The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the full flowering of national political consciousness and the growth of an organised national movement in India. In December 1885 was born the Indian National Congress under whose leadership Indians waged a prolonged and courageous struggle for independence from foreign rule, a struggle which India finally won on 15 August 1947.
Consequence of Foreign Domination
Basically, modern Indian nationalism arose to meet the challenge of foreign domination. The very conditions of British rule helped the growth of national sentiment among the Indian people. It was British rule and its direct and indirect consequences which provided the material, and the moral and intellectual conditions for the development of a national movement in India.
The root of the matter lay in the clash of interests of the Indian people with British interests in India. The British had conquered India to promote their own interests and they ruled it primarily with that purpose in view, often subordinating Indian welfare to British gain. The Indians gradually realised that their interests were being sacrificed to those of Lancashire manufacturers and other dominant British interests.
The foundations of the Indian nationalist movement lay in the fact that increasingly British rule had become the major cause of India’s economic backwardness. It became the major barrier to India’s further economic, social, cultural, intellectual and political development. Moreover, this fact began to be recognised by an increasingly larger number of Indians.
Every class, every section of Indian society, gradually discovered that its interests were suffering at the hands of the foreign rulers. The peasant saw that the government took away a large part of his produce as land revenue; that the government and its machinery— the police, the courts, the officials—favoured and protected the zamindars and landlords, who rack-rented him, and the merchants and moneylenders, who cheated and exploited him in diverse ways and who took his land away from him. Whenever the peasant struggled against landlord and moneylender oppression, the police and the army suppressed him in the name of law and order.
The artisan or the handicraftsman saw that the foreign regime had helped foreign competition ruin him and had done nothing to rehabilitate him.
Later, in the twentieth century, the worker in modern factories, mines, and plantations found that, in spite of lip sympathy, the government sided with the capitalists, especially the foreign capitalists. Whenever he tried to organise trade unions to improve his lot through strikes, demonstrations, and other struggles, government machinery was freely used against him. Moreover, he soon realised that the growing unemployment could be checked only by rapid industrialisation which only an independent government could bring about.
Other sections of Indian society were no less dissatisfied. The rising intelligentsia—the educated Indians—used their newly acquired modern knowledge to understand the sad economic and political condition of their country. Those who had earlier, as in 1857, supported British rule in the hope that, though alien, it would modernise and industrialise the country were gradually disappointed. Economically, they had hoped that British capitalism would help develop India’s productive forces as it had done at home. Instead, they found that British policies in India, guided by British capitalists at home, were keeping the country economically backward or underdeveloped and checking the development of its productive forces.
Politically, educated Indians found that the British had abandoned all previous pretensions of guiding India towards self-government. Most of the British officials and political leaders openly declared that the British were in India to stay. Moreover, instead of increasing the freedom of speech, of the press, and of the individual, the government increasingly restricted them. British officials and writers declared Indians unfit for democracy or self-government. In the field of culture, the rulers were increasingly taking a negative and even hostile attitude towards higher education and the spread of modern ideas.
The rising Indian capitalist class was slow in developing a national political consciousness. But it too gradually saw that it was suffering at the hands of imperialism. Its growth was severely checked by the trade, tariff, taxation, and transport policies of the government. As a new and weak class, it needed active government help to counterbalance many of its weaknesses. But no such help was given. Instead, the government and its bureaucracy favoured foreign capitalists who came to India with their vast resources and appropriated the limited industrial field. Indian capitalists were particularly opposed to the strong competition from foreign capitalists. The Indian capitalists also, therefore, realised that there existed a contradiction between imperialism and their own independent growth, and that only a national government would create conditions for the rapid development of Indian trade and industries.
As we have seen in an earlier chapter, the zamindars, the landlords, and the princes were the only section of Indian society whose interests coincided with those of the foreign rulers and who, therefore, on the whole supported foreign rule until the end. But even from these classes, many individuals joined the national movement. In the prevailing nationalist atmosphere, patriotism appealed to many. Further, the policies of racial dominance and discrimination apalled and aroused every thinking and self-respecting Indian, to whichever class he might belong. Most of all, the foreign character of the British regime in itself produced a nationalist reaction, since foreign domination invariably generates patriotic sentiments in the hearts of a subject people.
