Many Indians had been planning to form an all-India organisation of nationalist political workers. But the credit for giving the idea concrete and final shape goes to A.O. Hume, a retired English Civil Servant.
He got in touch with prominent Indian leaders and organised with their cooperation the first Session of the Indian National Congress at Bombay in December 1885. It was presided over by WC. Bonnerjee and attended by 72 delegates.
The aims of the National Congress were declared to be the promotion of friendly relations between nationalist political workers from different parts the country, development and consolidation of the feeling of Rational unity irrespective of caste, religion or province, formulation.
It has been said that Hume’s main purpose in encouraging the foundation of the Congress was to provide a ‘safety valve’ or a safe outlet to the growing discontent among the educated Indians. He wanted to prevent the union of a discontented nationalist intelligentsia with a discontented peasantry.
The ‘safety valve’ theory is, however, a small part of the truth and is totally inadequate and misleading. More than anything else, the National Congress represented the urge of politically conscious Indians to set up a national organisation to work for their political and economic advancement.
We have already seen above that a national movement was already growing in the country as a result of the working of powerful forces. No one man or group of men can be given credit for creating this movement.
Even Hume’s motives were mixed ones. He was also moved by motives nobler than those of the ‘safety valve’. He possessed a sincere love for India and its poor cultivators.
In any case, the Indian leaders, who cooperated with Hume in starting this National Congress, were patriotic men of high character who willingly accepted Hume’s help as they did not want to arouse official hostility towards their efforts at so early a stage of political activity and they hoped that a retired Civil Servant’s active presence would allay official suspicions.
If Hume wanted to use the Congress as a ‘safety valve’, the early Congress leaders hoped to use him as a ‘lightning conductor’.
Thus with the foundation of the National Congress in 1885, the struggle for India’s freedom from foreign rule was launched in a small but organised manner. The national movement was to grow and the country and its people were to know no rest till freedom was won.
The Congress itself was to serve from the beginning not as a party but as a movement. In 1886 delegates to the Congress, numbering 436, were elected by different local organisations and groups. Hereafter, the National Congress met every year in December, in a different part of the country each time.
The number of its delegates soon increased to thousands. Its delegates consisted mostly of lawyers, journalists, traders, industrialists, teachers and landlords.
In 1890, Kadambini Ganguli, the first woman graduate of Calcutta University, addressed the Congress session. This was symbolic of the fact that India’s struggle for freedom would raise Indian women from the degraded position to which they had been reduced for centuries past.
The Indian National Congress was not the only channel through which the stream of nationalism flowed. Provincial conferences, vicinal and local associations, and nationalist newspapers were the other prominent organs of the growing nationalist movement.
The press, in particular, was a powerful factor in developing nationalist opinion and the nationalist movement. Of course, most of the newspapers of the period were not carried on as business ventures but were consciously started as organs of nationalist activity.
Some of the great presidents of the National Congress during its early years were Dadabhai Naoroji, Badruddin Tyabji, Pherozeshah Mehta, P Ananda Charlu, Surendranath Banerjea, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Ananda Mohan Bose and Gopal Krishna Gokhale.
Other prominent leaders of the Congress and the national movement during this period were Mahadev Govind Ranade, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the brothers Sisir Kumar and Motilal Ghose, Madan Mohan Malaviya, G. Subramaniya Iyer, C. Vijayaraghava Chariar and Dinshaw E. Wacha.