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What and whom did the early Indian National Congress represent?

The Indian National Congress in the early 20


th
century was the main vehicle for the Indian
independence movement and it is can hardly be argued against that it's actions resulted in the end
of the British Ra and the establishment of an independent Indian nation! "owever it is important to
investigate what groups# classes or interests the Indian National Congress actually represented to
get an idea of why struggle for Independence too$ the forms that it did and the character of the
Independence that was eventually won! %hat will be argued is that the Indian National Congress
primarily represented the interests of the Indian capitalist and middle&classes! This is of course not
to discount the fact that Congress at various points managed to mobilise a support base out of
sections of society whose interests it did not directly represent' that is the peasantry and the
wor$ing class# through its e(ercise of hegemony ) defined as the balance between consent and
force
*
) by which it could represent its social interests as consistent with those of the different
groups and thus assemble mass 'public opinion' under the banner of Congress!
To understand who or what Congress may have represented it is important to e(plore the nature of
its founding! The origins of the Indian National Congress can be traced to the +ecember of *,,-
where it was founded by several members of the Indian .ssociation and the e(tensive involvement
retired British official .!/! "ume!
2
The connection between an 0nglishman with e(perience in
colonial administration playing an active role in the formation of Congress and Congress' relative
political moderation was not lost on radical contemporaries! .s early as *1*2 the radical nationalist
3ala 3aput Rai had claimed
It is an undisputed historical fact# that the idea of the Indian National Congress was a product of 3ord
+ufferin's brain4 that he suggested it to 5r! "ume# and that the latter undertoo$ to wor$ it out!
6
This was inscribed in the historiography by the 5ar(ist historian R! 7alme +utt# who suggested that
Congress' founding owes much to the policy of the British government# particularly by the pre&
arranged plans of the 8iceroy# who saw an institution li$e Congress 9as an intended weapon for
safeguarding British rule against the rising forces of popular unrest and anti&British feeling:
;
Nationalist historiography however has firmly reected the discourse that accuses Congress of
being a direct creation of the British colonial administration! .ccording to this account# analyses
that suggest that the Indian National Congress was founded as a 'safety valve'# that served to
divert mass popular anger against British rule in Indian society# are based on a myth!
-
This account
states that the foundation of Congress was a culmination and reflection of the wave of nationalist
political agitation that had occurred in the decade running up to *,,- and the obectives these
agitations had set! 5ost of these obectives and demands were very moderate# gradualist however
it is claimed that the fact that they could not be met at that point by the British administration was
evidence of their subversive potential!
2
The men who founded Congress in *,,-
were inspired by these obectives and hoped to initiate the process of achieving them! The success
or failure and the future character of the Congress would be determined not by who founded it but by
the e(tent to which these obectives were achieved in the initial years!
<
"owever one doesn't need to believe that Congress was a British invention devised to actively
derail the nationalist movement to also ac$nowledge that the social bac$ground of Congress
politicians had resulted had meant that any criticism that the early Congress made was always
combined with a profession of loyalty!
These were more than an effort to reassure nervous administrators that Congress was not seditious#
not a threat to the continuation of British rule! The typical Congress leader was a member of the legal
1 A. Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Vol.1, Columbia University Press (New York, 21! ".1#$
2 %. &evir, '()eoso")y an* t)e +ri,ins o- t)e .n*ian National Con,ress', International Journal of Hindu Studies /
(20! "".111112
0 3ala 3a4"at 5ai, Young India, an Interpretation and a History of the Nationalist Movement from Within, &. 6.
7uebsc) (New York, 181$! "".11$111/
2 5a4nay Palme 9utt, India oday, %anis)a Grant)alay (Calcultta, 18:$! ".08
# &i"an C)an*ra, %ri*ula %uk)er4ee, ;.N. Pannikar et al, India!s Struggle for Independen"e# $%&'($)*',
Pen,uin (3on*on, 18:8! ".2#
$ Ibid. ".2$
/ Ibid. ".2:
profession a!!!5oreover# many Congress lawyers had fathers or relatives who had been civil
servants! =or them# loyalism was an obligation and a value in itself! They and their relatives owed
their economic standing to the education system# the new professions# and the opportunity structure
that the British had created!
,
.t this point turning the Indian independence movement into a mass movement through
channelling the interests of the lower classes such as the masses of peasants was entirely out of
the >uestion# even if it was simply agitating them to be absorbed into the Congress movement!
This was of course because among Congress leaders# 9so few had long&term relations with
cultivators e(cept as holders of rent&collecting rights# generally collected through the agency of a
third party! Congress claimed to spea$ for the peasantry# but the peasantry was not part of
Congress:!
1
"owever the necessity of pursuing nationalist politics had impressed itself on the Indian capitalist
class! It is no coincidence that there is an observable correlation between the rise of Congress as a
vehicle of moderate nationalist politics and the rise of the Indian capitalist class!
