The British Indian Association was formed in 1851 in Bengal to represent Indian grievances to the British government. In 1876, Surendranath Banerjee founded the Indian Association in Bengal. Some of the other associations were Bombay Association, the Madras Native Association, the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha and the Madras Mahajana Sabha.
In 1883, Surendranath Banerjee called an All-India National Conference. It was the first step to form an association at the national level. In 1885, the Indian National congress was founded in which A.O. Hume played an important role. The English kept in view the organization as a forum of Indian public opinion. Soon however, the Congress was to become a revolutionary organization leading the Indian people to independence.
The first session of the Congress was held in Bombay, under the Presidentship of W.C. Banerjee, representing all regions of India. The Indian nationalist movement, which the congress represented, was from the start, an all India Secular Movement embracing every section of Indian society.
The aims of the Congress were to unite the people of India for common political ends irrespective of differences in respect of race and language, or social and religious institutions. Some of the early demands of the Congress were for elected representatives in the provincial and central legislative councils, holding of the Indian Civil Service examinations in India and raising minimum age of entry, the reduction of military expenditure, the spread of education, industrial development of India, relief in agricultural indebtedness and the amendment of the Arms Act.
The main leaders of the Congress were— Surendranath Banerjee, M.G. Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhle, R.C. Dutt and Pheroze Shah Mehta. They had faith in the justness of their demands and the British government. They believed that in due time their demands would be accepted. They wanted not separation but association with the British.
With the growth of radical ideas in the Congress, the government became hostile to it. Now government servants were not allowed to attend the Congress sessions. In the early period the moderates were dominating. Its demands were related to the educated middle class and rising Indian industrialists.
The role of Congress in the early period was very significant. Its emphasis on national unity, its criticism of the drain of Indian wealth, its demand for representative institutions and indianization of services were few high-lighted points. The opposition of Congress to repressive measures like the Arms Act and its constant underscoring of people’s poverty as the basic factor of Indian politics helped to put the nationalist movement on sound foundations. This period lasted till about 1905.