Indian National Movement: Nationalism and Congress


The rise of Nationalism is reflected in the spirit of Renaissance in Europe when freedom from religious restrictions led to the enhancement of national identity. This expression of Nationalism was furthered by the French Revolution. The political changes resulted in the passing of sovereignty from the hands of an absolute monarch to the French citizens, who had the power to constitute the nation and shape its destiny. The watchwords of the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality and Fraternity – inspired the whole world. Many other revolutions like the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc.  also strengthened the idea of Nationalism.

Rise of Nationalism in India

For India, the making of national identity was a long process whose roots can be drawn from the ancient era. India as a whole had been ruled by emperors like Ashoka and Samudragupta in ancient times and Akbar to Aurangzeb in Medieval times. But, it was only in the 19th Century that the concept of a national identity and national consciousness emerged. This growth was intimately connected to the anti-colonial movement. The social, economic and political factors had inspired the people to define and achieve their national identity. People began discovering their unity in the process of their struggle against colonialism.

The sense of being oppressed under colonial rule provided a shared bond that tied different groups together. Each class and group felt the effects of colonialism differently. Their experiences were varied, and their notions of freedom were not always the same. Several other causes also contributed towards the rise and growth of Nationalism. One set of laws of British Government across several regions led to political and administrative unity. This strengthened the concept of citizenship and one nation among Indians. This economic exploitation by the British agitated other people to unite and react against British Government’s control over their lives and resources. The social and religious reform movements of the 19th century also contributed to the feeling of Nationalism. Swami Vivekananda, Annie Besant, Henry Derozio and many others revived the glory of ancient India, created faith among the people in their religion and culture and thus gave the message of love for their motherland. The intellectual and spiritual side of Nationalism was voiced by persons like Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Aurobindo Ghosh. Bankim Chandra’s hymn to the Motherland, ‘Vande Matram’ became the rallying cry of patriotic nationalists. It inspired generations to supreme self-sacrifice. Simultaneously, it created a fear in the minds of the British. The impact was so strong that the British had to ban the song. Similarly, Swami Vivekananda’s message to the people, “Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached”, appealed to the Indians. It acted as a potent force in the course of Indian Nationalism.

Around this time many organizations were being formed which raised their voices against British rule. Most of these organizations were regional in nature. Some of these organizations were very active such as Bengal Indian Association, Bengal Presidency Association, Pune Public Meeting, etc. However it was felt that if these regional organizations could work jointly it would help the Indian masses to raise their voices against the British Rule. This led to the formation of Indian National Congress in the year 1885.


The Indian National Congress was founded by Allan Octavian Hume in 1885. Hume was a retired Civil Service Officer. He saw a growing political consciousness among the Indians and wanted to give it a safe, constitutional outlet so that their resentment would not develop into popular agitation against the British rule in India. He was supported in this scheme by the Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, and by a group of eminent Indians. Womesh Chandra Banerjee of Calcutta was elected as the first President. The Indian National Congress represented an urge of the politically conscious Indians to set up a national organization to work for their betterment. Its leaders had complete faith in the British Government and in its sense of justice. They believed that if they would place their grievances before the government reasonably, the British would certainly try to rectify them. Among the liberal leaders, the most prominent were Firoz Shah Mehta, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Dada Bhai Naoroji, Ras Behari Bose, Badruddin Tayabji, etc. From 1885 to 1905, the Indian National Congress had a very narrow social base. Its influence was confined to the urban educated Indians. The early aims of this organization were limited only to communicate with British government on behalf of the Indian people and voice their grievances. It was rightly called the era of the Moderates.

Initial stages of Indian National Congress

The congress placed its demands before the government always in the form of petitions and worked within the framework of law. It was for this reason that the early Congress leaders were referred to as ‘Moderates’. During its first twenty years the Congress made moderate demands. The members placed their demands before the Government always in the form of petitions and worked within the framework of law. It was for this reason that the early Congress leaders were referred to as ‘Moderates’ They asked for: (a) representative legislatures, (b) Indianization of services, (c) reduction of military expenditure, (d) education, employment and holding of the ICS (Indian Civil Services) examination in India, (e) decrease in the burden of the cultivators, (f) defense of civil rights, (g) separation of the judiciary from the executive, (h) change in the tenancy laws, (i) reduction in land revenue and salt duty, (j) policies to help in the growth of Indian industries and handicrafts, (k) introduction of welfare programmes for the people. Unfortunately, their efforts did not bring many changes in the policies and administration of the British in India. In the beginning, the Britishers had a favourable attitude towards the Congress. But, by 1887, this attitude began to change. They did not fulfill the demands of the Moderates. The only achievement of the Congress was the enactment of the Indian Councils Act, 1892 that enlarged the legislature by adding a few nonofficial members and passing of a resolution for holding Indian Civil Services Examination simultaneously in London and in India. Many leaders gradually lost faith in the Constitutional process. Even though the Congress failed to achieve its goal, it succeeded in creating national awakening and instilling in the minds of the Indian people a sense of belonging to one Nation. They provided a forum for the Indians to discuss major national issues. By criticizing the government policies, they gave the people valuable political training. Though, They were not ready to take aggressive steps which would bring them in direct conflict with the Government. The most significant achievement was the foundation of a strong national movement. The Britishers who were earlier supporting the Moderates soon realized that the movement could turn into a National force that would drive them out of the country. This totally changed their attitude. They passed strict laws to control education and curb the press. Minor concessions were given so as to win over some Congress leaders. The British Viceroy, Lord Curzon was a staunch imperialist and believed in the superiority of the English people. He passed an Act in 1898, making it an offence to provoke people against the British rulers. He passed the Indian Universities Act in 1904, imposing stiff control over Indian Universities. Curzon was out to suppress the rising Nationalism in India. This was evident from what he did in 1905.