*0
Therefore the
need for a small group of the Indian population to wage a struggle against the British administration
for its own interests resulted in the need to involve broader sections of Indian society to actually
realise these ends! It too$ innovations in the sphere of mobilising and organising by the li$es of
?andhi through the non&co&operation and civil disobedience campaigns before Congress actually
began to e(ercise hegemony over a broader base of Indian society!
**
%ith the rise in militancy
among the Indian wor$ing class in the early 20
th
century# by stri$ing in $ey colonial industries and
therefore disrupting the flow of wealth out of India# there was an enormous new potential for anti&
imperialist struggle!
*2
By seeing how Congress intentionally distances itself from wor$ing class
political activity we can identify where Congress' interests really lay and therefore paint a more
accurate portrait of who it represented in this period!
?andhi# who among the Congress elites was most sensitive to the mood of the masses# wrote in
=ebruary *12* that it would be 9a most serious mista$e to ma$e use of labour stri$es: for political
purposes until labourers 9understand the political condition of country and are prepared to wor$ for
the common good:!
*6
3ater that same year he would write an article titled The Lesson of Assam,
concerning the .ssam plantation labourers who went on stri$e# later oined in solidarity by
steamship wor$ers# and subse>uently crushed by the British army# where he stated that
In India we want no political stri$es!!!Not to have political stri$es is to forward the cause of
freedom! %e do not need an atmosphere of unsettled unrest! It hampers our progress towards
the final stages of our programme!!!%e must gain control over all the unruly and disturbing elements#
or isolate them even as we are isolating the ?overnment!!!%e must sedulously prevent all other
stri$es! %e see$ not to destroy capital or capitalists# but to regulate the relations between capital and
labour! %e want to harness capital to our side! It would be folly to encourage sympathetic stri$es!
*;
The $ey sentence that reveals the class character of ) not only ?andhi ) but the Congress elite in
general is the statement that political stri$es hamper progress towards the cause of freedom! If the
freedom of wor$ers to stri$e would be curtailed then the freedom ?andhi is referring to here is only
that of the Indian capitalist class! =or Congress who was the mouthpiece for this class# the wor$ing
class movement was simply 9unruly and disturbing elements:!
Nehru was $nown to favour social democratic policies and attempted to bring organi@ed labour
structures closer to the Congress# for e(ample during his presidency of the .ll&India Trade Anion
: <. 5. %c3ane, =()e >arly Con,ress, 7in*u Po"ulism, an* t)e 6i*er ?ociety@, in +ongress and Indian
Nationalism# he Pre(Independen"e Phase, >*. 5ic)ar* ?isson, University o- Cali-ornia Press, (&erkeley,
18::! ".28
8 Ibid. ".#
1 9avi* 3ockwoo*, (he Indian ,ourgeoisie# - Politi"al History of the Indian +apitalist +lass in the .arly
/entieth +entury, ..&. (auris, (3on*on, 212! ".8#
11 ?.5. &aks)i, 0andhi and the Mass Movements, Atlantic Publis)ers (New 9el)i, 18::! ".#1
12 5. C)an*avarkar, he 1rigins of Industrial +apitalism in India# ,usiness strategies and the /orking
"lasses in ,ombay, $)22($)*2, Cambri*,e University Press (Cambri*,e, 1882! "".#1$
10 %.;. Gan*)i, '?trikes', Young India, 1$ Aebruary 1821, C6%G Vol.22 (New 9el)i, 1888! ".0#
12 %.;. Gan*)i,'()e 3esson o- Assam', Young India, 1# <une 1821, in +olle"ted Works, Vol.20 (New 9el)i,
1888! ".2:#
Congress in *121!
*-
"owever Nehru understood that the labour struggle had to be yo$ed to the
Congress moderate nationalist proect and only go as far as the proect re>uired it to go and no
further 9for nationalism can only go far in the socialistic or proletarian direction by ceasing to be
nationalism:!
*2
?andhi's non&cooperation campaigns drew a huge number of supposedly previously apolitical
peasants into the nationalist movement and# among the rural population in particular# it was
believed that ?andhi had attained almost god&li$e status!
*<
"owever the Chauri Chaura incident
and its aftermath revealed the divergence between the peasant masses' interpretation of non&
cooperation# swaraj and nationalism were and what the Congress elite's moderate interpretation of
these ideas were! The group that burned down the police station at Chauri Chaura were all non&
cooperation campaign volunteers who were retaliating to a previous abuse at the hands of the
police! Bet ?andhi distanced himself from them# describing them as 'hooligans' that were not part
of the non&violent# non&cooperation movement and had to be controlled! Thus the non&co&
operation campaign was suspended and with it the involvement of the masses in Congress'
nationalist proect!