To sum up, it was as a result of the intrinsic nature of foreign imperialism and its harmful impact on the lives of the Indian people that a powerful anti-imperialist movement gradually arose and developed in India. This movement was a national movement because it united people from different classes and sections of society, who sank their mutual differences to unite against the common enemy.
Administrative and Economic Unification of The Country
Nationalist sentiments grew easily among the people because India was unified and welded into a nation during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The British had gradually introduced a uniform and modern system of government throughout the country and thus unified it administratively. The destruction of the rural and local self-sufficient economy and the introduction of modern trade and industries on an all-India scale had increasingly made India’s economic life a single whole and interlinked the economic fate of people living in different parts of the country. For example, if famine or scarcity occurred in one part of India, prices and availability of foodstuffs were affected in all other parts of the country too. Furthermore, the introduction of the railways, telegraph and a unified postal system had brought the different parts of the country together and promoted mutual contact among the people, especially among the leaders.
Here again, the very existence of foreign rule that oppressed all the Indian people irrespective of their social class, caste, religion or region acted as a unifying factor. All over the country people saw that they were suffering at the hands of a common enemy—British rule. On the one hand, the emergence of the Indian nation was a major factor in the rise of nationalism; on the other hand, the anti-imperialist struggle and the feeling of solidarity born in its course contributed powerfully to the making of the Indian nation.
Western Thought and Education
As a result of the spread of modern Western education and thought during the nineteenth century, a large number of Indians imbibed a modern rational, secular, democratic and nationalist political outlook. They also began to study, admire and emulate the contemporary nationalist movements of European nations. Rousseau, Paine, John Stuart Mill and other Western thinkers became their political guides, while Mazzini, Garibaldi and Irish nationalist leaders became their political heroes.
These educated Indians were the first to feel the humiliation of foreign subjection. By becoming modern in their thinking, they also acquired the ability to study the evil effects of foreign rule. They were inspired by the dream of a modern, strong, prosperous, and united India. In course of time, the best among them became the leaders and organisers of the national movement.
It should be clearly understood that it was not the modern educational system that created the national movement which was the product of the conflict of interests between Britain and India. The system only enabled educated Indians to imbibe Western thought and thus to assume the leadership of the national movement and to give it a democratic and modern direction. In fact, in the schools and colleges, the authorities tried to inculcate notions of docility and servility to foreign rule. Nationalist ideas were a part of the general spread of modern ideas. In other Asian countries such as China and Indonesia, and all over Africa, modern and nationalist ideas spread even though modern schools and colleges existed on a much smaller scale.
Modern education also created a certain uniformity and community of outlook and interests among the educated Indians. The English language played an important role in this respect. It became the medium for the spread of modern ideas. It also became the medium of communication and exchange of ideas between educated Indians from different linguistic regions of the country. But soon English also became a barrier to the spread of modern knowledge among the common people. It also acted as a wall separating the educated urban people from the common people, especially in the rural areas. This fact was fully recognised by Indian political leaders. From Dadabhai Naoroji, Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Justice Ranade to Tilak and Gandhiji, they agitated for a bigger role for the Indian languages in the educational system. In fact, so far as the common people were concerned, the spread of modern ideas occurred through the developing Indian languages, the growing literature in them, and most of all the popular Indian language press.
The Role of The Press and Literature
The chief instrument through which nationalist-minded Indians spread the message of partiotism and modern economic, social and political ideas, and created an all-India consciousness was the press. Large numbers of nationalist newspapers made their appearance during the second half of the nineteenth century. In their columns, the official policies were constantly criticised; the Indian point of view was put forward; people were asked to unite and work for national welfare, and ideas of self-government, democracy, industrialistion, etc., were popularised among the people. The press also enabled nationalist workers living in different parts of the country to exchange views with one another.
National literature in the form of novels, essays and patriotic poetry also played an important role in arousing national consciousness. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore in Bengali, Lakshminath Bezbarua in Assamese, Vishnu Shastri Chiplunkar in Marathi, Subramanya Bharati in Tamil, Bharatendu Harishchandra in Hindi and Altaf Husain Hali in Urdu were some of the prominent nationalist writers of the period.
