Pre-Congress Organisations

As a result of the growth of nationalism in India, there started a movement in political ideas and organizations. A large number of public bodies like British India Society, British Indian Association, India League, Indian Association, Bombay Association etc. etc. came into existence and a demand for setting up a representative government in India also came in the forefront. The evolution of these ideas and organizations culminated in the emergence of Indian National Congress. To quote R.C. Majumdar, “There was no sudden emergence of the Indian National Congress and there was nothing novel either in its ideas or methods, for the National Conference held in Calcutta in 1883 and 1885 forestalled it in all essential aspects”. Hence the political organizations and public bodies which sprang up in the latter half of the nineteenth century may aptly be called the forerunners of the Indian National Congress. A brief account of their aims, objects and achievements is being attempted to familiarize the readers with the political activities which were going on in India prior to the formation of Indian National Congress.

  1. As early as 1843, a public body known as British India Society was founded in Bengal which was in those days became the vanguard of Indian political thought and aspirations. The object of this organization, as defined by Tara Chand Chakravarty, was “the collection and dissemination of information relating to actual conditions of the people of British India…… and to employ such other means of a peaceable and lawful character, as may appear calculated to secure the welfare, extend the just rights, and advance the interests of all classes of our fellow-subjects”. Though this society did not gain much popularity, yet it definitely served to rouse the political consciousness of the people. About the year 1851, it was amalgamated into a new political body named the British Indian Association.
  2. The British Indian Association was founded in October, 1851. From the very beginning it had an all-India outlook. It tried to establish its branches in other parts of the country but could not achieve much success. Of course, independent political associations of the same nature were established at Poona and Bombay.

The British Indian Association carried on its work under the able guidance of stalwarts like Rajindra Lal Mitra, Ramgopal Ghosh, Peary Chand Mitra and Harish Chandra Mukherjee. It agitated for political concessions for the British Indian subjects. In 1852, it sent a petition to the British Parliament embodying the demand of a Legislature for British India. It also prayed for the inclusion of Indians in the Legislative Council and the holding of Civil Service Examination in India. Besides, the Association brought to the notice of the Local Government the manifold grievances of the people and suggested various measures for reforms. It established local branches and tried to rouse the interests of the masses in political questions. In short, the British Indian Association played a decisive role on rousing political consciousness among the Indians and its agitation forced the British Parliament to grant some concessions to the Indians in the form of the Charter Act of 1853.

  1. The British Indian Association did not prove equal to the task of pursuing the higher political ideals. So a few advanced political thinkers of Bengal started in 1875 a new association called India League. The object of this organization was to stimulate the sense of nationalism amongst the people and to awaken political consciousness among them. Its organizers claimed that “this is the first instance of a political body formed by public announcement and a call upon the nation to attend it and mould it to their liking”. The Anglo-Indian Daily of Calcutta, The Englishmen, refereed to this new political organization as the “first marked sign of the awakening of the people on this side of India to political life”. This organization, however, had a very brief career. It was soon supplanted by another political organization known as Indian Association.
  2. The Indian Association was inaugurated in a public meeting held at the Ilbert Hall, Calcutta on July 26, 1876 which was attended by more than seven hundred persons. The object of this organization, as explained by Surendranath Bannerjea was : (1) the creation of a strong body of public opinion in the country; (2) the unification of the Indian races and peoples upon the basis of common political interests and aspirations : (3) the promotion of friendly feelings between the Hindus and Muhammadans; and Iastly, (4) the inclusion of the masses in the great public movement of the day”.

Soon after its inception, the Indian Association was called upon to fight against the new regulation of the British Government reducing the age-limit of the competitors for the Indian Civil Service Examination from 21 to 19. The Association took up this question in right earnest and started a strong political agitation. Surendranath Bonnerjea made a prolonged tour of northern India on behalf of the Association and addressed crowded public meetings at various places. This propaganda tour of Surendranath Bannerjea from one end of India to another considerably promoted political progress and set a stage for the emergence of an all-India political organization. According to Prof. Hira Lal Singh, “Surendranath Bannerjea began his political career with the Civil Service Movement which in a sense became a precursor of the more comprehensive political movement namely, the Indian National Congress”. The Association agitated also against reactionary measures like Vernacular Press Act, Arms Act and Licence Act, It sent Mr. Lal Mohan Ghosh to England with a memorial to the British Parliament on the Civil Service question. his eloquent speech in a public meeting there created a profound impression upon the English audience. During the days of Ilbert Bill controversy 1883, the Association carried a hurricane of agitation which helped the cause of national unity.

  1. In the early fiftees of the 19th century, the Bombay Association had been founded in the western Presidency, but it lost its vitality within a decade. The efforts of Mr. Naoroji Furdunji to put a fresh life into it did not prove useful. Pherozeshah Mehta and Badruddin Tyabji then conceived the idea of starting a new political organization in Bombay. This led to the birth of Bombay Presidency Association which showed considerable activity in the early years of its existence. By resolutions, memorials and public meetings it focused the general feelings of the community on all the matters of common interest and thereby did a useful service to the cause of political awakening in the country.
  2. Another important political association of the time was the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha. It was established in 1867. Its object was to represent the wishes of the inhabitants of the Decan. The members of the Sabha consisted of the Sardars, Jahgirdars, Immamdars, Sahukars and the gentry representing the people of Maharashtra. The Sabha rendered great services to Maharashtra by awakening the political consciousness of the people. It continued to function till the end of the century.
  3. The political activities in the latter half of the nineteenth century brought into forefront the necessity of a political organization of an all-India character. The need for it was felt more acutely during the agitation over the Ilbert Bill of 1883. Hence, at the initiative of the Indian Association, an all-India National Conference was held at Calcutta in the end of December 1883 . It was attended by more than one hundred delegates representing, in addition to outside Bengal, places like Bombay, Madras, Ahmedabad, Allahabad, Lahore, Nagpore, Cuttack, Meerut, Bankepur etc. etc. It was also attended by two Englishmen, one of whom was Mr. Blunt. The proceedings of this Conference began with a national hymn and its President, Anand Mohan Bose, in his opening speech, remarked that it was the first stage towards a national parliament. On this occasion Mr. Surendranath Bannerjea delivered a long speech in which he stressed that the objects of the National Conference were not sectional or regional but truly national.

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