History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 1991: Q.3

Q.3 Discuss ‘the safety valve’ theory. Does it satisfactorily explain the foundation of the Indian National Congress?


The Safety-valve thesis was a conspiracy theory relating to the birth of the Congress. The thesis originated from William Wedderburn’s biography of Hume published in 1913. Wedderburn, another civil servant, wrote that in 1878 that Hume had come across seven volumes of secret reports at Simla which showed that there had been seething discontent among the lower classes and a conspiracy to overthrow British rule by force. He became disturbed, met Lord Dufferin and together they decided to establish an organization with educated Indians. This would serve as a safety valve by opening up a line of communication between the rulers and the ruled and would thus prevent a mass revolution. The congress was in this way the creation of British rule.

This safety-valve theory was believed by the earlier nationalist historians; the imperialist historians used it to discredit Congress and the Marxist historians developed a conspiracy theory from this.

In his Young India published in 1916, the Extremist leader Lala Lajpat Rai used the safety-valve theory to attack the Moderates in the Congress. Having discussed the theory at length and suggested that the Congress ‘was a product of Lord Dufferin’s brain,’ he argued that ‘the Congress was started more with the object of saving the British Empire from danger than with that of winning political liberty for India.
In 1939, M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS chief, had also found the safety-valve theory handy in attacking the Congress for its secularism and, therefore, anti-nationalism. In his pamphlet “We” Golwalkar complained that Hindu national consciousness had been destroyed by those claiming to be ‘nationalists’ .

The ‘safety-valve thesis’ does not explain satisfactorily the foundation of the Indian National Congress due to the following reasons:

(1) First of all, those seven volumes of secret reports have not been traced in any of the archives either in India or London.
Given the structure of British information system in the 1870s, it was highly unlikely that so many volumes of secret reports have existed.

(2) Hume was Secretary to the Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce. How could the Secretary of these departments get access to Home Department files or CID reports? Also he was then in Simla while Home Department files were kept in Delhi; they were not sent to Simla.

(3) If Congress was founded out of the fear of an outbreak, why did Hume and British officialdom wait for seven long years? (Report in 1878 and congress in 1885)

(4) Wedderburn writes that a warning of the threatened danger came to Hume ‘from a religious Guru of Tibet’ and the evidence of the seven volumes was shown to Hume by the Gurus. Though Hume was in fact student of Eastern Religions and impressed by Gurus, but why should Hume believe that these reports ‘must necessarily be true?’

(5) Further proof offered for the safety-valve theory was based on W.C. Bannerjee’s statement in 1898 in Indian Politics that the Congress, ‘as it was originally started and as it has since been carried on, is in reality the work of Dufferin.’ He stated that Hume had, in 1884, thought of bringing together leading political Indians once a year “to discuss social matters” and did not “desire that politics should form part of their discussion.” But Dufferin asked Hume to do the opposite and start a body to discuss politics so that the Government could keep itself informed of Indian opinion.”
Probably W.C. Bannerjee’s memory was weak or he was trying to protect the Congress from the wrath of the late 19th century imperialist reaction.

(6) Dufferin was not sympathetic to the Congress. It was not only in 1888 that Dufferin attacked the Congress in a vicious manner by writing that ‘we cannot allow the Congress to continue to exist.”
Dufferin openly castigate Congress for its dubious motives. He criticized it for representing a “microscopic minority” and this statement if anything else, explodes the safety valves or conspiracy theory. In fact, from the end of May 1885, Dufferin had grown cool to Hume and began to keep him at an arm’s length.

(7) Though Hume played a crucial role in the foundation of the Congress, but even if Hume had not taken any initiative, in India in the 1870s and 1880s, the formation of national organization was clearly in the air.
In reality, Hume was a political liberal, who had clear idea about growing discontent among Indians. So he visualised an all India organisation which would represent Indian interest and act as an opposition. During May June 1886, Duffrin criticised Hume, his main fault being that he was one of the chief stimulus of Home Rule Movement.

(8) Historians now more or less agree that the story of seven volumes of secret report was a fiction created by a friendly biographer Wedderburn to portray Hume as British patriot who wanted to save the British Empire from an impending crisis.

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