The British rule in India was at its strongest grip between 1858 and 1905. England had become the centre of an empire that included one quarter of the world area and population.
India became the most valuable possession. During this period, a current of national feeling was generated in the minds of the people.
The completeness of the Britain’s empire helped generate the flow of national consciousness.
After the establishment of a common administration by the British, Indians could inhale the fragrance of unity and nationalism —a concept new to India in its modern perspective. The very concept of nationalism arose to meet the challenge of the foreign rule. It was, however, during the dark period of India’s history, when the Indians failed miserably to accumulate strength against the mighty-power in the great Indian revolt, India saw the dawn of a new era.
The idea of nationhood grew stronger. A certain dislike was felt even by the great admirers of the British achievements. The process was very slow but the undercurrent elements cumulatively led to the politicization of certain groups and ultimately created an arena of nationalist politics in India.
Social Unity for Indian Nationalism:
Since the earliest past, the sages and seers of India accepted the whole country as the common motherland of all people. From Himalayas down to the seas they gave one name to the country Bharatavarsha. The people were described as Bharati santati or children of Bharata. There remained many ancient kingdoms within the geographical boundaries of India yet the people were taught by their non-heritage to regard the whole land as one.
Religion always plays a significant role in shaping the social unity. Likewise Indians developed the sense of love to their motherland through religious beliefs. The mountains like Himalaya, the rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna and Godavari were regarded as sacred and holy. Places of pilgrimage were situated within the boundaries of this holy land. People went to these places through ages far outside their local kingdoms.
Social customs attached with religious sentiments took common shape all over India. In habit and manner Indians exposed the feelings of oneness always. Thus the traditional Indian society projected the background of unity for the rise of nationalism.
The social unity became viable through the economic life of the people. The improvement in the means of transport and communication also quickened the process of social unity. The woolen goods of Kashmir and Punjab, the silk sarees of Banaras and Mysore were required by the people everywhere. Local products of special attraction found wide markets all over the country.
Every region of India depended on other regions for these types of goods that prompted an Indian for a better social understanding. This fellow-felineness was exhibited during the darkest period of the British rule when millions and millions of people died of famine. Food-grains of surplus region were supplied to the areas of distress without any hesitation. Closer economic relations thus developed a greater sense of social unity that ultimately resulted in the national unity.
Cultural Unity for Indian Nationalism:
India to her credit possessed one of the oldest civilizations of mankind. Her history has maintained the continuity through ages. The cultural heritage endowed with the richness in literature, philosophy, art and architecture enabled India to occupy a unique place in the history of civilized races.
Indians felt proud to remember their ancestors like Valmiki, Vyasa, Buddha, Mahavir, Kautilya, Asoka, Kalidasa, Harsha, Kharavela and many others. Similarly the Vedas and the puranas, epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata worked as supreme lessons to every Indian throughout the length and breadth of India.
Countless temples and other movements reminded the people of their glorious past. These elements of a rich cultural heritage inspired everyone to be very proud of their motherland.
During 19th century, eminent scholars depicted the real picture of India. Many forgotten chapters of the past came to light, that Buddha was the light of Asia, that Chandragupta Mauraya defeated the Greeks, that Asoka was the greatest monarch of human history and that Akbar the great was cosmopolitan in his religious outlook, created a sense of pride in the minds of the educated Indians who ultimately tuned the social unity into Indian nationalism.
The youthful patriots began to wonder how their great country was ruled by the inhabitants of that small Island who had nothing to be proud of except their sharp edged sword of divide and rule. The discovery of the lost and forgotten places of art and architecture naturally enriched the pride of the nation that provided the very concept of modern Indian nationalism.
No doubt, India was a vast sub-continent yet the people used a common language at all times. Three hundred years before the Christian era the Prakrit language served the purpose of a linguistic unity. Sanskrit became the common language of the learned class everywhere and gradually Sanskrit remained the mother of all languages in India.
