An essay tracing the second phase of the pre-independence history of the Indian National Congress Party
The pre-Independence history of the Indian National Congress Party falls into four broad phases.
The first is its founding by Allan Octavian Hume, a shrewd political gambit to preemptively diffuse the probable threat of a repeat of 1857. Its success was assured and immediate because it was a bomb from the blue flung by the British, who clothed it in the finery of benevolence. But it was also short-lived because it was the proverbial genie waiting to be unbottled. And in an alarmingly short span, it completely spun out of Hume’s—British—control. However, one observation that Hume made is entirely true: the Congress was the outcome of “the labours of a body of cultured men mostly born natives of India.” In this initial period, according to R.C. Majumdar, “the Indian National Congress….was brought into existence as an instrument to safeguard the British rule in India.”
Indian supporters of this infant Congress included prominent businessmen, lawyers, and activists of various hues that included Dadabhai Naoroji, Badruddin Tyabji, Pherozeshah Mehta, and K.T. Telang. A common trait they all shared was a naïve, childish faith that the British were a truly moral people who just needed to be convinced of the legitimacy of our demands, and they’d pack up and leave immediately. At this distance in time, one could blame this naiveté on the inherited, ancient Dharmic consciousness of this land or their mix of the ascendant English education system or on a more common sense factor: these privileged and English-educated classes didn’t have the stomach for an all-out bloody war akin to 1857. Western historians and writers of this period express incredulity when they notice this attitude of the aforementioned class of Indians. They saw what British rule really was: an imperial justification for an unlimited, ruthless bleeding and plunder of India, and were stunned that Indians, the victims, thought the British were actually benevolent. Much later, Mohandas Gandhi faithfully re-adapted this template but merely repurposed it.
However, the Congress that Hume had created was beginning to become a Frankenstein right after the second session, which initiated a decisive transformation under the leadership of Surendra Nath Banerjee, the same leader he had kept out. He was so successful that Viceroy Dufferin (a fitting name) left India thoroughly upset and disappointed, and wheezed out his hypocritical contempt against an organisation he had himself helped create because it was no longer under his control.
The second session in 1886 also heralded what can be called the Surendra Nath – Tilak era, the second phase of the pre-independence history of the Congress. This was truly the most glorious period of the Congress before Gandhi infected it with his HIV of non-violence. A foreign journalist noted how the “Congress became…truly national, not in 1885…but in 1886, the year in which Surendra Nath Banerji joined it.”
It was a truly heady period, the making of an epoch that was slowly bombinating throughout the country. A slow wave of ineffable nationalism that was inspired by and riding on countless droplets of fused cultural renaissance was surging. Elsewhere, in the exact year, 1886, Sri Ramakrishna had merged into the Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda began to meditate at Cossipore on the method of continuing his Guru’s work. Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s Arya Samaj had already become a great Sanatana spiritual, cultural and martial force. Mahadev Govind Ranade and Lokmanya Tilak were blazing a brilliant trail in Maharashtra while Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya was scorching the British with his fiery writing and spirited fight. One can reel out the names of any number of such giants but these are biographies that should be written in pages of gold. And it is this iridescent legacy that Mohandas Gandhi destroyed in ways that we’re yet to fully understand…notwithstanding the fact that he respected them. But that’s a story for another day.
The other face-staring fact and theme of this second phase was reported by the London-based newspaper, The Times, which noted how not a single Muslim member joined the Congress. This is how it translated on the ground: on the threshold of the third Congress session at Madras, a highly prominent Muslim leader made a speech to his community members:
His name: Syed Ahmad Khan. Of course, he couldn’t openly use the word “Hindu.” “Bengali” was a good enough substitute. It was also consistent with his standing as the leader of the Ashraf elite and his illicit deal-making with the British to side with them against Hindus. And then he outdid himself as the fourth Congress session at Allahabad approached. Overnight, he set up a rival political shop and with the help of the local British authorities, threatened anyone, especially Muslims, with street violence if they joined the Congress. And “independent” India released a postage stamp in his honour in 1973.
Syed Ahmad Khan, like every Muslim leader of the period, also emitted nostalgic duas of melancholy, longing for a return of the glorious Mughal rule. This now translated—as it always does—into a narrative of Muslim victimhood and fear-mongering that the Congress freedom struggle was nothing but a ploy to establish a Hindu Raj. This was an accusation levelled by the Nehruvian Congress first against the RSS, Jana Sangh and the BJP.
It is also the ultimate victory of Jinnah.
This second phase of the Congress leadership genuinely mentored and gave political training to young men, encouraged education among women, and infused an abiding spirit of love and reverence for Bharatavarsha. The reinvigoration and resurgence of Mother India (a term that profusely appears in all the writings and speeches of that era) was a National Yajna and every person who contributed to it was an Adhwaryu in his or her own way. When we understand it in this sense, the all-encompassing and undiluted sapience of the freedom struggle unfolds itself before our eyes, and parts the curtains of partial awareness. This is how R.C. Majumdar describes it.
This extraordinary leadership steadily moved the Congress away from the clutches of the elite like Dadabai Naoroji and Pherozeshah Mehta who vainly appealed to the good graces of their own oppressors to where it genuinely belonged: the un-brainwashed masses who were rooted rock-solid in their ancient cultural moorings. This is why Bankim resonated so awesomely with the masses when he described Bharatavarsha as Durga and Kali. This is why Lokmanya Tilak could singlehandedly create two glorious traditions from the scratch: the Shivaji and Ganapati festivals which have endured till date. We cannot imagine Mumbai or Maharashtra today without the Ganapati festival. These are the luminescent contemporary examples of how Parampara procreates itself. Indeed, it was this grand cultural reawakening that the British correctly perceived as one of the greatest threats and used the selfsame Shivaji festival as an excuse to persecute and prosecute Tilak, an event that R.C. Majumdar extols with evocative passion.
One of the vilest sections of Indian society who actively thirsted for Tilak’s blood and sought his prosecution and rejoiced when he was sentenced is the almost-extinct Anglo-Indian community. In those days, it was extensively patronised by and therefore exerted tremendous public influence thanks to its clout in the media. This is a subject for an entire series reserved for another day.
Lokmanya Balagangadhar Tilak’s unfortunate death was the death blow to this Congress. The mass awakening that he had tirelessly and at immense personal cost accomplished was precisely what Mohandas Gandhi swallowed whole like an insatiable Blue Whale suffering from a permanent constipation of half-baked morality and replaced with his cult. This then is that other famous half-truth that Gandhi was the first real mass leader.
The third phase of the pre-independence history of the Congress party thus began when it passed into the hands of a pious crowd-pleaser who confounded appeasement with courage and adolescent blackmail as political strategy. The road to recurrent Hindu slaughter was laid in this fashion by crushing the Vindhyas of the Kshatra that had crushed Aurangzeb.
To be continued