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January 1998

Lots on the birth and early period of Congress and lots on Gandhi – So what more could you want! Although an answer to the actual question would have been good – but maybe not as interesting.

Discuss some of the competing accounts of the character of Indian Nationalism.

Which do you find most convincing?

Any discussion of Indian nationalism generally, though not exclusively, involves the battle between Hindu and Muslim ideas of nationalism, complimented by the inclusion of other religious viewpoints. However, the development of visionary nationalist feeling and the struggle to achieve it was not the sole prerogative of religion. Prior to British intervention, India was purely a vast landmass fragmented through the culture, language and religion of its inhabitants. The British were able to utilise these divisions through a divide and rule policy that increased their grip upon the country. Antagonism towards the British was widespread and sporadic uprisings a common occurrence particularly amongst the peasant population. However, being isolated and unorganised they failed to cause alarm and the British comfortably, though often violently, dispelled them. The antagonism felt by the educated Indian middle class, a product of British Imperialism, was the genesis of Indian nationalism and proved a very different proposition.

As the British extended their dominance through India they drew the boundaries of this new addition to their empire. In order to effectively dominate this new acquisition they imported their own methods of state-craft, concentrating the power of the state within a strong centralised authority and supported by an hierarchical bureaucratic administration. Western medical science and technology were also introduced in an attempt to modernise, or re-organise India in Britain’s own image. However, the vastness of the land and the enormity of the population was too great for the British to effectively administrate without Indian aid. This was provided by another aspect of modernity imported into India, that of Western education. In 1834 Governor General Bentinck declared that "general education is my panacea for the regeneration of India". (1) He found support from a number of influential sources, among them the new law member Thomas Babington Macaulay who prepared the 1835 Minute on Education and had little faith in Indian culture. He claimed that "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia." (2) Further support came from India House in the guise of James Mill whose History of British India had probably helped to influence, or at least to confirm, Macaulay’s contemptuous attitude. Mill believed that the spread of Western education throughout the subcontinent would help to provide the cheap and effective mode of government that, as a utilitarian, he desired. Against this backdrop, it is surprising to find support for Western education coming from within India, however intellectuals such as Ram Mohan Roy embraced the idea and helped to found a college for Western learning in Calcutta. With such a wide range of powerful support, the government rapidly established a number of schools and colleges teaching Western knowledge in English.

The increase in education allowed the administration to employ a growing number of educated Indian personnel whilst maintaining its Western character. The English-educated Indians who filled these subordinate bureaucratic positions tended to come from families who were economically comfortable and saw the opportunity for their sons to pursue a career. Through education they gained knowledge of western ideas, particularly legal and medical, that would help them in a professional capacity in the future. They were thus able to gain employment in teaching, medicine, commerce and industry, roles that would not have been open in this way before the impact of the British. However, their studies gave them an important insight into Western ideals such as equality and democracy, principles that were clearly being ignored by the British in India. (3)

Their expected careers were to prove a disappointment, for the promised meritocracy never did materialise. (4) Even the most gifted and diligent Indians found that their chosen careers were held back and limited to subordinate positions. One area that many initially aspired to was a position within the admired Indian Civil Service (ICS). Members could enjoy the security of a well-paid career with the option of retiring on a generous pension after twenty-five years. Manned predominantly by British civilians, the guidelines of Indian employment was for "men of learning and ability, of ‘gentlemanly’ background, and picked with great care". (5) With entrance examinations having to be taken only in England and before the maximum age limit of nineteen, the recruitment procedure proved in practise, to be rather extreme, if not overtly racist. The content of the entrance examination, based on subjects that normally required years of schooling in England, resulted in only 40 Indian recruits of the 1,067 ICS officers active in 1902. (6) In this light it is hard to deny that an unofficial restriction of Indian personnel was being carried out.