During the Muslim rule Persian was used as the Court language. After the British rule English language spread rapidly. Educated Indians felt attracted towards this language and used it as a national language. This national language could cultivate the idea of nationalism among the educated elite class.
Political Unity for Indian Nationalism:
From the remote past, the rulers, poets, philosophers and political thinkers of India thought the political unity. The very name Bharatavarsha symbolized the land of King Bharata, land laying between the ocean in the south and snowy mountains in the north, inhabited by the descendants of Bharata.
He was called as Chakravarti. Inspired by such ideas powerful rulers like Chandragupta Mauraya. Ashoka, Samudragupta, Chandragupta Vikramaditya, Harshavardhan, Allauddin Khilji and Akbar all tried their best to bring the political unity of India under one administration. Vast empires were created in different times.
Finally, it was during the British rule the whole of India was conquered and brought under one sovereign authority. British Raj started to grow very rapidly. The British domination enabled the Indians to think and act as one nation. Before the coming of the British, the people of South remained separated from the rest of India except for short intervals. British imperialism helped the process of unification of the country.
Introduction of modern trade policy, establishment of different industries, construction of good roads. Construction of railway lines and establishment of Post Offices at nook and corners of the country had increasingly made India’s economic life a single whole and bridged the gap between the people living in different parts of this country.
Along with the political unity the British gave Indians administrative unity. A uniform law and judicial system were introduced on the whole of the empire. The British administration was proud of their Rule of Law which provided no distinction between man and man, the Brahmin and the Sudra, the Hindu and the Muslim, the Gujarati and the Kerali in the eyes of law.
As a result of the spread of modern western education and western thought during the 19th century, a large number of Indians imbibed a modern rational, secular, democratic and nationalist political outlook. They infused new ideas among Indians which ultimately resulted in the growth of national consciousness. Rouseall Paine, John Stuart Mill and other while Mazzine, Garibaldi, and Irish nationalist leaders became their political heroes.
Modern education also created a certain uniformity and community of outlook and interest among educated Indians. Opening of the Universities in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras accelerated the process of unity among the educated Indian youths who have tried their best to move the common Indian acquainted with the Western way of life.
These helped in spreading an awareness of the problem of Indian society among the people. The Western educated group was steadily growing in number which spearheaded the cause of Indian nationalism. These educated Indians translated European works into Indian languages.
This group included stalwarts like Pherozshah Mehta, Dadabhai Naroji, Vidyasagar, Surendranath Banerjee, and Debendranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore and Keshab Chandra Sen etc. In addition to this there were journalists. There came up sizeable number of newspapers both in English and vernacular languages.
The newspapers worked as major channels of communication in the country and provided the forum for the educated to express their views and organize support for their various agitations and movements. Raja Rammohan Roy was one of the founders of Indian Press. Gradually large number of nationalist newspapers made their appearance during the second half of 19th Century.
In the columns the official policies of British administration were constantly criticized and the legitimate demands of the Indians put forward. The Press also enabled nationalist workers living in different parts of the country to exchange their views freely with one another. The prominent nationalist newspapers like The Hindu Patriots,
The Amrit Bazar Patrika, The Indian Mirror, The Bengalee, The Som Prakash, The Hindu, The Swadeshmitram, The Andhra Prakashika, The Hindustani, The Azad in U.P., The Tribune and the Akhbar-i-Am etc. could able to educate Indians to fight against British atrocities and callousness. They could wake the British administration up the sleep.
The geographical distribution of the members of this western- educated group is very significant. Some of them selected careers beneficial to the process of social mobility. A very few who managed to enter into exclusive Indian Civil Service moved even further to synthesize the feelings of the people of the localities where they served. Sri Satyendranath Tagore, a member of a famous Bengali family and the first Indian to enter ICS in 1860 was posted in Gujarat in Western India. He could work as a symbol of unity among the people of Eastern and Western regions of India.
