One of the world’s largest and oldest political parties of its kind, the Indian National Congress was founded on December 28, 1885, by members of the Theosophical Society. The Congress-led India to Independence in 1947 after a long but remarkably peaceful struggle.
When the formation of the Congress is talked about the role of a single individual — Alan Octavian Hume — who organised the first Congress Session in 1885, often comes into focus. For many decades there was a widespread belief that Hume and other liberal-minded British officials thought that the creation of a political outfit would channelize much of the discontent among Indians over various aspects of the British rule into something more benign.
The Indian National Congress first convened in December 1885, though the idea of an Indian nationalist movement opposed to British rule dated from the 1850s. During its first several decades, the Congress Party passed fairly moderate reform resolutions, though many within the organization were becoming radicalized by the increased poverty that accompanied British imperialism. In the early 20th century, elements within the party began to endorse a policy of swadeshi (“of our own country”), which called on Indians to boycott of imported British goods and promoted Indian-made goods. By 1917 the group’s “extremist” Home Rule wing, which was formed by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Annie Besant the previous year, had begun to exert significant influence by appealing to India’s diverse social classes.
In the 1920s and ’30s the Congress Party, led by Mahatma Gandhi, began advocating nonviolent noncooperation. The new change in tactics was precipitated by the protest over the perceived feebleness of the constitutional reforms enacted in early 1919 (Rowlatt Acts) and Britain’s manner of carrying them out, as well as by the widespread outrage among Indians in response to the massacre of civilians in Amritsar (Punjab) that April. Many of the acts of civil disobedience that followed were implemented through the All India Congress Committee, formed in 1929, which advocated avoiding taxes as a protest against British rule. Notable in that regard was the Salt March in 1930 led by Gandhi. Another wing of the Congress Party, which believed in working within the existing system, contested general elections in 1923 and 1937 as the Swaraj (Home Rule) Party, with particular success in the latter year, winning 7 out of 11 provinces.
When World War II began in 1939, Britain made India a belligerent without consulting Indian elected councils. That action angered Indian officials and prompted the Congress Party to declare that India would not support the war effort until it had been granted complete independence. In 1942 the organization sponsored mass civil disobedience to support the demand that the British “quit India.” British authorities responded by imprisoning the entire Congress Party leadership, including Gandhi, and many remained in jail until 1945. After the war the British government of Clement Attlee passed an independence bill in July 1947, and independence was achieved the following month. In January 1950 India’s constitution as an independent state took effect.