STORY OF THE CONGRESS - Three pivotal moments that shaped early nationalism in India

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  • Published 29.05.05

A hundred and twenty years after it was founded, the history of Congress nationalism as taught in classrooms and written in textbooks remains an implausible story. Implausible need not necessarily mean untrue: there are many unlikely occurrences in real life that are undeniable, but it is the business of historians to ?normalize? historical events by supplying us with causal explanations that persuade, that seem reasonable, that allow the reader to suspend disbelief. On this score, the histories of Congress nationalism (there are several) do poorly. Far from imposing order on the press of events, narratives of nationalism often endorse exotic, unlikely explanations that seem rooted in teleologies of one sort or another, rather than an empirical, materialist understanding of history.

To illustrate this point, let us look at three pivotal moments in the early history of the Congress: its foundation in 1885, the indictments of colonial exploitation authored by R.C. Dutt and Dadabhai Naoroji, both leaders of the Congress, at the turn of the century, and the Moderate-Extremist split at Surat in 1907.

The origins of the Congress are generally located in the provincial associations that pre-dated it, such as the British Indian Association, the Indian Association, the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, and so on. The fact that leading members of these associations sometimes participated in the early meetings of the Congress seems to bear out this view. More generally, the liberalizing tendencies of Lord Ripon and the institution of local self-government are seen as the context in which a new middle-class engaged with early nationalist politics.

But this view of the party?s origins doesn?t explain the spectacular success of the early Congress compared to the deserved obscurity of the provincial associations from which the Congress was allegedly sprung. I?d argue that the clue to the Congress?s success lies in the redundancy built into the organization?s name: the Indian National Congress. The Congress was successful because it was the opposite of the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha: it was not provincial ? it began life as an all-India organization that presumed to speak for the subcontinent. It was Indian and just in case you had missed the point, it was also national. Later, the name of its chief committee underlined its extraordinary ambition: the All-India Congress Committee.

The origins of a party that sought to represent All-India are unlikely to be found in the minutes of provincial associations. In its emphasis on pluralism, in its attempt to replicate within its ranks the census diversity of India, the origins of the Congress are much more plausibly found in the Durbar of 1877, a gathering of the human species of India that greatly impressed one of the Congress?s early notables, Sir Surendranath Bannerjee. The creation of the Congress had little to do with nascent public opinion or local-self-government: Ripon was a dead end; it was the conservative Lytton who, unwitting, showed India?s babus the road ahead, by organizing the Durbar which supplied them with a precedent, a provocation and a mirror image.

The raj gave Indian nationalism its start in life, but once it realized what it had done, it did everything to smother this Frankenstein. Within two years the Viceroy was denouncing the Congress with a fury that seemed disproportionate to the threat, given that this was an organization that met once a year and passed critical resolutions amid protestations of loyalty. But the raj was run by grown men who recognized the Congress for the threat that it was even before the Congress appreciated the threatening novelty of its rhetoric. It did three things right: its resolutions were resolutely pan-Indian, its membership conspicuously diverse and its petitions were underwritten by a fierce, systematic and brilliant critique of Britain?s economic exploitation of India.

Which brings us to our second pivotal moment in nationalist history, the precocious dissection of British rule by the leaders of this young organization. The sophistication of Dutt?s and Naoroji?s economic critique led some Marxist historians to formulate the fantastic thesis that they were ventriloquizing for a ?nascent? bourgeoisie, that they were proxies for a ghostly class of unborn capitalists. This recourse to the far-fetched explanation isn?t exceptional in histories of Indian nationalism: it is something of a tendency.

The plausible explanation for their critique is straightforward: the Congress recognized that its claim to speak for the nation was thin. It had no organization, no mobilizational ability and no plebeian members. It got around this in two ways. By seeking out members from every community, the Congress tried to prove it was representative of India?s diversity. Also, realizing that the template of European nationalism wouldn?t fit a subcontinent as diverse as India, men like Naoroji and Dutt tried to replace the identity politics that supplied the ballast of European nationalisms (blood, soil, faith, history) with secular grievance: by demonstrating that British rule hurt all classes and communities, they laid the ground for a properly anti-colonial nationalism.

This brings us to the third of our pivotal moments, the 1907 split between the Extremists and the Moderates in Surat. There is no credible accounting for this split. There are two theories on offer. The extremists are either more radical (and therefore more representative of the People) than the Moderates in their willingness to use force and a fierier rhetoric or there are no real differences between the two tendencies, and the split is merely an organizational struggle between two factions of a middle class party dominated by professional men. So the Extremists either represent a different, less middle-class social constituency from the Moderates (who, on this reading, turn into spokesmen for a haute professional class) or it?s a factional struggle for power waged under rhetorically useful labels. Neither explanation seems to work. The idea that Tilak, Lajpat Rai and Bepin Chandra Pal represent a social class different from that of Gokhale, Surendranath Bannerjee and Badruddin Tyabji is silly. Equally, the airy downgrading of this fight that nearly tore the Congress apart, to the level of a factional dispute amounts to an abdication of historical responsibility. On a third view, the Extremists represent a Hindu tendency, a regrettable early diversion into the murk of communalism from the clear waters of nationalism. For the secular historian, this communal tendency is the cue for a new master narrative, the history of communalism.

The plausible explanation, I think, goes like this. The dispute between the Moderates and Extremists is not a clash between political moderation and political extremism, or nationalism and communalism. It is a conflict between proponents of two different sorts of nationalism. The Extremists take their cues from handy versions of European nationalism, based on the idea of a homogeneous People seeking self-determination and self rule. Inspired by the central European nationalisms of the mid-19th century, Lal, Bal and Pal saw no difficulty in appealing to a larger constituency in the name of an agreed history, a revived culture and a resurgent People. The Extremists are best understood as Orthodox nationalists.

The Moderates disagreed with this view not principally out of timorousness or loyalism, but because they saw the impossibility of achieving an Indian consensus on history, culture and the idea of a People. They had gone to great lengths to create a pan-Indian party powered by a sense of anti-colonial grievance (it is no coincidence that the great critiques of colonial exploitation are written by Moderates) and they were determined not to risk that achievement on the altar of a Mother India derived from Hindu iconography. The moderates are best understood as Radical nationalists, who brilliantly imagined into existence a pluralist nationalism. The split in 1907 was not a dispute about class or political mobilization: it was a fundamental disagreement about the premises of Indian nationalism and the split occurred because there was no middle ground to occupy. The swadeshi movement with its Ma inspired narodniki, was, from a Moderate point of view, a negation of the entire Congress project. As a partisan of the Moderates it gives me great satisfaction that Bengal?s greatest poet, Tagore, got it exactly right and her worst, Aurobindo Ghose, got it perfectly wrong.

The split left unresolved the question of nationalist political action. How was the Congress to challenge the raj if revolutionary terrorism and constitutional petitioning were both cul de sacs? Annie Besant and Tilak tried to answer the question through their Home Rule Leagues, but the Congress had no categorical answers till the arrival of Gandhi in 1915. Gandhi?s takeover of the Congress is properly seen as a milestone in that party?s history. Unfortunately his oddness and celebrity have encouraged historians to underestimate the degree to which he was shaped by the Congress that he inherited. We need a narrative of nationalism that returns Gandhi to the history of Congress nationalism. For too long, Gandhi has been Indian nationalism?s Extra-terrestrial. One of the tasks of a credible history of nationalism is to supply him with earthly origins. That shall be the subject of the next column.