With the rise of extremism and revolutionary movements, the British government adopted two-edged policy. One that of pursuing the policies of repression and dividing the Indians particularly, the Hindus and the Muslims and the other that of bringing about gradual reforms which resulted in passing of the Act of 1909. The founding of the Muslim League in 1906 and the insertion of the Communal Electorate system in the Act of 1909 discredited the Government in the eyes of all Indians. Yet, there remained lull in Indian politics for some time the moderates had reluctantly agreed to cooperate with the government. The outbreak of the First World War gave a new impetus to the national movement.
When the First World War began the Indian National Congress supported the government in its war efforts with the expectation that the British government would grant some reforms to the Indians after the war. But the extremists considered this as a God sent opportunity and decided to advance their own cause. This was the opportune time to force Britain to agree to the Indian demand for extracting political concessions out of British difficulties.
They were greatly influenced by the emergence of the Irish Home Rule Movement under the leadership of Issac Butt. B.G. Tilak who had returned to politics in 1914 after completing his term of imprisonment tried to join hands with the congress on the issue of demanding “Home Rule” for India. But when he failed to do that, he started the Home Rule League in 28th April 1916 with headquarters at Poona. Due to the British allergy to the word ‘swaraj’ Tilak decided to use the term ‘Home Rule’ in place of swaraj as the goal of the movement.
The object of this Home Rule League was to “attain Home-Rule or self government within the British Empire by all constitutional means and to educate and organise public openion in the country towards the attainment of the same. Mrs. Annie Basant, an Irish lady had come to India as a member of the Theosophical Society, She later joined the congress. She had established a Home Rule League in London in 1914 and finally founded a Home Rule League on 15 September 1916 with its headqarters at Adyar near Madras. Both the leagues cooperated with each other and therefore divided among themselves their areas of activities. While Tilak’s Home Rule League confined its operations to Maharastra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Berar, Besant’s League worked in the rest of the country.
Both Tilak and Besant toured all over the country and carried out the message of the Home Rule among the masses. They tried to spread the message through newspapers, mass meetings and distribution of leaflets. Tilak through young India and Besant through New India and common weal tried to stir the popular sentiment. The movement attracted liberal Readers like Motilal Nehru and Tej Bahadur Sapru who became its members. Thus, the Home Rule Movement became a powerful movement during the course of the first world war. The movement aimed that self-government be granted to India within the British dominions during the course of the war. It was within constitutional limits.
The government tried to suppress the movement by force. Mrs. Besant was forced to close the publication of New India and was sentenced to home imprisonment. The movement acquired an all India character when action was taken against Mrs. Besant and Tilak on their refusal to furnish securities and personal bonds. The movement infused among the people the sprit of patriotism, fearlessness, self respect and sacrifice. Finally, the government compromised and in 1917 by Montague’s declaration accepted self government for India by gradual process as its aim. Mrs. Annie Besant was elected the President of the congress in 1917 and the goal of ‘Home Rule’ was accepted by the congress. This was the biggest success of the movement.
But the passing of the Government of India Act of 1919, the division of the Congress on the issue of the Act, departure of Tilak to London for a legal case and acceptance by Mrs. Besant of the new scheme of reforms of 1919 weakened the movement. Although the Home Rule Movement failed to achieve its aim, it kept the fire of nationalism burning among the hearts of the Indians during the course of the war when the congress had failed to give any direction to the people. Regarding the significance of the Home Rule Movement Prof. S.R. Mehrotra observes, “The Home Rule Leagues created a significant impact on the national movement in India. For the first time an agitation had been aroused on a nation-wide scale and a network of political committees covered much of India.”