The structure of Indian politics was to a large extent determined by the administrative and political structure imposed on the country by British rule. Indian nationalism expressed itself through these political structures, but was not limited to them. The Indian National Congress had claimed to stand at the top of Indian political structures since 1885, professing to represent the whole Indian nation. Starting out as a movement seen as Western-oriented and representing a narrow elite, the Congress became a mass movement under the leadership of Gandhi. However, being a mass movement did not necessarily qualify the Congress for the status of being truly national. Although historians used to study the Congress as an opinion-maker, the reality was that the Congress had to interact with a multiplicity of diverse nationalisms at the provincial and local level if it wished to maintain its status as a mass movement.
This led to the Congress appearing to be all things to all men and speaking with many voices to the working classes. Anil Seal has shown how Indian politics operated on many levels and that there was significant interplay between activity at the local, provincial and national level. The Congress' relationship to agitation at a lower level was to associate it with all-India activity and to try and strengthen the constituent interest groups by forming alliances between diverse groups and tying them together under the banner of 'the nation'. However, this claim would always be problematic because of groups that drifted in and out of allegiance to the Congress.
It will be useful to first examine the image of the Congress projected of itself, so that this can be contrasted to the reality of its composure. The entry of Gandhi into the Congress in 1920 is a critical juncture in its development, a fact about which Nehru has no doubt. 'Gandhi for the first time entered the Congress organisation and immediately brought about a complete change in its constitution. He made it democratic and a mass organisation.'1 The Congress adopted Gandhi's methods of non-cooperation and boycotting. At this point Hindu-Muslim unity was at its peak due to concern in the Muslim community over the fate of the Caliphate and the fate of Muslim holy places in the Middle East.
For several years the Congress had a strong claim to speak for the nation, and Gandhi's philosophy of achieving swaraj through non-violent non-cooperation seemed to provide a new route to Indian independence. Although Gandhi explained swaraj as meaning the freedom of the Indian people from any form of oppression whatsoever, it meant first the unity of Indians on the basis of their shared oppression by British rule. The Congress claimed to unite all Indians on this basis and hence to represent the 'nation'. However, this clearly required the various interest groups of Indian society to be prepared to postpone their grievances with one another until after self-rule had been achieved. The British strategy of bringing progressively more Indians into its ruling structures and hence setting Indian against Indian exacerbated this problem.
Also problematic for Congress' claim to represent the nation was the uncertain allegiance of other groups to it. These groups claimed to represent large interest groups within the country and if they withdrew their support of the Congress then the Congress' claim to leadership of the nation would be challenged. As waves of labour militancy swept the country and the British encouraged the working classes to form their own associations, it became more necessary for the Congress to retain their allegiance so it did not come to be seen as merely an elite organisation. However, working class nationalism was diverse and hard to classify. 'Working class' is arguably a misleading label which lumps together so many different groups and interests, both in terms of geographical location and economic condition, that it becomes useless to regard it as a single entity.
This is why attempts by the Congress to interface with this awakened movement depended so much on activities in the locality, and why local movements proved resistant to Congress control in the 1920s, before the centralising efforts of the Congress in the 1930s. Thus the massacre of 22 policemen in the United Provinces perpetuated in the name of Gandhian values but fiercely opposed to them in practice. And although the Congress called for the working class to sacrifice current gains for future bliss, at the local level associations of labour would choose to disregard the will of the Congress, especially during the period of reduced Congress activity in 1922 – 28.
However, over time the Congress came to acquire more significance and to have a stronger claim to being truly 'national'. A significant reason for this was the attempts of the British to strengthen their rule by ceding more autonomy to the provinces. The strengthening of provincial rule and British attempts to recognise interest groups in the provinces encouraged political activity at a local level. To gain a share of the boons of provincial government Indians had to form associations within the categories that the government recognised. These associations could gain legitimacy by allying themselves horizontally with other associations. However, such an alliance would only gain the organisation influence at a provincial level at best. To put their case to the Raj at the highest level, the all-India level, such associations would have to form an alliance with an all-India movement, such as the Indian National Congress.
Hardimann's study of the Devi movement in South Gujarat shows this process in action. Although this would involve submission to the discipline of the Congress, it would greatly enhance the legitimacy of associations and allow them influence at a higher level. The Congress could not afford to ignore the demands of any interest group if it wanted to maintain its claim to be national. However, the willingness of local groups to become subservient to the Congress increased as the British dangling more constitutional carrots to India. It is testimony to the success of the Congress as an all-India body that other associations bent to its will, as this signifies that it was seen as a the one national body most likely to negotiate successfully with the British to achieve self-rule.
