutional agitation, on an all-India basis, and was to meet in Poona later. The Government who first patronised this organisation, however, found later that it outgrew their plans and the patronage was soon withdrawn. It came to be called the 'factory of sedition' in a few years and later Lord Dufferin, himself tried to twit it as a body representing "microscopic minority" of India's population.

There were various provincial political organisations that preceded the Congress. In Bengal which was at the vanguard of progress at this time, in 1843 was founded the British Indian Society to be merged later into the British Indian Association. This body had such stalwarts as Rajendralal Mitra, Ramgopal Ghosh, Peary Chand Mitter and Harish Chandra Mukherjee. In Bombay there was the Bombay Association with Jaggannath Sankerset, Dadabhai Naoroji, V. N. Mandlik and Nowrosjee Furdunjee.

Later, more popular bodies, the Indian Association in Bengal and Sarvajanika Sabha in Poona, under Ranade and Mahajana Sabha in Madras were established. Surendranath Bannerjee went on an all India tour in 1877 and succeeding years and carried a campaign about Indian Home Rule and the political questions of the day. He attended the Delhi Durbar that year, and the idea of an all-India political organisation was mooted there.

In December 1884, the Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society was held at Madras and there some leading public men met and decided to inaugurate an all-India national movement.

Thus, the ground was well prepared for the Government to take the initiative and the credit of forming the National Congress and keep it under control.