Historians constantly reinterpret historical processes and recreate life-stories of personalities. This requires easy access to new and existing source materials. Documentation exercises — especially when undertaken by historians themselves — facilitate the task of historians. Mushirul Hasan’s project of publishing ‘authentic version’ of the proceedings of the sessions of Indian National Congress between 1885 and 1947 is poised to provide new insights to the trajectory of an organisation that was the largest anti-colonial body of its time. The present volume — covering the five initial sessions from 1885 to 1889 — is the first in the series. Proceedings of each session contain the organisers’ introductory article, summary of resolutions adopted, detailed report of the meet and list of delegates. Extracts of press comments on the first three sessions — annexed to the proceedings of those sessions — offer contemporary responses to India’s new national political experiment.

Hasan’s introductory essay appropriately convinces the importance of the volume for a relook at the first years of the Congress in the context of current historiography of Indian nationalism. The early Congress was not a ‘full-fledged political party’. It had neither paying members nor a central office, nor a permanent fund, nor permanent officials. All it had was a general secretary. The leaders spared no efforts to assure the Raj that the Congress “wasn’t a nursery for sedition and rebellion.” They, as Jawaharlal Nehru admitted, remained preoccupied with concerns of landlords, capitalists and educated unemployed. Yet, the proceedings of its first five sessions indicate a general will of the Congress to present an all-India front to the colonial regime. The number of delegates, representing the country’s four corners, rose from 72 in 1885 at Bombay, to 436 in 1886 at Calcutta, 607 in 1887 at Madras, 1,248 in 1888 at Allahabad and to 1,889 in Bombay.

Along with Allan Octavian Hume and William Wedderburn, who were directly associated with the convening of the 1885 session, other ‘distinguished Europeans’ joined that, and other sessions too.

The 1889 Congress had 10 registered lady delegates, including social reformer Pandita Ramabai, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister Swarnakumari Devi and Calcutta University’s first lady graduate Kadambini Ganguly.

Growth in popularity

Popular enthusiasm for the Congress was felt from the second session at Calcutta. The Town Hall — the session’s venue — was “stifled in a crowd of ... 2,000 to 3,000 lookers-on” on the very first day. The size of such accompanying crowd rose to 6,000 at the 1889 Congress. The delegates did not merely demand Indianisation of civil services or greater Indian representation in the Government Councils, but opposed increasing military expenditure of the Raj, spoke of the country “sinking deeper and deeper into this abyss of destitution,” criticised the annexation of Upper Burma, proposed separation of executive and judiciary and re-imposition of import duty on finer classes of cotton goods, urged encouragement of indigenous manufactures, demanded promotion of general and technical education and reduction of government control over education — issues which were of common concern for the nation.

The social base of the early Congress was unmistakably narrow, delegates for the sessions being overwhelmingly from the educated and professional sections of the Hindu community. However, the organisation increasingly assumed a representative character. The number of registered Muslim delegates rose from the paltry figure of two in 1885 to 33 in 1886, 81 in 1887, 221 in 1888, and 254 in 1889.

Minorities

Computing the available figures, Hasan recovers how six-tenths of Muslim delegates to Congress sessions from 1886 to 1901 were from Lucknow alone.

The Congress even resolved in 1887-88 not to debate social or religious matters for ensuring the support of religious minorities. Significantly, the 1889 session was attended by 41 ‘simple’ cultivators and two working artisans.

Carefully ‘sheltering’ diverse social concerns, the Congress sessions, as Hasan aptly remarks, “proved to be the melting point of all ...interconnections.” Founding fathers of the Congress visualised it as ‘the germ of a Native Parliament.’

Despite scant respect shown to the Congress by Viceroy Dufferin and his immediate successors, its pressure for constitutional reforms yielded the first fruit with the 1892 Council Act.

Hasan reproduces interesting contemporary cartoons portraying the futility of anti-Congress stances, and the Raj’s discomfort at the growing strength of the Congress. Every political process has phases, each having a connection with the other.

The present collection opens new opportunities for a fresh unfolding of the transition from the restrictive nationalism of the early Congress to the mass nationalism of the Gandhian Congress, and of uncovering ‘cross currents’ of ‘mental, emotional and political life’ in late nineteenth century India when a new nation was ‘being unveiled.’

The volume should have a ready place in public and private collections. We eagerly await the succeeding volumes that could offer fresh perspectives on multiple ‘points of contact’ between imperialism and nationalism in South Asia, as well as between emerging forces within Indian nationalism.

PROCEEDINGS OF THE INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS — Vol.1 1885-1889: Edited and Introduced by Mushirul Hasan; Niyogi Books, D-78, Okhla Industrial Area, Phase-I, New Delhi-110020. Rs. 1,500.

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