Read this article to learn about ideologies and programmes of the Indian national congress during 1885-1920!

The foundation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 was not a sudden event, or a historical accident.

It was the culmination of a process of political awakening that had its beginnings in the 1860s and 1870s and major leap forward in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Solid ground had thus been prepared for the establishment of an all-India organisation.


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The final shape to this idea was given by a retired English civil servant, A.O. Hume, who mobilised leading intellectuals of the time and with their co-operation organised the first session of the Indian National Congress at Bombay in December 1885.

The first session of the Indian National Congress (1885) was attended by 72 delegates and presided over by Womesh Chandra Banerjee. Hereafter, the congress met every year in December, in a different part of the country each time.


Some of the great presidents of the congress during the early phase were Dadabhai Naoroji (elected thrice), Badruddin Tyabji, Pherozshah Mehta, P. Anandacharlu, Surendranath Banerjea, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Ananda Mohan Bose and Gopal Krishna Gokhale.

The basic objectives of the early nationalist leaders were to lay the foundations of a secular and democratic national movement, to polticize and politically educate the people, to form the headquarters of the movement that is to form an all-India leadership group, and to develop and propagate an anti- colonial nationalist ideology.

In the first stage of its existence (1885-1905), the vision of the Indian National Congress was dim, vague and confused. It may be referred as the period of Moderate politics. The movement was confined to a handful of the educated middle class intelligentsia who drew inspirations from western Liberal and Radical Thought.

The second state (1905-18) witnessed the emergence of a new and younger group within the Indian National Congress which was sharply critical of the ideology and methods of the old leadership. They advocated the adoption of Swaraj as the goal of the Congress to be achieved by more self-reliant and independent methods.


The new group came to be called the Extremist party. The final stage (1919-47) was dominated by the objective of ‘Purna Swaraj’ or complete independence to be achieved under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

The Moderate Phase (1885-1905):

The first phase of the existence of the Congress is known as the moderate phase (1885-1905). During this the Congress worked for limited objectives and concentrated more upon building up its organization. The leadership was confined to a handful of educated middle class Indians who drew inspiration from western, liberal and radical thought. It did not challenge the British authority but adopted a constitutional path.

The national leaders like Dadabhai Nauroji, P.N. Mehta, D.E. Wacha, W.C. Banerji, S.N. Banerji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale who dominated Congress policies during this time were staunch believers in liberalism and moderate politics and came to be labelled as moderates. They did not approve of active response policy. They all believed in constitutional method and favoured the policy of protest, prayer and petition.

The basic demands of the Congress at this time were constitutional that stressed on larger share of the Indians in the governance of the country, Indianization of higher grades of service, expansion of the legislative council and its power and Swaraj or self-rule within the British Empire.

The early nationalists were very critical of the exploitative economic policy of the British and blamed it for India’s economic impoverishment and destruction of its cottage industries. They demanded the promotion of Indian industries through tariff, protection and direct economic aid.

The only achievement of the moderate leaders of the Congress was the exposure of the true nature of British imperialism and creation of a national awakening. However they failed to achieve desired aims largely due to their method of work. They also failed to draw attention of the common masses at large and were confined mostly to educated middle class and the elite population.

The Congress maintained her attitude of moderation till the end of the nineteenth century. The young leaders like Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghose were dissatisfied with the working of the moderate Congressmen. They began to realize the uselessness of the constitutional methods.

It became necessary for them to adopt independent and honourable means to force the government. Lajpat Rai believed the Indians should not be content with begging and was sharply critical of the ideology and methods of the older leadership. This attitude marked the beginning of the era of extremism.

The Growth of Militant Nationalism – The Extremist Era (1905-1919):

The new leadership of the Congress was opposed to the soft policies of the moderates. They believed that independence could not be begged for but achieved through sacrifice. The main cause for rise of extremism in Indian politics can be attributed to the deteriorating economic condition of India under the British rule.

The recurring famines of the nineteenth century coupled with plague that broke out in Maharashtra and the inaction of the British government created a congenial atmosphere for the growth of extremism. Along with these, the contemporary international influences like revolutionary movements in Turkey, Russia, Egypt, etc. had tremendous impact on the Indian youth. The younger generation became convinced of the fact that a united fight by Indians will easily defeat British imperialism.

The extremists aimed at achieving Swaraj that meant complete independence from British rule. They considered the demand of the moderate leaders for Swaraj was for colonial self-government. Tilak remarked, “Swaraj is my birth right and I shall have it.”Aurobindo Ghose said, “Political freedom is the life breath of a nation.” The extremists rejected the technique of the moderates and gave up the policy of prayer and preaching. The new leadership sought to create a passionate love for liberty, accompanied by a spirit of sacrifice and a readiness to suffer for the cause of the country.

The revolutionaries advocated boycott of foreign goods, use of Swadeshi goods, national education and passive resistance. The programme of economic boycott of British and other foreign goods and the use of Swadeshi or homemade products were designed to encourage Indian industries. It would provide the people with more opportunities for work and employment.