Rediscovery of India’s Past
Many Indians had fallen so low that they had lost confidence in their own capacity for self-government. Also, many British officials and writers of the time constantly advanced the thesis that Indians had never been able to rule themselves in the past, that Hindus and Muslims had always fought one another, that Indians were destined to be ruled by foreigners, that their religion and social life were degraded and uncivilised making them unfit for democracy or even self-government. Many of the nationalist leaders tried to arouse the self-confidence and self-respect of the people by countering this propaganda. They pointed to the cultural heritage of India with pride and referred the critics to the political achievements of rulers like Ashoka, Chandragupta Vikramaditya and Akbar. In this task they were helped and encouraged by the work of European and Indian scholars in rediscovering India’s national heritage in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, science and politics. Unfortunately, some of the nationalists went to the other extreme and began to glorify India’s past uncritically, ignoring its weaknesses and backwardness. Great harm was done, in particular, by the tendency to look up only to the heritage of ancient India while ignoring the equally great achievements of the medieval period. This encouraged the growth of communal sentiments among the Hindus and the counter tendency among the Muslims of looking to the history of the Arabs and the Turks for cultural and historical inspiration. Morevoer, in meeting the challenge of cultural imperialism of the West, many Indians tended to ignore the fact that in many respects the people of India were culturally backward. A false sense of pride and smugness was produced which tended to prevent Indians from looking critically at their society. This weakened the struggle against social and cultural backwardness, and led many Indians to turn away from healthy and fresh tendencies and ideas from other parts of the world.
Racial Arrogance of The Rulers
An important though secondary factor in the growth of national sentiments in India was the tone of racial superiority adopted by many Englishmen in their dealings with Indians. A particularly odious and frequent form taken by racial arrogance was the failure of justice whenever an Englishman was involved in a dispute with an Indian. As G.O. Trevelyan pointed out in 1864: “The testimony of a single one of our countrymen has more weight with the court than that of any number of Hindoos, a circumstance which puts a terrible instrument of power into the hands of an unscrupulous and grasping Englishman.”
Racial arrogance branded all Indians irrespective of their caste, religion, province, or class with the badge of inferiority. They were kept out of exclusively European clubs and often not permitted to travel in the same compartment in a train with the European passengers. This made them conscious of national humiliation, and led them to think of themselves as one people when facing Englishmen.
Predecessors of The Indian National Congress
By the 1870s it was evident that Indian nationalism had gathered enough momentum to appear as a major force on the Indian political scene. The Indian National Congress, founded in December 1885, was the first organised expression of the Indian national movement on an all-India scale. It had, however, many predecessors.
As we have seen in an earlier chapter, Raja Rammohun Roy was the first Indian leader to start an agitation for political reforms in India. Many public associations were started in different parts of India after 1836. All these associations were dominated by wealthy and aristocratic elements—known in those days as ‘prominent persons’— and were provincial or local in character. They worked for reform of administration, association of Indians with the administration, and spread of education, and sent long petitions, putting forward Indian demands, to the British Parliament.
The period after 1858 witnessed a gradual widening of the gulf between the educated Indians and the British Indian administration. As educated Indians studied the character of British rule and its consequences for India, they became more and more critical of British policies in India. The discontent gradually found expression in political activity. The existing associations no longer satisfied the politically conscious Indians.
In 1866, Dadabhai Naoroji organised the East India Association in London to discuss the Indian question and to influence British public officials to promote Indian welfare. Later he organised branches of the Association in prominent Indian cities. Born in 1825, Dadabhai devoted his entire life to the national movement and soon came to be known as the ‘Grand Old Man of India’. He was also India’s first economic thinker. In his writings on economics he showed that the basic cause of India’s poverty lay in the British exploitation of India and the drain of its wealth. Dadabhai was honoured by being thrice elected president of the Indian National Congress. In fact he was the first of the long line of popular nationalist leaders of India whose very name stirred the hearts of the people.