Inevitably, English educated Indians felt understandably resentful and began to voice their criticisms of British rule in general. A number of the non-political voluntary associations that had formed primarily, but not exclusively, in the cities throughout the nineteenth century, began to politicise their interests. From the 1860’s India was experiencing "a process of awakening" (7), as radically new political associations were created. These included the Indian Association in Bengal, the Madras Mahajan Sabha, and the Bombay Presidency Association. Formed by young nationalist intellectuals, the British rulers found their protests and campaigns a great deal more difficult to contain than the continuing peasant revolts. Although the Raj rejected their demands, it could see that "a current of discontent was seething in the country and called for an outlet." (8) On 28 December 1885, such an outlet materialised with the founding of the Indian National Congress in Bombay.

Overseen by A.O. Hume, an English ex-ICS officer, the Indian National Congress was a way in which "leading Indian politicians could be brought together once a year to discuss social matters…politics should [not] form part of their discussion." (9) Each annual meeting was held in a different city and when agreement was reached concerning a possible solution to a social problem, a proposal would be made to the British rulers. The idea that Congress was a social discussion group that provided an ‘outlet’ for India’s rising discontent has been heavily criticised and classified as "the myth of the ‘safety valve’" by Bipan Chandra. This myth, he claims, has been accepted and perpetuated by writers and commentators since the latter nineteenth century. It has been used to attack and defend Congress by those from all political persuasions, yet "has little basis in historical fact." (11) Chandra claims that Hume always intended Congress to be purely political, and cites Hume’s letter to the Indian Spectator in which he argued that "political reforms should take precedence over social reform." (12) Chandra’s account of the genesis of Congress, although unique, certainly seems viable, for any action that was consciously taken by the Raj was political. It follows that any proposal from Congress needed to be politically framed if effective action was ever to be taken.

Whether or not the function of Congress was to discuss social or political matters, the most effective participants had to have an understanding of English as well as their own regional languages, for the discussions were conducted primarily in English. A pragmatic knowledge of British state-craft methodology, including subjects such as law, economics and government, produced proposals most likely to be given serious British consideration. The successful Congressmen "had to be capable of mediating between several interests and of arranging broad alliances between them in order to formulate provincial and all-Indian demands". (13) Unsurprisingly, the English educated middle class dominated Congress. Working together, they were able to forward a variety of suggestions for improvement which were largely ignored or watered-down by the British. The request for ICS entrance examinations to be allowed to be taken in India as well as in England was rejected, but compromised by raising the maximum age limit to twenty-three.

Despite an underlying antagonism towards British rule, early Congress always swore allegiance to Her Majesty Victoria. This was not just superficial, for the Indian census of 1871 had shown just how large and populous the subcontinent was and begged the question of how such a small force could possibly have come to rule over it. Before the British, no Indian had been fully aware of the different regions, castes, languages and religions spread across India. The idea of a singular united resistant force had been inconceivable, but under the banner of Congress, the different (albeit elite) factions could now meet, or at least be represented. Congress developed Indian leaders who had a far greater understanding of the similarities and differences within India than had ever previously been possible. As they became aware of the issues from around the subcontinent, they began to visualise a nation.

Dadabhai Naoroji, whilst living in London, came into contact with a number of Indian students who were there studying for the bar and the ICS during the 1860s and 70s. He told them of his efforts to start an all-Indian political organisation. He was joined in 1865 by four of these students, who were to become future Congress Presidents, when he founded the London Indian Society. He urged the young students "to co-ordinate political activity in different parts of India with a view to preparing ‘for that great end, a Parliament of Parliaments in India.’" (14) The importance and influence of Naoroji to Congress and the Nationalist movement should not be underestimated. He acted as President in Congress three times during the annual meetings and eight of the nine students he had met in London were to serve as Congress President. (15)

Naoroji was sure of the political nature that he believed should define Congress and used his position as President of the 1886 meeting to underline his intent; "We are met together as a political body to represent to our rulers our political aspirations." (16) He immediately set the boundaries of debate within a secular nationalist framework that avoided the regional and religious differences apparent within the Congress membership. "A National Congress must confine itself to questions in which the entire nation has a direct participation." (17)

Naoroji specialised in the question of India’s poverty developing the ‘drain theory’, which he initiated as far back as 1867. British colonialism, he declared, was draining India’s wealth and resources on every level. The profits of British capitalists in India, the salaries of British civil and military personnel working in India and the taxes collected in India were being transferred back to Britain. The expansion of the British Empire required major military expenditure that was largely paid for by the exploitation of already established parts of the Empire, primarily India. Later, wealth was even drained to pay for the defence of Britain in World War I. The drain theory was to prove inspirational to many nationalist leaders and used to develop powerful economic critiques of Colonialism.

