The history of the Indian National Congress is the history of the freedom struggle in India.

Broadly speaking, the history of the freedom struggle can be divided into two distinctive phases—Pre-Gandhian period (1885-1919) and Post-Gandhian period (1919-1947).

The pre-Gandhian period can be further divided into the Moderate Phase (1885-1905) and the Extremist Phase (1906-1919).


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 The Moderate Phase (1885-1905):


The first phase of twenty years of its life the Indian National Congress was controlled by the moderates. The leaders of this period were Dadabhai Naroji, Mahadev Govinda Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, W.C. Banerjee, S.N. Banerjee, Pheroz Shah Mehta etc.. All of them belonged to educated middle class and had very modest objectives.

Having faith in the honesty and sincerity of the British government they linked the progress of India with their prosperity.

They also believed that the British Government was ignorant of Indian problems and if it would come to know them, it would take measures to remove them. They tried to enlighten British public opinion and parliament concerning Indian affairs. Without having any radical ideas, moderates wanted the removal of injustice done to Indians by the British bureaucrats and demanded Certain reforms in the administrative, constitutional and economic spheres.

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The moderates wanted protection of the civil rights of Indians like freedom of speech, freedom of press, right to organize public meetings and processions. They asked for the separation of judiciary from the executive and removal of the Vernacular Press Act. The moderates urged the government to remove certain administrative abuses and to adopt various welfare schemes. They demanded for the appointment of a royal commission to examine the Indian administration.

The Congress, under the leadership of moderates asked the government to develop agricultural banks, improve police system, reduce military expenditure, provide facilities for irrigation, health and sanitation, to appoint more and more Indians in higher posts etc. They demanded better educational systems with opening up of technical and professional colleges and trial by jury. They asked for the removal of Arms Act passed during the viceroyalty of Lord Lytton.

Instead of demanding complete independence for India, the moderates only asked for larger number of elected representatives in central and provincial legislatures. They also demanded for Indian representation in the Indian Council at London and in the Executive Councils of the Centre and Provinces. With such representation, Indians would get the opportunity to be involved with the functioning of democratic government.

While the demands of the moderates were liberal in respect of administrative and constitutional reforms, these were revolutionary in the economic sphere. The worst result of the British rule was the extreme poverty of India. To protect the Indian economy, the moderates asked the government to stop draining off wealth from India, reduce the land revenue, abolish- salt tax, promote modern industries and to protect trade by imposing import and export duties.


All these demands were presented in prayer like language, leaving the final decision to the mercy of the British Crown. The moderates only followed the method of prayer, petition, representation, deputation and persuasion for which their approach was criticized as “political mendicancy”. However, the nature of these demands shows how the Indian National Congress functioned as the spokesman of each and every section of the people.

The growing popularity of the Congress appeared as a threat to British imperialism. So the British government took some measures to obstruct the functioning of the National Congress. Though the moderates failed to bring any instant gain, yet they have exposed the real motive of the British economic imperialism. They were able to generate the spirit of national consciousness among the people. They provided political education and indirectly raised a strong public opinion against the British rule. However, they never protested against the government and limited their activities within the existing laws of British India.

The Extremist Phase (1906-1919):

There was a rise of extremism or militant nationalism within the National Congress extending from 1906 to 1919. A young group realized the futility of the ideology and techniques of the moderates. Instead of going out of the Congress, they wanted to capture it from within. Several factors contributed to the growth of extremism in the freedom struggle of India.

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Exposure of the True Nature of the British Rule:

Gradually the people of India and their leaders realized the true nature of the British rule. They became convinced that the British would not grant self-government to them. M.G. Ranade’s ‘Essays in Indian Economics’, Dadabhai Naroji’s ‘Indian Poverty and Un-British Rule in India’, R.C. Dutta’s ‘Economic History of India’ proved that the prime motive of the British Government was to exploit-India economically. Dissatisfaction over the British administration was primarily responsible for the growth of militant nationalism.

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Dissatisfaction with the Ideology and Techniques of the Moderates:

A considerable section of the people within the Congress was not satisfied with the policies of the Congress which was dominated primarily by the moderates. They criticized their techniques of prayer and petition as political mendicancy. They were convinced that no tangible goal would be realized by the moderates. Tilak criticized the sessions of the Congress as “the entertainments of holidays” and Lala Lajpat Rai called them the “annual national festivals of the educated Indians.” Being dissatisfied with the moderate ideology, they preferred direct action or revolutionary methods.

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Social and Religious Awakening:

The nineteenth century movement of renaissance and reformation helped in reviving the faith of Indians in their culture. Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his Brahmo Samaj, Swami Dayananda and his Arya Samaj, Swami Vivekananda and his Ramakrishana Mission had played an important role in this regard.

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These organisations revived the glory of Indian Culture and generated a sense of self-confidence in the mind of Indians. The extremist leaders like Bipin Chandra Pal, Aurobindo Ghosh, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai etc. were influenced by the ideas of these reformers who had generated the spirit of patriotism along with the revival of Indian Culture. Forgetting the inferiority complex, the Indian mass came forward to face the challenge of the western culture and British administration.

Racial Arrogance of the British:

The racial arrogance and disrespectful behaviour of the Britishers towards the Indians, greatly injured their sentiments. Aggrieved Indians often failed to get justice against their oppression. Even the Anglo-Indian newspapers supported the stand of the Englishmen. Such arrogance and rough behaviour of Britishers, partially helped the rise of extremism.


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Economic Exploitation and Plight of Indians:

Under the British rule, the economic interest of all sections of Indians was hampered. The cultivators suffered due to the revenue policy of the government. The British Government served the interests of the British traders more than the Indian traders. The educated Indians failed to get employment as per their qualifications. Industries could not grow in India due to the exploitative policy of the government. All sections of Indians gradually lost their faith in the British sense of justice.