The most important of the pre-Congress nationalist organisations was the Indian Association of Calcutta. The younger nationalists of Bengal had been gradually getting discontented with the conservative and pro-landlord policies of the British India Association. They wanted sustained political agitation on issues of wider public interest. They found a leader in Surendranath Banerjea who was a brilliant writer and orator. He was unjustly turned out of the Indian Civil Service as his superiors could not tolerate the presence of an independent-minded Indian in the ranks of this service. He began his public career in 1875 by delivering brilliant addresses on nationalist topics to the students of Calcutta. Led by Surendranath and Ananda Mohan Bose, the younger nationalists of Bengal founded the Indian Association in July 1876. The Indian Association set before itself the aims of creating strong public opinion in the country on political questions and the unification of the Indian people under a common political programme. In order to attract large numbers of people to its banner, it fixed a low membership fee for the poorer classes. Many branches of the Association were opened in the towns and villages of Bengal and also in many towns outside Bengal.
The younger elements were also active in other parts of India. Justice Ranade and others organised the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha in 1870. M. Viraraghavachari, G. Subramaniya Iyer, Ananda Charlu and others formed the Madras Mahajan Sabha in 1884. Pherozeshah Mehta, K.T. Telang, Badruddin Tyabji and others formed the Bombay Presidency Association in 1885.
The time was now ripe for the formation of an all-India political organisation of nationalists who felt the need to unite politically against the common enemy—foreign rule and exploitation. The existing organisations had served a useful purpose but they were narrow in their scope and functioning. They dealt mostly with local questions and their membership and leadership were confined to a few people belonging to a single city or province. Even the Indian Association had not succeeded in becoming an all-India body.
The Indian National Congress
Many Indians had been planning to form an all-India organisation of nationalist political workers. But the credit for giving the idea concrete and final shape goes to A.O. Hume, a retired English Civil Servant. He got in touch with prominent Indian leaders and organised with their cooperation the first Session of the Indian National Congress at Bombay in December 1885. It was presided over by WC. Bonnerjee and attended by 72 delegates. The aims of the National Congress were declared to be the promotion of friendly relations between nationalist political workers from different parts of the country, development and consolidation of the feeling of national unity irrespective of caste, religion or province, formulation of popular demands and their presentation before the government, and most important of all, the training and organisation of public opinion in the country.
It has been said that Hume’s main purpose in encouraging the foundation of the Congress was to provide a ‘safety valve’ or a safe outlet to the growing discontent among the educated Indians. He wanted to prevent the union of a discontented nationalist intelligentsia with a discontented peasantry.
The ‘safety valve’ theory is, however, a small part of the truth and is totally inadequate and misleading. More than anything else, the National Congress represented the urge of politically conscious Indians to set up a national organisation to work for their political and economic advancement. We have already seen above that a national movement was already growing in the country as a result of the working of powerful forces. No one man or group of men can be given credit for creating this movement. Even Hume’s motives were mixed ones. He was also moved by motives nobler than those of the ‘safety valve’. He possessed a sincere love for India and its poor cultivators. In any case, the Indian leaders, who cooperated with Hume in starting this National Congress, were patriotic men of high character who willingly accepted Hume’s help as they did not want to arouse official hostility towards their efforts at so early a stage of political activity and they hoped that a retired Civil Servant’s active presence would allay official suspicions. If Hume wanted to use the Congress as a ‘safety valve’, the early Congress leaders hoped to use him as a ‘lightning conductor’.
Thus with the foundation of the National Congress in 1885, the struggle for India’s freedom from foreign rule was launched in a small but organised manner. The national movement was to grow and the country and its people were to know no rest till freedom was won. The Congress itself was to serve from the beginning not as a party but as a movement. In 1886 delegates to the Congress, numbering 436, were elected by different local organisations and groups. Hereafter, the National Congress met every year in December, in a different part of the country each time. The number of its delegates soon increased to thousands. Its delegates consisted mostly of lawyers, journalists, traders, industrialists, teachers and landlords. In 1890, Kadambini Ganguli, the first woman graduate of Calcutta University, addressed the Congress session. This was symbolic of the fact that India’s struggle for freedom would raise Indian women from the degraded position to which they had been reduced for centuries past.
