The social composition of early Congress leadership
The social base of the early Congress was unmistakably narrow. It had uneven representation and total exclusion of non-elite groups of Indian society.
The Composition of the delegates at the first congress reflected the changing patterns of organised political life in India, the western educated professional groups gradually taking the lead over the landed aristocrats.
Geographically, within the overall ascendancy of the presidencies, Bengal was gradually slipping from its leadership position, which was being taken over by Bombay, surging ahead of all other regions. The first meeting of the Indian National Congress in 1885 was attended by seventy-two non-official Indian representatives and they included people apparently from various walks of life, or belonging to “most classes”, as claimed by the official report of the Congress.
If we look at their regional distribution, thirty-eight came from Bombay Presidency, twenty-one from Madras, but only four from Bengal, as the Indian Association had convened its own national conference in Calcutta almost at the same time and the Bengal leaders were told of the Bombay conference only at the very last moment.
Apart from the presidencies, seven representatives came from the four principal towns of North-Western Provinces and Awadh and one each from the three towns of Punjab.
It was in other words, despite lofty claims, a gathering of professionals, some landlords and businessmen, representing primarily the three presidencies of British India.
There were lawyers, merchants, bankers, landowners, medical men, journalists, educationaists, religious teachers and reformers.
About 18.99% of the delegates who attended the congress sessions between 1892 and 1909 were landlords; the rest were:
teachers (3.16%) and
other professionals (17.31%).
They predominantly belonged to the high caste Hindu communities and this pattern continued for two decades. Delegates for the sessions being overwhelmingly from the educated and professional sections of the Hindu community.
Bearing the exception of Bombay politician, Badruddian Tyabji, mostly were Hindus.
Between 1892 and 1909, nearly 90% of delegates who attended congress sessions were Hindus and only 6.5 % were Muslims.
Among Hindus, 40% were Brahmins and rest were upper caste Hindus.
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,
254 in 1889.
The Congress even resolved in 1887-88 not to debate social or religious matters for ensuring the support of religious minorities.
Six-tenths of Muslim delegates to Congress sessions from 1886 to 1901 were from Lucknow alone.
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
1,889 in Bombay.
Owing to the efforts of Dwarkanath Ganguly, six women delegated were present at the 1889 Congress session in Bombay (10 registered lady delegates) including social reformer Pandita Ramabai, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister Swarnakumari Devi and Calcutta University’s first lady graduate Kadambini Ganguly. The two from Bengal were Dwarkanath’s wifeKadambini and Swarnakumari Debi, wife of Janakinath Ghosal.
The presence of both women was closely connected with the extent of their husbands’ links with Congress politics. Orthodox opinion objected to even to this limited participation, and ridiculed Dwarkanath for insisting on the right of women to be represented in Congress to express their views and on their right to be elected members of the Legislative Council.
In 1890 Calcutta Session, Kadambini Ganguly addressed the Congress Session. Her contributions at these sessions were more symbolic than substantial- in Calcutta she made a motion to thank the Chairman.
The 1889 session was attended by 41 ‘simple’ cultivators and two working artisans.
Carefully ‘sheltering’ diverse social concerns, the Congress sessions proved to be the melting point of all …interconnections.
This limitation of participation did not fluster the members of the Congress, as they complacently claimed to represent the whole nation; but it obviously put some constraints on their programmes.