The Indian National Congress founded in 1885 was the institutionalized form of emergent Indian nationalism.
It was the first organized expression of Indian nationalism on an all-India scale.
The birth of the Indian National Congress was not a sudden event or a historical accident but the result of a gradual effort of a number of educated Indians of Bengal and other regions who were very much dissatisfied and disgusted by the exploitative nature of the alien British rule.
In India, we notice a process of the beginning of political awakening since 1860, which took a major leap forward in 1870-1880 and finally led to the founding of the Indian National Congress in December 1885. R.C. Majumdar aptly observes, “The national conference held in Calcutta in 1883 forestalled it in all essential aspects.
The forerunners of the Indian National Congress were many and among them the most important ones were:
(a) The British Indian Association founded in Bengal in 1843,
(b) British India Association founded in Bengal in 1851,
(c) India League founded in 1875,
(d) Indian Association in 1876,
(e) Bombay Association founded in early fifties of the 19th century,
(f) Poona Sarvajanik Sabha set up in 1886, and
(g) National Conference in 1883.
Besides these major regional organizations in India, some radicals in England founded the British India Society in 1837 to promote and create interest in the conditions of India. In the year 1843, the Bengal British India Society was founded by George Thompson with the goal of advancement of the public welfare by peaceful means while being completely loyal to the British crown.
The British India Association actively campaigned for throwing open offices to all Indians, trial by jury, and establishment of provincial and central legislative councils with elected representatives. The Indian Association spearheaded by Surendranath Banerjee acted as a catalyst in creating awareness by undertaking mobilization activity against the injustices done to Indians in general and to Surendranath Banerjee in particular. Thus started an agitational strategy when age limit was reduced for Indians to appear for ICS and when a judge wanted an idol to be brought to the court.
Surendranath Banerjee initiated all-India tour to propagate the idea of national self-respect and he may justifiably be called the first national leader of India. We can agree with Bipan Chandra that the foundation of the Congress was the natural outcome of the political awareness and work done by various bodies in the years between 1850 and 1885. In the process of the foundation of the Indian National Congress by 72 people in 1885 at Bombay, undoubtedly, A.O. Hume, a retired civil servant of India played a very crucial role along with other early nationalist leaders like Naoroji, Ranade, Banerjee and others.
But a powerful and long-lasting myth, the myth of ‘Safety Valve’ has been in circulation, which states that the Indian National Congress was started by A.O. Hume and others under the official direction, guidance and advice of a no less a person than Lord Dufferin, the Viceroy, to provide a safe, Mild, peaceful and constitutional outlet or ‘safety valve’ for the rising discontent among the masses, which was inevitably leading to a popular and violent revolution.
Bipan Chandra after a detailed discussion about this myth and reality observes that the ‘safety valve’ theory is a myth but as ‘time factor’ was not ripe or suitable for the Indians to start an organization, the earliest nationalists Dadabhai Naoroji, Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade, Pherozeshah Mehta, G. Subrahmanya Iyer and Surendranath Banerjee cooperated with Hume because they did not like to arouse official hostility at such an early stage of their work. Gokhale aptly points out “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 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.
Bipan Chandra concludes this discussion on myth and reality as follows:
“If Hume and other English liberals hoped to use the Congress as a safety-valve, the Congress leaders hoped to use Hume as a lightening conductor. And as later developments show, it was the congress leaders whose hopes were fulfilled”. Percival Spear states, “At the start the Congress was a modest body, having only seventy delegates at its first session. But from the first it formed a focus for the new classes’ political opinions. By 1900, it had spread all over India and was regarded by the forward looking members of the new class as the natural mouthpiece of their aspirations. Its support came mainly from the new professionals with a sprinkling of businessmen in Bombay and of landlords in Bengal”.
The first step in the direction of founding of Indian National Congress was initiated by Hume in March 1883 by appealing to the graduates of the Calcutta University to come together to form an association for the moral and political regeneration of the Indians. In his appeal he stressed “self-sacrifice and unselfishness as the only unfailing guides to freedom and happiness”. In response to his appeal, Indian National Union was formed in 1884 under his leadership. Subsequently, it turned into Indian National Congress.
The objectives of the Indian National Congress were proclaimed by its first president W. Chandra Banerjee as follows:
(1) The promotion of personal intimacy and friendship among workers from various comers of India.
(2) The eradication of all prejudices from the minds of every Indian towards the others and to foster sentiments of national unity among all the inhabitants of India.
In the beginning, the Indian National Congress stood for piecemeal reforms by submitting petitions, resolutions and deputation to satisfy the demands of the Indians expressing their faith in the political liberalism of the British Raj.
The Indian National Congress through resolution demanded for:
(i) The appointment of a commission to inquire into the working of the Indian government,
(ii) The abolition of the India council of the Secretary of state for India,
(iii) Creation of legislative councils of the north-west provinces and Awadh and the Punjab,
(iv) Enhancement of the number of elected members in the central and provincial legislative councils with the right of interpolation and discussion of the budget and the creation of a standing committee in the house of commons to look into the demands of the people,
(v) Reduction of military expenditure and equitable division of expenditure between India and England,
(vi) Introduction of simultaneous Public Service Examinations in England and India and raising age of the candidates who wish to appear for ICS. Till 1905, the Indian National Congress, demanded only for piecemeal reforms through petitions and prayers.
On the basis of the goal, strategy and technique adopted by the Indian National Congress, the national movement of India was divided as moderate phase (1885-1905), extremist phase (1905 to 1918) and the revolutionary phase and finally the Gandhian phase (1919 to 1947).