The Indian National Congress was not the only channel through which the stream of nationalism flowed. Provincial conferences, provincial and local associations, and nationalist newspapers were the other prominent organs of the growing nationalist movement. The press, in particular, was a powerful factor in developing nationalist opinion and the nationalist movement. Of course, most of the newspapers of the period were not carried on as business ventures but were consciously started as organs of nationalist activity. Some of the great presidents of the National Congress during its early years were Dadabhai Naoroji, Badruddin Tyabji, Pherozeshah Mehta, P. Ananda Charlu, Surendranath Banerjea, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Ananda Mohan Bose and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Other prominent leaders of the Congress and the national movement during this period were Mahadev Govind Ranade, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the brothers Sisir Kumar and Motilal Ghose, Madan Mohan Malaviya, G. Subramaniya Iyer, C. Vijayaraghava Chariar and Dinshaw E. Wacha.
The Programme and Activities of The Early Nationalists
Early nationalist leadership believed that a direct struggle for the political emancipation of the country was not yet on the agenda of history. What was on the agenda was the arousal of national feeling, consolidation of this feeling, the bringing of a large number of the Indian people into the vortex of nationalist politics, and their training in politics and political agitation. The first important task in this respect was the creation of public interest in political questions and the organisation of public opinion in the country. Second, popular demands had to be formulated on a country-wide basis so that the emerging public opinion might have an all-India focus. Most important of all, national unity had to be created, in the first instance, among the politically conscious Indians and political workers and leaders. The early national leaders were fully aware of the fact that India had just entered the process of becoming a nation—in other words, India was a nation-in-the-making. Indian nationhood had to be carefully promoted. Indians had to be carefully welded into a nation. Politically conscious Indians had to constantly work for the development and consolidation of the feeling of national unity irrespective of region, caste or religion. The economic and political demands of the early nationalists were formulated with a view to unifying the Indian people on the basis of a common economic and political programme.
Economic Critique of Imperialism
Perhaps the most important part of the early nationalists’ political work was their economic critique of imperialism. They took note of all three forms of contemporary colonial economic exploitation, namely, through trade, industry and finance. They clearly grasped that the essence of British economic imperialism lay in the subordination of the Indian economy to the British economy. They vehemently opposed the British attempt to develop in India the basic characteristics of a colonial economy, namely, the transformation of India into a supplier of raw materials, a market for British manufactures, and a field of investment for foreign capital. They organised a powerful agitation against nearly all important official economic policies based on this colonial structure.
The early nationalists complained of India’s growing poverty and economic backwardness and the failure of modern industry and agriculture to grow; and they put the blame on British economic exploitation of India. Thus Dadabhai Naoroji declared as early as 1881 that the British rule was “an everlasting, increasing, and every day increasing foreign invasion” that was “utterly, though gradually, destroying the country”. The nationalists criticised the official economic policies for bringing about the ruin of India’s traditional handicraft industries and for obstructing the development of modern industries. Most of them opposed the large-scale investment of foreign capital in the Indian railways, plantations and industries on the grounds that it would lead to the suppression of Indian capitalists and the further strengthening of the British hold on India’s economy and polity. They believed that the employment of foreign capital posed a serious economic and political danger not only to the present generation but also to generations to come. The chief remedy they suggested for the removal of India’s poverty was the rapid development of modern industries. They wanted the government to promote modern industries through tariff protection and direct government aid. They popularised the idea of swadeshi or the use of Indian goods, and the boycott of British goods as a means of promoting Indian industries. For example, students in Poona and in other towns of Maharashtra publicly burnt foreign clothes in 1896 as part of the larger swadeshi campaign.
The nationalists complained that India’s wealth was being drained to England, and demanded that this drain be stopped. They carried on a persistent agitation for the reduction of land revenue in order to lighten the burden of taxation on the peasant. Some of them also criticised the semi-feudal agrarian relations that the British sought to maintain. The nationalists also agitated for improvement in the conditions of work of the plantation labourers. They declared high taxation to be one of the causes of India’s poverty and demanded the abolition of the salt tax and the reduction of land revenue. They condemned the high military expenditure of the Government of India and demanded its reduction. As time passed more and more nationalists came to the conclusion that economic exploitation, impoverishment of the country and the perpetuation of its economic backwardness by foreign imperialism more than outweighed some of the beneficial aspects of the alien rule. Thus, regarding the benefits of security of life and property, Dadabhai Naoroji remarked:
The romance is that there is security of life and property in India; the reality is that there is no such thing. There is security of life and property in one sense or way—i.e. the people are secure from any violence from each other or from Native despots…. But from England’s own grasp there is no security of property at all and, as a consequence, no security for life. India’s property is not secure. What is secure, and well secure, is that England is perfectly safe and secure, and does so with perfect security, to carry a way from India, and to eat up in India, her property at the present rate of £30,000,000 or £40,000,000 a year…. I therefore venture to submit that India does not enjoy security of her property and life … To millions in India life is simply ‘half-feeding’, or starvation, or famine and disease.