Early phase of Indian National Congress was that of Moderators,They expected that if the problems of’ the nation were brought to light through proper propaganda, the colonial government would take steps to improve matters. Thus in the initial years through lectures, writings in newspapers the nationalists put forward the main problems of the nation and ways in which they could be remedied. They believed in loyalty to the British Crown. They believed that the British Presence in India was a blessing to Indians and they relied on the British to guide the Politics in India. Some of them professed that the British rule has done much good in India by cleansing the Indian society of its ills like the customs of sati, untouchability, child marriage, etc. Moderates also praised the British for introducing in India contemporary development in science and technology.

The prominent moderate leaders were Womesh Chandra Banerjee, Dadabhai Navroji, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Romesh Chunder Dutt, Pherozeshah Mehta, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Sir Surendranath Banerjee, Sir Dinshaw Edulji Wacha, Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade, Badruddin Tyabji, Sir William Wedderburn.

The period from 1905 was known as the era of extremism in the Indian National Movement. The extremists or the aggressive nationalists believed that success could be achieved through bold means. The important extremist leaders were Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghosh.

Main causes of developement of Extremism in Congress were as follows:-

1. Recognition of the True Nature of British Rule. The British rule and its policies were responsible for the economic ruin of India and her deepening poverty. Dadabhai Naoroji, for example, exposed the exploitative nature of British rule in India and proved that Britain was „bleeding India white? and the constant „drain of wealth? from India was directly responsible for India?s economic miseries.
Nationalist leaders like Ananda Charlu, R.N. Mudholkar, D.E. Wacha, G.K. Gokhale, Madan Mohan Malaviya too exposed the exploitative nature of British rule in India. R.C. Dutt and G.V. Joshi, examined thread-bare the true nature of British Land Revenue policy.

2. Reaction to Increasing Westernization. The new leadership felt the stranglehold of excessive Westernization in Indian life, thought and politics—Christianity and utilitarianism (visible in the teachings of Brahma Samaj) were a
challenge to Indian religion and thought.

3.Dissatisfaction with the Achievement of the Congress. The younger elements within the Congress were dissatisfied with the achievements of the Congress during the first 15-20 years and were disgusted with the cold and reactionary
attitude of the Government. They had lost all faith in the British sense of justice and fairplay. They were strongly critical of the methods of peaceful and, constitutional agitation
4. Deteriorating Economic Condition of India. The economic miseries of the closing years of the 19th century provided a congenial atmosphere for the growth of extremism in Indian national activity.
5. Contemporary International Influences. Events outside India exercised a powerful influence on the younger generation. The humiliating treatment metedout to Indians in British colonies, especially in South Africa, created anti- Britishfeelings. Further, nationalist movements in Egypt, Persia, Turkey and Russia gave Indians new hopes and new aspirations.
6. Curzon’s Reactionary Policies. Curzon?s seven-year rule in India which was full of missions, omissions and commissions created a sharp reaction in the Indian mind.
7. The Partition of Bengal. The worst and most-hated aspect of Curzon?s administration was the partition of Bengal into two provinces of Bengal and Eastern Bengal and Assam in 1905.


The mild policies of the Moderates in the Congress led to the rise of passionate, radical nationalists, who came to be called the ‘Garam Dal’. Thus the first phase of the nationalist movement came to an end with government reaction against the Congress on the one hand and a split in the Congress in 1907 on the other. That is why the period after 1905 till 1918 can be referred to as the ‘Era of Passionate Nationalists or Garam Dal’. Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal (Lal-Bal-Pal) were important leaders of this Radical group. When the Moderates were in the forefront of the action, they had maintained a low profile but now they swung into action. Their entry marked the beginning of a new trend and a new face in India’s struggle for freedom. According to them, the Moderates had failed to define India’s political goals and the methods adopted by them were mild and ineffective. Besides, the Moderates remained confined to the upper, landed class and failed to enlist mass support as a basis for negotiating with the British.

The Garam Dal realized that the British were out to exploit Indians, destroy their self-sufficiency and drain India of its wealth. They felt that Indians should now become free of foreign rule and govern themselves. This group, instead of making petitions to the government, believed in organizing mass protests, criticizing government policies, boycotting foreign goods and use of Swadeshi (home-made) goods etc. They did not believe in depending on the mercy of the Britishers, but believed that freedom was their right. Bal Gangadhar Tilak gave a slogan ‘Freedom is our birth right and we must have it’. In 1916 the two groups were again united with the efforts of Mrs. Annie Besant. She started working for the Home rule movement in 1914. She was convinced that India should be granted Self-Government. In 1916, Muslim League and Congress also came to an understanding with each other and signed the Lucknow Pact. Later, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose became the eminent figures of Indian National Congress, who led the freedom movement of India forward.

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