The question of poverty and the drain theory was political in content and encompassed all of India in its effect. It also created a united agreement on the cause of the problem and early Congress agreement on the solution. They saw India’s poverty as man-made, or more accurately as British-made, and therefore avoidable. Western Industry and commerce could be used to benefit and unite various sectors of Indian society, but would only succeed when the continued economic drain by the British ceased. Naoroji’s vision of the interior workings of Congress and the growth of united nationalist feeling was initially successful, but it was not to last.

The method in which Congress should oppose British exploitation and organise itself internally created divisions between those groups labelled the moderates and the extremists. The moderates felt that there was still a lot to be learnt from the British, whom they were reluctant to antagonise so early in the expected rise of a nationalist movement. The gradual build up of reformist pressure on the British, originating from Congress, had few obvious results, but for many of the early leaders it was an important emotional and organisational sign of "a-nation-in-the-making." (18) In contrast, the extremists felt this lack of success called for new direction. Bal Gangadar Tilak, a prominent militant nationalist, consistently demanded immediate Swaraj (self-rule). He strongly criticised the autocratic nature of government and its unresponsive attitude to Congress demands; he thus embarked upon a campaign of political agitation that led to his imprisonment on the charge of sedition (spreading disaffection and hatred against the government) in 1898. With the emergence of the extremists, the early nationalist calls for reform were overshadowed in some areas by calls for independence. Tilak’s imprisonment gave a clear sign of a change in method and the worrying possibility of widespread violent insurrection.

Throughout this period organised nationalism had been confined to a relatively small group of middle class, city-dwelling intellectuals. For the majority of Indians living in the country, the growing discontent towards the established authority had no actual means of expression. The arrival of Gandhi in 1915 was to dramatically alter Congress, the nationalist movement and the neglected masses throughout the subcontinent.

Born into a respected family in Porbandar, Gandhi had studied for the bar in England where he had met Naoroji. On leaving England in 1893, the twenty-four year old Gandhi had all the attributes of a member of Congress. However, instead of returning to India, he went to South Africa on a one-year contract to sort out the legal affairs of a Gujarati merchant, Dada Abdullah. His stay in South Africa lasted over twenty years as he became involved with the political struggles between the immigrant Indians and the British Imperial Government, (19) that in many ways paralleled those of Congress. Initially, Gandhi used the moderate tactics of legal methods of protest and persuasion. He also set up the Natal Indian Congress and started the paper, Indian Opinion, demonstrating his early "abilities as an organiser, as a fund-raiser, as a journalist and as a propagandist." (20) Finding, like the Indian National Congress, his efforts to be continually fruitless, Gandhi also felt that there was a need for direct action, but vehemently refused the use of violence. His theory of non-cooperative, passive resistance developed after reading Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You and was put into practice with surprising, though limited, success.

Britain was in the midst of World War I when Gandhi returned to India and Tilak, having served his prison sentence, was organising the Home Rule Movement. Gandhi’s work in South Africa was well known and respected by nationalist leaders, yet he declined the various invitations to join any political organisations. He had tried moderate tactics with negligible success and did not share the Home Rule Movement’s belief that the best time for agitation was whilst Britain was still experiencing her own crisis in Europe. Despite his previous struggles "he retained a personal concept of loyalty to the Empire, based on the hope that one day Britain might put into practice the principles he believed she upheld in theory." (21) Instead, he travelled around India gaining a greater knowledge of the land he had been absent from for nearly half of his life.

Gandhi’s political agitation began again in 1917; not in an all-India arena such as Congress, but in three different local economic disputes. He used, for the first time in India, the experience and methods of direct action, which he had developed in South Africa. These were struggles based on the demands of the masses; the disputes in Champaran and Kheda involved the peasants, and the third in Ahmedabhad, industrial workers. The experience encouraged him, in February 1919, to call for a nation-wide protest against the Rowlatt Bills. Gandhi had begun to make his presence felt in India.