With regard to law and order, Dadabhai said:
There is an Indian saying: ‘Pray strike on the back, but don’t strike on the belly’. Under the native despot the people keep and enjoy what they produce, though at times they suffer some violence on the back. Under the British Indian despot the man is at peace, there is no violence; his substance is drained away, unseen, peaceably and subtly—he starves in peace and perishes in peace, with law and order!
Nationalist agitation on economic issues led to the growth of an all-India opinion that British rule was based on the exploitation of India; leading to India’s impoverishment and producing economic backwardness and under-development. These disadvantages far outweighed any indirect advantages that might have followed British rule.
From the beginning the early nationalists believed that India should eventually move towards democratic self-government. But they did not ask for the immediate fulfilment of their goal. Their immediate demands were extremely moderate. They hoped to win freedom through gradual steps. They were also extremely cautious, lest the government suppress their activities. From 1885 to 1892 they demanded the expansion and reform of the Legislative Councils .
The British government was forced by their agitation to pass the Indian Councils Act of 1892. By this Act the number of members of the Imperial Legislative Council as well as the provincial councils was increased. Some of these members could be elected indirectly by Indians, but the officials’ majority remained. The nationalists were totally dissatisfied with the Act of 1892 and declared it to be a hoax. They demanded a larger share for Indians in the councils as also wider powers for them. In particular, they demanded Indian control over the public purse and raised the slogan that had earlier become the national cry of the American people during their War of Independence: ‘No taxation without representation’. At the same time, they failed to broaden the base of their democratic demands; they did not demand the right to vote for the masses or for women.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the nationalist leaders advanced further and put forward the claim for swarajya or self-government within the British empire on the model of self-governing colonies like Australia and Canada. This demand was made from the Congress platform by Gokhale in 1905 and by Dadabhai Naoroji in 1906.
Administrative and Other Reforms
The early nationalists were fearless critics of individual administrative measures and worked incessantly for the reform of an administrative system ridden with corruption, inefficiency and oppression. The most important administrative reform they desired was the Indianisation of the higher grades of the administrative services. They put forward this demand on economic, political and moral grounds. Economically, the European monopoly of the higher services was harmful on two grounds: Europeans were paid at very high rates and this made Indian administration very costly—Indians of similar qualifications could be employed at lower salaries, and, Europeans sent out of India a large part of their salaries and their pensions were paid in England. This added to the drain of wealth from India. Politically, the nationalists hoped that the Indianisation of these services would make the administration more responsive to Indian needs. The moral aspect of the question was stated by Gopal Krishna Gokhale in 1897:
The excessive costliness of the foreign agency is not, however, its only evil. There is a moral evil which, if anything, is even greater. A kind of dwarfing or stunting of the Indian race is going on under the present system. We must live all the days of our life in an atmosphere of inferiority, and the tallest of us must bend…. The full height of which our manhood is capable of rising can never be reached by us under the present system. The moral elevation which every self-governing people feel cannot be felt by us. Our administrative and military talents must gradually disappear, owing to sheer disuse, till at last our lot, as hewers of wood and drawers of water in our own country, is stereotyped.
The nationalists demanded the separation of the judicial from executive powers so that the people might get some protection from the arbitrary acts of the police and the bureaucracy. They agitated against the oppressive and tyrannical behaviour of the police and other government agents towards the common people. They criticised the delays of the law and the high cost of judicial process. They opposed the aggressive foreign policy against India’s neighbours. They protested against the policy of the annexation of Burma, the attack upon Afghanistan and the suppression of the tribal people in North-Western India.