Critical to an understanding of Indian nationalism, and hence a consideration of whether the Congress can be considered truly national, is the relationship of the illiterate masses to nationalism. Especially important here is the effect of Ghandi and the myths that surrounded him on the consciousness of the nationalism of the subaltern classes. Evidence suggests that Gandhi's message was interpreted differently in different regions within the pre-existing framework of political consciousness in each locality. This is opposed to the view that the subaltern classes were led from above by their 'betters' into interpreting the message of the Mahatma in a particular way.
In Amin's study of Ghandi’s visit to Gorakhpur Division in the eastern United Provinces, he shows how Ghandi's visit was interpreted in a traditionally religious way by the peasants. This meant there was no authorised 'version' of the Mahatma as this message was interpreted differently depending on pre-existing culture in the localities, and that his name could be used to justify action of which he would not have approved, as at Chauri Chaura where violence was committed in his name. This meant that the Congress was sometimes faced with reeling in activity that was ostensibly carried out in the name of its leader and values but which it felt threatened the national cause.
The relationship of the Congress to the subaltern classes was less one of directly controlling their actions and more one of providing a cue to action at times when gains seemed likely. The malleable nature of the Mahatma's image meant that the endless number of diverse interests in India could indeed be tied together in the way the Congress desired, on the basis of their shared oppression to British rule. Chandavarkar has argued that 'it was impossible to capture the rhetoric of nationalism in a single voice or a consistent and coherent social message'.2 This is true but did not stop the Congress from being a truly national institution. Sir John Strachey argued in 1888 that 'there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing according to European ideas, any sort of unity'.3
Given the absence of any pre-existing concept of the nation on which national unity could be built, the Congress was instrumental in building one. British reforms, particularly the Government of India Act of 1935, strengthened the authority of the imperial state and meant that for Indians to interact with it they had to construct political associations on the levels defined by the British. To negotiate with the colonial government at the all-India level, an all-India association was required; this was the role of the Congress. By stimulating the development of a political association at this level the British themselves sowed the seeds for the development of national unity behind the Congress. This unity was based more on allegiance to the Mahatma and the goal of self-rule than a particular concept of the nation; in a country as diverse as India, no such universal national concept could exist.
The reluctance of the Congress to take power quickly and hence abet the British strategy of divide and rule also helped to make it appear truly 'national'. By not rushing to take up the spoils of power the Congress strengthened its identity as a party of Indian national unity rather than participating in the divisive struggles of Indian politics at a provincial level. Although Congress ministries took power in several provinces, the Congress leadership was always reluctant to do so. By withdrawing ministries in 1939 when the British failed to clarify war aims precisely, the Congress did not lose its legitimacy by participating in an effort that brought unprecedented social and economic stress to India. The extent to which all sections of Indian society participated in the 'Quit India' agitation shows that their tactic was a successful one.
However, the Muslim-majority provinces were conspicuous in their absence from the 'Quit India' movement, representing the Congress' biggest failure in its aspirations to be a true national movement. Congress provincial rule had raised the spectre of a 'Hindu Raj' and had made Muslims fearful of them, showing that the cultural diversity of India could overcome even the unifying discourse of the Congress. What was at stake here was not the achievement of self-rule but what would happen after the achievement of self-rule. The 'national' discourse of the Congress was not enough to allay the fear that its mainly Hindu composition would lead to an unjust settlement, especially in areas where there was social and economic tension between Muslims and Hindus. This was arguably an unsolvable problem, as although the Muslim and Hindu cultures were far from united in themselves, religion was the main differential in Indian society.
The Congress managed to have a large claim to being 'national' by 1942, by propagating an ideology of unity and cohesion which had appeal to large segments of Indian society. The reason this appeal was so great was that it could be interpreted by the subaltern classes in terms of their own material culture and religiosity, meaning the Congress could provide hope to various groups which may under different circumstances have been hostile to one another. The Congress message could even be used by groups on both sides of a hostile disagreement. This ability to unify and appeal over sectional division on the basis of shared Indian hostility to colonial rule meant that the Congress could claim legitimacy as a representative of the Indian 'nation'.
The content of Gandhian ideology was vague enough for its pronouncements to be almost universally construed as positive, even if this sometimes led to interpretations that the Mahatma might not personally have favoured. As local and provincial politics was brought into the sphere of all-India organisations by the policies of the colonial government, the Congress could spread its message outwards and downwards – and through this process it became a truly national organisation.
1. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, p. 313
2. R. Chandavarkar, Imperial Power and Popular Politics, p. 270
3. John Strachey, India, p. 5
M.K. Gandhi, The Penguin Gandhi Reader
Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India
S. Bose and A. Jalal, A Concise History of South Asia
J. Chatterji, Bengal Divided
R. Guha, Subaltern Studies, vols. 3, 6
R. Chandavarkar, Imperial Power and Popular Politics
J. Gallagher et al (eds.), Locality, Province and Nation