There were also some movements of advocates, lawyers, and journalists from metropolis who could go into interiors to influence the ignorant people about nationalism. Thus outside cities in the smaller towns of the Presidencies cells of educated youths gradually developed. They gradually became responsible for the spread of political ideas which resulted in the establishment of political organisations.
They further tried to bring interaction between different castes and communities of India. During the process of their attempts for social changes, they faced oppositions from their conservative elders but in the long run they could establish their supremacy over the millions and turned the society to the direction of nationalism.
The educated Indians championed the grievances of different communities in the platforms organised by different Associations and Political organisations. Even the nationalistic ideas were voiced by a small group of Indians in England on the tour for business or study. Thus, on the Indian mind, was just timely which represented a new upsurge towards modern there generated the idea of nationalism.
An important factor in the process of the growth of national sentiment was the tone of racial superiority of many Englishmen in their dealings with Indians. Many Englishmen openly insulted even educated Indians and sometimes they did not resist their temptation of assaulting Indians. There was the failure of justice whenever an Englishman was involved in dispute with Indians.
There were instances where Englishmen had hit and killed Indians but escaped from adequate punishments except mere fines. To cite an instance, a British Major at Sialkot travelling with his wife without valid tickets entered a railway compartment occupied by some Indian first class passengers and forced them to leave.
Racial arrogance branded all Indians irrespective of their caste, religion, province, or class with the identity cards of inferior a race. Indians for this were kept out of exclusively European clubs and were often not permitted to travel in same compartment of a train with the European passengers. This type of behaviour of the English hurt every Indian which resulted in the formation of nationalistic feeling among the Indian mass.
Socio-Religious Reform Movements:
The new consciousness of India in 19th Century was further hastened by social and religious movements. These movements helped the growth of national consciousness with a new zeal. The reformers preached against social events like caste system, child marriage, social injustice to women, and social inequalities among men.
They also discarded the religious superstitions. Among all the reformers Raja Rammohan Ray, Dayananda Saraswati, Ramakrishna Paramahansa and his disciple Swami Vivekananda and Mrs. Annie Besant were prominent. The preaching’s of all these exponents provided a reformative background to germinate the seeds of Indian nationalism.
Ilbert Bill Controversy:
After the departure of Lord Lytton, Lord Ripon became very much sympathetic towards Indian aspirations. He not only stopped the costly Afgan war but also encouraged Local Self Government, repealed the Vernacular Press Act of Lytton and carried out other measures of educational and political reforms.
He also tried to eliminate one of the most unfair privileges that Europeans then enjoyed. In 1883, he asked C.P. Ilbert, the law member of his council to draft a Bill modifying the Criminal Procedure Code so as to allow Indian Judges to take up cases of European criminals for trial.
This Bill, the moment it was published, welcomed a storm of protest from the British Community both in the cities as well as in the countryside. In Bengal racial feelings and prejudice reached un-presciently in bitter heights. An Anglo-Indian Defence Association was formed to agitate against the Bill and to create public opinion against Ripon in England. Against this attitude of the Britishers there was overwhelming support for Ripon throughout the country.
Meetings were organised in the Presidency towns and country sides in support of the Ilbert Bill. The Ilbert Bill had done much to provoke nationalist feelings in responser against British racialism. Indians became more conscious of the degradation to which foreign rule had reduced them. This agitation united people from different classes and sections of the society against a common enemy.
The growing poverty of Indians was the greatest evil of the British rule. Before the establishment of the British Empire, India was a very prosperous country, endowed with high quality agricultural products and raw materials for the growth of industries. The Indian village economy rested both on agriculture and industry. All types of skilled workers were getting their annual subsistence from the village cottage industries. On the whole, pre-British India was economically rich.
But this picture began to change with the rise of British power. There began a regular process to drain the Indian wealth to England. English traders carried raw materials in huge quantities from India and in return flooded the Indian markets with machine made finished goods. This led to the decline of the village and indigenous industries. Thus India became an agricultural coloney of industrial Britain which resulted in the growth of unemployment problem in India. Millions turned landless labrouers.