*,
The fact that the masses of peasantry so greatly revered ?andhi was not
necessarily because they respected and believed in him as an individual or politician but in the
symbolic power of ?andhi as the bringer of swaraj! ?andhi's message was received and
reinterpreted in the popular imagination into ideas far different from their original meaning!
*1
=or
e(ample in the peasant consciousness ?andhi's message of swaraj meant for them the 9abolition
of zamindari# reduction of rents or enforcement of ust price at the ba@aars:
20
or as the "igh Court
udge at the Chauri Chaura trial observed of the peasant demands & 9a millenium in which ta(ation
would be limited to the collection of small cash contributions or dues in $ind from fields and
threshing floors and in which cultivators would hold their lands at little more than nominal rents:!
2*

/f course this was entirely at odds with the reality of the Congress programme with regards to
swaraj. ?andhi himself made his class loyalties clear in his discussions with the zamindara Clarge
landownersD where he assured them that he would have no part in 9dispossessing the propertied
classes of their private property without ust cause: and that 9class war is foreign to the essential
genius of India: and that they 9may be sure that I shall throw the whole weight of my influence in
preventing class war!!!supposing that there is an attempt unustly to deprive you of your property#
you will find me fighting on your side:!
22
Therefore it can be said that Congress was not wor$ing in
the interests of the peasant masses# even where the peasantry did ma$e reference to ?andhi and
swaraj# these were only ustifications for settling grievances against the traditional class enemies of
the peasantry!
"owever as some historians have noted# despite the potential for a mass revolutionary upheaval#
Congress was never replaced by a separate body or force with comparable relevance and
influence that could channel the revolutionary fervour of the masses in this period!
26
The slogans#
language and rhetoric Congress deployed in its campaigns was fle(ible enough to accommodate
varying groups but all to the common end of yo$ing different interests to the broader Congress
programme rather than modifying the programme to faithfully represent other groups! In
1# 5. C)an*avarkar, Imperial Po/er and Popular Politi"s, Cambri*,e University Press, (Cambri*,e, 188:!
".2$/
1$ <. Ne)ru Buote* in ?ankar G)ose, Ja/aharlal Nehru# - ,iography, Allie* Publis)ers, (&ombay, 1880!
".$2
1/ ?. Amin, 'Gan*)i as %a)atmaC Gorak)"ur 9istrict, >astern UP, 182112', in ?ubaltern ?tu*ies ..., e*. 5.
Gu)a, +D-or* University Press (9el)i, 18:2! "".210
1: Nis)ant &ats)a, 'Gan*)i an* C)auri C)auraC A 3acanian 5einter"retation o- Gan*)i t)rou,) t)e C)auri
C)aura 5iot,' interse"tions, Vol.1, No. 0 (Autumn, 28! ".01
18 Ibid. ".2
2 Amin, o" cit, (18:2! ".#
21 Ibid. ".#2
22 %.;. Gan*)i,'Answers to Eamin*ars', he Pioneer, # <uly 1802, in +olle"ted Works, Vol.$2 (New 9el)i,
1888! "".201201
20 C)an*avarkar, o" cit, (188:! ".2/
?ramscian terms Congress mobilised public opinion in its favour through the centralisation and
organisation of certain elements of civil society to the ends of ustifying its own legitimacy and
furthering its own hegemony
2;
It is primarily Congress' ability to represent the interests of different
groups in Indian society as consistent with Congresses interests# even when they diverged#
through vague and fle(ible rhetoric and campaigns that allowed it to accommodate and defuse all
manner of lower class struggles!
There was undeniably a massive groundswell of revolutionary fervour among the Indian lower
classes during this period# particularly e(pressed in the form of mass peasant mobilisation and an
increase in popular activitiy and rituals as well as waves of wor$ers stri$es and demonstrations!
"owever Congress usurped the leadership of these movements# always running its campaigns out
of sync with the actual pea$s and troughs of the mass movement
2-
which gave the movement a
disointed and indecisive character as different groups were mobilised and demobilised at will!
Congress managed to first accommodate# then channel the energy of these movements because
these movements lac$ed# for various reasons# far sighted leadership and national presence! The
reason for this channelling of the revolutionary elements away from fundamental change was that
a potential mass uprising would threaten the power and property of not only the British
administration but also that of the Indian landowners and millowners and professional classes of
whom the Indian National Congress was composed of! Therefore we can see from the way that it
diverted the real movement away from a full&scale revolution ) which though we can only spea$ of
in abstract was certainly a possibility ) that the Indian National Congress# particularly in its early
phase# represented the ruling classes# even if it wasn't directly composed of them in terms of
membership# although often both were true!
22 A. Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Vol.0, Columbia University Press (New York, 21! ".210
2# C)an*avarkar, o" cit, (188:! ".2$:
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