Soon it was discovered that economic boycott might prove a powerful weapon against the economic exploitation by the Britishers. The extremists also used Swadeshi as the most effective weapon for injuring British interests in India.

Tilak preached non-cooperation and advocated abstaining from co-operating with the government directly or indirectly. Thus boycott, Swadeshi, passive resistance and national education remained as primary techniques of the extremists to attain independence.

Besides using the press for creating awareness, the extremists made efforts to strike root in the countryside through social work in villages, songs, jatras (theatre), and patriotic festivals. They used religious revivalism for mass contact Tilak started the Ganpati festival in 1893 and Shivaji festival in 1895 for creating awareness amongst the public.

However the extremists could attain their goals partially. They failed to develop an effective leadership or sound organization. Also their reach remained confined to urban populace and could not establish effective communication with the rural areas. The extremists too remained divided in their opinion regarding the methods of functioning. Their internal conflicts went a long way in destabilizing their efforts to unify the country against the British rule.

Congress Sessions:

Year Venue President

1835 – Bombay – W.C. Bonnerji (It was attended by 72 delegates)

1886 – Calcutta – Dadabhai Naoroji

1887 – Madras – Badruddin Tyabji (First Muslim President)

1888 – Allahabad – George Yule (First English President)

1889 – Bombay – William Wedderburn

1890 – Calcutta – Sir Pherozshah Mehta

1891 – Nagpur – P. Anandacharlu

1892 – Allahabad – W.C. Bonnerji

1893 – Lahore – Dadabhai Naoroji

1894 – Madras – A. Webb (He was an Irish member of the British Parliament)

1895 – Poona – Surendranath Banerjee

1896 – Calcutta – M.A. Sayani

1897 – Amravati – C. Sankaran Nair

1898 – Madras – Anandamohan Bose

1899 – Lucknow – Romesh Chandra Dutt

1900 – Lahore – N.G. Chandravarkar

1901 – Calcutta – Dinshaw E. Wacha

1902 – Ahmedabad – Surendranath Banerjee

1903 – Madras – Lal Mohan Ghose

1904 – Bombay – Sir Henry Cotton

1905 – Banaras – G.K. Gokhale

1906 – Calcutta – Dadabhai Naoroji (Swaraj as the goal of the Indian National Congress)

1907 – Surat – Ras Behari Ghos (Split in the Congress)

1908 – Madras – Ras Behari Ghosh

1909 – Lahore – Madan Mohan Malaviya

1910 – Allahabad – William Wedderburn

1911 – Calcutta – Bishan Narayan Dhar

1912 – Patna – R.N. Mudhoka;

1913 – Karachi – Nawab Syed Mohammad

1914 – Madras – Bhupendranath Bose

1915 – Bombay – S.P. Sinha

1915 – Lucknow – A C. Majumdar (Congress merger and pact with the Muslim League)

1917 – Calcutta – Mrs. Annie Besant (First Woman President)

1918 – Delhi – Madan Mohan Malaviya

1919 – Amritsar – Pandit Motilal Nehru

1920 – Nagpur – C. Vijaya Raghavachariyar (Changes in the constitution of the Congress)

1921 – Ahmedabad – Hakim Ajmal Khan (Acting president as President C.R. Das was in prison).

Year Venue President

1922 – Gaya – C.R. Das (Formation of Swaraj Party)

1923 – Kakinada – Maulana Muhammad Ali

1924 – Belgaum – Mahatma Gandhi

1925 – Kanpur – Mrs. Sarojini Naidu (First Indian Woman President)

1926 – Gauhati- Srinivas Iyengar

1927- Madras – M.A. Ansari (Independence Resolution passed for the first time)

1928 – Calcutta – Motilal Nehru (First All-India Youth Congress formed)

1929 – Lahore – Jawaharlal Nehru (Poorna Swaraj Resolution Passed)

1930 – No session due to Civil Disobedience Movement- Jawaharlal Nehru continued as the President

1931 – Karachi – Vallabhai Patel (Resolution on fundamental Rights and National Economic Policy adopted).

1932 – Delhi – Amrit Ranchhoddas Seth

1933 – Calcutta – Mrs. Nellie Sengupta

1934 – Bombay – Dr. Rajendra Prasad

1935 – No session – Continuation of Dr. Rajendra Prasad as President

1936 – Lucknow – Jawaharlal Nehru

1937 – Faizpur -Jawaharlal Nehru (First session to be held in a village and along with the Congress session was held the second session of the All India Kisan Congress)

1938 – Haripura – Subhas Chandra Bose

1939 – Tripuri – Subhas Chandra Bose (Resignation of Bose and Rajendra Prasad took over)

1940 – Ramgarh – Mauiana Abul Kalam Azad

1941-1945 – No session on account of the launching of the Quit India Movement. – Continuation of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

1946 – Meerut – Acharya J.B. Kripalani

1947 – Delhi – Rajendra Prasad

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