They urged the government to undertake and develop welfare activities of the state. They laid a great deal of emphasis on the spread of primary education among the masses. They also demanded greater facilities for technical and higher education.
They urged the development of agricultural banks to save the peasant from the clutches of the moneylender. They wanted the government to undertake a large-scale programme of extension of irrigation for the development of agriculture and to save the country from famines. They demanded extension of medical and health facilities and improvement of the police system to make it honest, efficient and popular.
The nationalist leaders also spoke up in defence of Indian workers who had been compelled by poverty to migrate to foreign countries such as South Africa, Malaya, Mauritius, the West Indies and British Guyana in search of employment. In many of these foreign lands they were subjected to severe oppression and racial discrimination. This was particularly true of South Africa where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was leading a popular struggle in defence of the basic human rights of Indians.
Defence of Civil Rights
From the beginning, politically conscious Indians had been powerfully attracted not only to democracy but also to modern civil rights, namely, the freedoms of speech, the press, thought and association. They put up a strong defence of these civil rights whenever the government tried to curtail them. It was during this period and as a result of nationalist political work that democratic ideas began to take root among the Indian people in general, and the intelligentsia in particular. In fact, the struggle for democratic freedoms became an integral part of the nationalist struggle for freedom. In 1897 the Bombay government arrested B.G. Tilak and several other leaders and newspaper editors, and tried them, spreading disaffection against the government. They were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. At the same time two Poona leaders, the Natu brothers, were deported without trial. The entire country protested against this attack on the liberties of the people. Tilak, hitherto known largely in Maharashtra, became overnight an all-India leader.
Methods of Political Work
The Indian national movement up to 1905 was dominated by leaders who have often been described as moderate nationalists or Moderates. The political methods of the Moderates can be summed up briefly as constitutional agitation within the four walls of the law, and slow, orderly political progress. They believed that if public opinion was created and organised and popular demands presented to the authorities through petitions, meetings, resolutions and speeches, the authorities would concede these demands gradually and step by step.
Their political work had, therefore, a two-pronged direction. First, to build up a strong public opinion in India to arouse the political consciousness and national spirit of the people, and to educate and unite them on political questions. Basically, even the resolutions and petitions of the National Congress were directed towards this goal. Though ostensibly their memorials and petitions were addressed to the government, their real aim was to educate the Indian people. For example, when in 1891 the young Gokhale expressed disappointment at the two-line reply of the government to a carefully proposed memorial by the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, Justice Ranade replied:
You don’t realise our place in the history of our country. These memorials are nominally addressed to government. In reality they are addressed to the people, so that they may learn how to think in these matters. This work must be done for many years, without expecting any other results, because politics of this kind is altogether new in this land.
Second, the early nationalists wanted to persuade the British government and British public opinion to introduce reforms along directions laid down by the nationalists. The Moderate nationalists believed that the British people and Parliament wanted to be just to India but that they did not know the true state of affairs there. Therefore, next to educating Indian public opinion, the Moderate nationalists worked to educate British public opinion. For this purpose, they carried on active propaganda in Britain. Deputations of leading Indians were sent to Britain to propagate the Indian view. In 1889, a British Committee of the India National Congress was founded. In 1890 this Committee started a journal called India. Dadabhai Naoroji spent a major part of his life and income in England popularising India’s case among its people.
A student of the Indian national movement sometimes gets confused when he reads loud professions of loyalty to the British rule by prominent Moderate leaders. These professions do not at all mean that they were not genuine patriots or that they were cowardly men. They genuinely believed that the continuation of India’s political connection with Britain was in the interests of India at that stage of history. They, therefore, planned not to expel the British but transform the British rule to approximate national rule. Later, when they took note of the evils of the British rule and the failure of the government to accept nationalist demands for reform, many of them stopped talking of loyalty to the British rule and started demanding self-government for India. Moreover, many of them were Moderates because they felt that the time was not yet ripe to throw a direct challenge to the foreign rulers.