Gandhi’s contribution to the nationalist movement is quite unique and distinctive. His radical methods of protest acted as a compromise between the moderate and the extremist wings of Congress. The extremists supported the idea that each Gandhian protest was intended to antagonise the British authorities, whilst the deliberate avoidance of violence appealed to the moderate elements within Congress. Although respected by the elite, as a barrister educated in England, he appealed to all strata of society, from the poorest peasant upwards. In this sense, Gandhi was the first all-Indian nationalist worthy of such description.

Like Congressmen from Naoroji onwards, the ideology behind Gandhi’s nationalist vision was strongly influenced by Western thinkers. However, whereas Naoroji’s influences were Western Liberals like John Stuart Mill, Gandhi’s were Libertarians and Anarchists such as Ruskin, Thoreau, Kropotkin and Tolstoy. (22) Gandhi was prone to revise his views if proved mistaken by experience and so it is difficult to define his beliefs with certainty. The views portrayed in Hind Swaraj (1909) however, form a basic core of his thought. Influenced in style by Platonic dialogue, it provides a damning attack upon the Western industry or machinery that was so admired by early Congress. Even if machinery was used to India’s benefit, avoiding Naoroji’s ‘economic drain’, it would be an evil, destroying the village handicrafts and enslaving the worker.

The Western idea of a powerful state was also scorned upon and replaced by a return to the decentralised society of traditional Indian villages. Gandhi’s conception of the village was an idealistic account and the use of the term ‘traditional’, misleading, for the idea of villages acting as autonomous communes owes more to Kropotkin’s theory than to any earlier stage of Indian history. Acutely aware of his own historical inaccuracy, Gandhi’s criticism of history and the modern reliance upon it immediately discredited the objection; "To believe that what has not occurred in history will not occur at all is to argue disbelief in the dignity of man." (23)

Gandhi’s vision of future society could only be achieved through Indian home rule, but he felt that the means used in the achievement of Swaraj would be reflected in the resulting society. Passive resistance was the only way to achieve a future society internally at peace, but this method relied upon a strong moral will; "Real Home Rule is Self Rule or self-control." (24) Here lies the puritanical streak within Gandhi’s character, for his self-control was a harsh practice of self-discipline and denial that few were willing to emulate.

Whilst multi-media was still in its infancy and largely unavailable to the masses, Gandhi travelled through India, stopping at each village to hold prayer meetings and discuss nationalism. His use of sophisticated symbolism in his speech, clothes and actions proved very powerful and potentially dangerous. However, the fanatical devotion of so many millions is difficult, if not impossible to explain. The fact that the majority were illiterate indicates that they probably never understood (and in truth, would have probably disagreed with) Gandhi’s radical ideology, but ignorance of the peasantry cannot fully account for such a phenomenon. Gandhi, within his own lifetime, achieved a widespread mass following that is incomparable to any other in history.

His erratic eccentricities were respectfully tolerated by Congress for his unique ability to mobilise the masses into a formidable nationalist movement gave their demands an added strength when dealing with the Raj. However, Gandhi found little sympathy for his theoretical radicalism, especially his critique of modernism, and after Independence despaired at the way Congressmen had "left his ‘constructive programme’ lying littered on the floor at party gatherings." (25)

All the great nationalist leaders came through Congress, which had provided a platform for the analysis and theoretical planning of Indian nationalism. In less than sixty years, it evolved from a small elite discussion group to a mass movement on to being the most successful political party in independent India. Naoroji’s vision of a secular, all-India political party was finally realised through Jawaharlal Nehru, who guided Congress through the final negotiations with the British to become India’s first Prime Minister. Nehru’s vision of India’s transformation through Western methods of industry and his commitment to the eradication of poverty was very close to Naoroji’s in spirit. However, today poverty still exists and heavy industry is cited as causing global ecological problems. Gandhi’s political ideological views are often overshadowed by the methods and results of his campaigns. As the millennium closes in, it may be worthwhile re-evaluating the politics of Gandhi and those whose views inspired him.