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Moreover, India suffered from a severe famine in 1896-97. And then, the plague broke out in Bombay Presidency. The steps taken by the government to provide relief was inadequate and could not satisfy the people. Out of the economic discontent, militant nationalism emerged in India.

Effects of Certain International Events:

Certain international events of that time had great bearing on the growth of extremism. The defeat of Italy by Abyssinia in 1896, defeat of Russia by Japan in 1905, the course of national movements in Egypt, Persia and Turkey, demand of Ireland for self-government etc. inspired the morale of the Indian nationalists. The oppression of the Indians in British Colonies and particularly in South Africa created anti-British feelings. All these international factors and forces encouraged extremism in India.


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Reactionary Policies of Different British Viceroys:

The policies of different British Viceroys, particularly of Lord Curzon created widespread discontent among the Indians. He tried to attack the university autonomy with his Indian Universities Act. He also destroyed the system of local self government by passing the Calcutta Corporation Act and attempted to divide Hindu and Muslim by the partition of Bengal. Though the government tried to justify its decision of partition on the ground of administrative convenience, yet the real aim was how to weaken the growing Indian nationalism.

At that time Bengal had become the central point of Indian nationalism. So the partition seriously provoked the sentiments of the people and protest movements were organised throughout India. This movement ultimately resulted in the Swadeshi Movement, boycott of foreign goods and in the scheme of national education which awakened the political consciousness of the people at large.

The extremist phase of the liberation movement was provided with the philosophy of Aurobindo Ghosh and guidance of the trio-Lai, Bal and Pal, viz., Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal. All these Congressmen though differed from the political ideology of the moderates, yet instead of leaving the Congress they preferred to capture it from within.

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While the highest goal of the moderates was the attainment of colonial form of self-government, the goal of the extremists was complete “Swarajya”. Tilak declared that “Swarajya is my birth right and I shall have it”. All these leaders added religious dedication to the struggle for political independence. They did not have faith in passing resolutions, sending delegates or submitting petitions.

They never preached violence against the government, rather suggested to withdraw the co-operation of the people from the government. They advocated the concept of “Swadeshi” with an emphasis on national education. The techniques which were evolved by the Indians during the anti-partition of Bengal agitation, continued as the primary techniques of the extremists. The differences between the moderates and extremists finally resulted in the split of the Congress at Surat in 1907.

The extremists made a solid contribution to the national movement. While the objective of ‘Poorna Swaraj’ inspired the people, the techniques of boycott and Swadeshi brought economic advantages to Indians. People were made prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of their motherland. Their programme of national education aimed at the cultural regeneration in India. All these proved beneficial in the long run. Even Gandhiji adopted the techniques of the extremists later on. While previously, Indian nationalism was confined to the limited educated class, the extremists had brought it nearer to the middle and lower middle class.

Some good results also came out of extremism. The partition of Bengal was annulled in 1911. The extremists had generated a sense of self-sacrifice in the mind of Indians. They had compelled the British Government to provide certain constitutional privileges to Indians from time to time. John Morley, the Secretary of State at London and Lord Minto, the Viceroy of India had suggested certain steps to check the growing discontentment among the Indians.

Their suggestions were adopted by the British Government which resulted in the passing of the Indian Council Act of 1909. But the constitutional reforms suggested in the Act failed to satisfy my body. The insertion of the Communal Electorate System in this Act exposed the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the government. However, the moderates opted to co-operate with the execution of the Act.

Several scholars expressed the view that the extremists involved religion in politics and advocated the militancy of Hinduism. It caused communalism in Indian politics later on. With a revival of Hinduism they also distanced the Muslim masses from the national movement and caused the formation of the Muslim League in 1906. But the leaders of the extremist phase were not communalists. They only adopted certain religious means with the prime motive of involving the common people in the liberation movement.

Subsequently, the extremists became leaderless as Tilak was imprisoned for Six years in 1908, B.C. Pal retired from active politics and Aurobindo went away to Pondicherry. Lala Lajpat Rai also went on a sojourn to U.S.A. in 1914. Thus, the extremists lost their hold on Indian politics.

Home Rule Movement:

But the movement again gained momentum with the formation of “Home Rule League” by Tilak. After completing his term of imprisonment, Tilak returned to India and joined active politics in 1914. He tried to bring unity between the Moderates and the Extremists with the hope of intensifying the national movement. But being failed to achieve anything, he established the Home Rule League in 28th April 1916. Mrs. Annie Besant who had joined the Congress, established a Home Rule League at London in 1914.


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Both the Leagues co-operated with each other for a single cause. Both Tilak and Besant toured all over the country and carried out the message of the self-government among the masses. Besant’s newspaper ‘New India’ and Tilak’s ‘Young India’ helped in spreading the ideas of Home Rule. Leaders like M.M. Malaviya, Motilal Nehru etc. were also attracted towards the movement.

It infused the spirit of patriotism, fearlessness and sacrifice among the people. The election of Mrs. Besant as the Congress President in the Calcutta session of 1917 was a great victory of the movement. The Congress also accepted Home Rule as its objective.

The movement was kept within the constitutional framework. They had not preached violence. They only aimed for the realization of self-government within the British Dominion. But the British Government could not tolerate the policies of the Home Rule League. A case was registered against Tilak.

Annie Besant was forced to close the publication of ‘New India’ and was sentenced to home imprisonment. The Indian National Congress was bifurcated over the issue of accepting the Government of India Act 1919. While some welcomed it, others rejected it. Tilak went out to London to fight out a legal case. In his absence Mrs. Besant went over to the side of the moderates and accepted the reform scheme of the Act of 1919. Though the movement failed to achieve its objective, yet it made a solid contribution to the national movement.