Role of The Masses
The basic weakness of the early national movement lay in its narrow social base. It did not yet penetrate down to the masses. In fact, the leaders lacked political faith in the masses. Describing the difficulties in the way of the organisation of active political struggle, Gopal Krishna Gokhale pointed to “endless divisions and sub-divisions in the country, the bulk of the population ignorant and clinging with a tenacity to the old modes of thought and sentiment, which are averse to all changes and do not understand change”. Thus, the Moderate leaders believed that militant mass struggle against colonial rule could be waged only after the heterogeneous elements of Indian society had been welded into a nation. But, in fact, it was mainly in the course of such a struggle that the Indian nation could get formed. The result of this wrong approach towards the masses was that the masses were assigned a passive role in the early phase of the national movement. It also led to political moderation. Without the support of the masses,, they could not adopt a militant political position. As we shall see, the later nationalists were to differ from the Moderates in precisely this respect.
The narrow social base of the early national movement should not, however, lead to the conclusion that it fought for the narrow interests of the social groups which joined it. Its programme and policies championed the cause of all sections of the Indian people and represented the interests of the emerging Indian nation against colonial domination.
Attitude of The Government
The British authorities were from the beginning hostile to the rising nationalist movement and had become suspicious of the National Congress. Dufferin, the Viceroy, had tried to divert the national movement by suggesting to Hume that the Congress should devote itself to social rather than political affairs. But the Congress leaders had refused to make the change. It soon became a tool in the hands of the authorities and it was gradually becoming a focus of Indian nationalism. British officials now began to openly criticise and condemn the National Congress and other nationalist spokesmen. British officials from Dufferin downwards began to brand the nationalist leaders as ‘disloyal babus’, ‘seditious brahmins’ and ‘violent villains’. The Congress was described as ‘a factory of sedition’. In 1887, Dufferin attacked the National Congress in a public speech and ridiculed it as representing only “a microscopic minority of the people”. In 1900, Lord Curzon announced to the Secretary of State that “the Congress is tottering to its fall, and one of my great ambitions, while in India is to assist it to a peaceful demise.” Realising that the growing unity of the Indian people posed a major threat to their rule, the British authorities also pushed further the policy of ‘divide and rule’. They encouraged Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Raja Shiva Prasad of Benaras, and other pro-British individuals to start an anti-Congress movement. They also tried to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims. They followed a policy of minor concessions on the one hand and ruthless repression on the other to put down the growth of nationalism. Opposition by the authorities failed, however, in checking the growth of the national movement.
Evaluation of The Early National Movement
According to some critics, the nationalist movement and the National Congress did not achieve much success in their early phase. Very few of the reforms for which the nationalists agitated were introduced by the government.
There is a great deal of truth in this criticism. But the critics are not quite correct in declaring the early national movement a failure. Historically viewed, its record is quite bright if the immediate difficulties of the task they had undertaken are kept in view. It represented the most progressive force of the time. It succeeded in creating a wide national awakening, in arousing among the people the feeling that they belonged to one common nation—the Indian nation. It made the people of India conscious of the bonds of common political, economic, social and cultural interests and of the existence of a common enemy in imperialism and thus helped to weld them in a common nationality. It trained people in the art of political work, popularised among them the ideas of democracy, civil liberties, secularism and nationalism, propagated among them a modern outlook and exposed before them the evils results of British rule. Most of all, the early nationalists did pioneering work in mercilessly exposing the true character of British imperialism in India. They linked nearly every important economic question with the politically dependent status of the country. Their powerful economic critique of imperialism was to serve as the main plank of nationalist agitation in the later years of active mass struggle against British imperialism. They had, by their economic agitation, undermined the moral foundations of the British rule by exposing its cruel, exploitative character. The early national movement also evolved a common political and economic programme around which the Indian people could gather and wage political struggles later on. It established the political truth that India must be ruled in the interests of the Indians. It made the issue of nationalism a dominant one in Indian life. Moreover, the political work of the Moderates was based on a concrete study and analysis of the hard reality of the life of the people rather than on narrow appeals to religion, mere emotion or shallow sentiments. While the weaknesses of the early movement were to be removed by the succeeding generation, its achievements were to serve as a base for a more vigorous national movement in later years. It can, therefore, be said that in spite of their many weaknesses, the early nationalists laid strong foundations for the national movement to build on and that they deserve a high place among the makers of modern India.