  1. Percival Spear – A HISTORY OF INDIA: Volume Two (Penguin Books, 1990) p.126
  2. Judith M. Brown – MODERN INDIA: THE ORIGINS OF AN ASIAN DEMOCRACY (Oxford University Press, 1994) p.79
  3. The liberal ideals of democracy and equality were only practised in a very limited capacity in Britain.
  4. This promise was based on Queen Victoria’s proclamation see David Washbrook – After The Mutiny – From Queen To Queen-Empress, History Today (Vol. 47, September 1997) pp.10-15
  5. Rajni Kothari – POLITICS IN INDIA (Sangram Books, 1994) p.39
  6. John R. McLane – INDIAN NATIONALISM AND THE EARLY CONGRESS (Princeton University Press, 1977) p.24
  7. Bipan Chandra – INDIA’S STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE (Penguin Books, 1989) p.71
  8. Rajni Kothari – op. cit. p.45
  9. Quoted from W.C. Bonnerjee. On the foundation of Congress in December 1885 see B.N. Pandey – THE INDIAN NATIONALIST MOVEMENT 1885-1947 (MacMillan Press, 1979) p.5
  10. Bipan Chandra – op.cit. p.61
  11. Ibid. p.61
  12. Ibid. p.69
  13. Gordon Johnson – PROVINCIAL POLITICS & INDIAN NATIONALISM (Cambridge University Press, 1973) p.9
  14. John R. McLane – Ibid. p.52
  15. See John R. Lane – Ibid. pp. 52-63 for details of the impressive careers led by these students. The eight who served as President in eleven of the first twenty sessions were W.C. Bonnerjee, Badruddin Tyabji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Surendranath Banerjea, C. Sankeran Nair, Anandamohan Bose, Romeshchandra Dutt and Lalmohan Ghosh.
  16. Bipan Chandra – op. cit. p.76
  17. Ibid. p.76
  18. Ibid. p.74
  19. Gandhi’s political activities in South Africa have been well documented by a number of authors, but for a clear, concise account see B.R. Nanda – MAHATMA GANDHI (Oxford University Press, 1989)
  20. Bipan Chandra – op. cit. p.173
  21. Amar Kaur Jaspir Singh – GANDHI AND CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE: DOCUMENTS IN THE INDIA OFFICE RECORDS 1922-1946 (India Office Library and Records, 1980) p.1
  22. For discussion on Gandhi’s Western influences, particularly his anarchism see Peter Marshall – DEMANDING THE IMPOSSIBLE: A HISTORY OF ANARCHISM (Fontana Press, 1993)
  23. Mohandras Gandhi – HIND SWARAJ printed in THE PENGUIN GANDHI READER edited by Rudrangshu Mukherjee (Penguin Books, 1993) p.38
  24. Ibid. p.66
  25. Judith Brown – Gandhi and Nehru: Frustrated Visionaries? HISTORY TODAY (September 1997) p.24





C.A. Bayly


(National Portrait Gallery Publications, 1990)

Judith M. Brown


(Oxford University Press, 1994)

Bipan Chandra


(Penguin Books, 1989)

Gordon Johnson


(Cambridge University Press, 1973)

Kenneth W. Jones



(Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Rajni Kothari


(Sangram Books, 1970)

Peter Marshall


(Fontana Press, 1993)

John R. McLane


(Princeton University Press)

R. Mukherjee (ed.)


(Penguin Books, 1993)

B.R. Nanda


(Oxford University Press Dehli, 1989)

B.N. Pandey


(MacMillan Press, 1979)

A.K.J. Singh



(India Office Library and Records, 1980)

Percival Spear


(Penguin Books, 1990)

Robert W. Stern


(Cambridge University Press, 1993)


HISTORY TODAY India and the British Volume 47 (9) September 1997

Other Sources

Partha Chatterjee

The Constitution of Indian Nationalist Discourse Chapter 17 of POLITICAL DISCOURSE edited by Bhikhu Parekh & Thomas Pantham (Sage Publications)

Sudipta Kaviraj - The Imaginary Institution of India

Sunil Khilnani - Gandhi and History

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