In 1876, a great famine visited India and devastated a large part including Madras, Mysore, Bombay and Hyderabad. About five millions of people died in this famine. During that tragic time, Lord Lytton, the viceroy, held a grand Durbar in Delhi in 1877 to proclaim Queen Victoria as the Empress of India. This led people to believe that their rulers cared very little even for their lives and were busy to spend for their own pleasure and glory.
The very attitude of the British people shocked the conscious Indians deeply. To the rising generation of educated Indians, the poverty of the people appeared as the worst curse of the British rule. Indians were no longer prepared to withstand such type of economic exploitations. Indian nationalists like Dadavai Naoroji exposed the necked character of British Government in writings. Hostility against the Government began to grow.
This hostile feeling against the British became a potential cause for the growth of national spirit. Thus, utter poverty not only forced Indians to migrate to Fiji, West Indies, Mauritius as slaves but also generated the spark of nationalism all over the country.
Lord Lytton passed an Arms Act in 1878 which made distinction between Indians and Europeans in regard to the possession of arms for self-defence. Such a measure angered the Indians as they were put to lose their self-respect. The Arms Act which disarmed the Indians appeared for them as an effort of the British administration to castrate the entire nation.
The need for a political Association for the Indians to redress their grievances became evident. Early in 1883, the Indian Association put forward the idea. An Englishman, named Allan Octavian Hume, a former I.C.S. officer addressed the graduates of Calcutta University in an open letter encouraging them to form an association to regenerate the nation.
Grounds were prepared in the International Exhibition in Calcutta in 1884 and in the Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society in Madras by the young nationalist leaders. The Indian Association sponsored an All Indian National Conference at Calcutta in December 1883. It adopted a programme to establish the Indian National Congress.
Hume thought it wise to inform the Government about the feelings of the Indians and met the Viceroy Lord Dufferin in 1885. Hume’s idea worked as a ‘safety valve’ and finally Dufferin consented to the proposal. On 28th December 1885, the proposed Conference met at Bombay in Gokuldas Jaipal Sanskrit College, under the banner of Indian National Congress. Seventy-two invited delegates from different parts of Indian assembled in the meeting under the chairmanship of a Calcutta barrister Woomesh Chandra Banerjee. President W.C. Banerjee analyzed the aims and objectives of the Congress. Allan Octavian Hume was elected the first Secretary of the Indian National Congress.
In that meeting nine resolutions were passed. Such was the humble beginning of the organisation. The second and the third sessions were held at Calcutta and Madras under the presidentship of Dadabhai Naoroji and Badruddin Tyabji respectively. This Congress gradually developed into a powerful political forum for Indians to demand for their independence.
Thus with the foundation of the National Congress, the struggle for India’s freedom from foreign rule was launched in an organised manner, for the first time in the history of India as a political party, with some political ideology representing the whole country and the nation came into existence to represent the hope and aspirations of the people irrespective of caste, creed, language and religion. It symbolized the unity of Indians and thus stood to develop Indian nationalism in a new perspective.
The Congress at its birth pledged for a constitutional agitation. The early nationalists demand for a large share in the Government of their own country under the principles of democracy.
From 1885 to 1892, the Congress leaders demanded the expansion and reform of the Legislative Councils. Virtually, the Congress had no powers, it could only make suggestions. The petitions to the Government were worded in very polite language that to-day seems very shockingly submissive.
On the other hand, the British authorities were from the beginning exhibited a hostile attitude to this organisation for its nationalistic outlook and became suspicious on it. In 1887, Lord Dufferin even attacked the National Congress in a public meeting and ridiculed it by saying that the Congress represents only a microscopic minority of the people. Whether big or small, good or bad the national congress was born in a right time to work as a supreme force on the national movement.