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The Moderates

National leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozshah Mehta, D.E. Wacha, W.C. Bonnerjea, and S.N. Banerjea, who dominated the Congress policies during this period were staunch believers in ‘liberalism’ and ‘moderate’ politics. They came to be labelled as Moderates, to distinguish them from the neo-nationalists of the early twentieth century who were referred to as the Extremists.

Their political activity involved constitutional agitation within the confines of the law, and showed a slow but orderly political progress.

The Moderates believed that the British basically wanted to be just to the Indians but were not aware of the real conditions.

Agitation against Economic Policies

Three names stand out among the large number of Indians who initiated and carried out the economic analysis of British rule during the years 1870-1905. The tallest of the three was Dadabhai Naoroji, known in the pre-Gandhian era as the Grand Old Man of India. His near contemporary, Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade, taught an entire generation of Indians the value of modern industry-al development. Romesh Chandra Dutt, a retired ICS officer, published The Economic History of India at the beginning of the 20th century in which he examined in minute detail the entire economic record of colonial rule since 1757.

These three leaders along with G.V. Joshi, G. Subramaniya Iyer, G.K. Gokhale, Prithwis Chandra Ray and hundreds of other political workers and journalists analysed every aspect of the economy and subjected the entire range of economic issues and colonial economic policies to minute scrutiny. They raised basic questions regarding the nature and purpose of British rule.

Eventually, they were able to trace the process of the colonialization of the Indian economy and conclude that colonialism was the main obstacle to India’s economic development. They clearly understood the fact that the essence of British imperialism lay in the subordination of the Indian economy to the British economy. They delineated the colonial structure in all its three aspects of domination through trade, industry and finance. They were able to see that colonialism no longer functioned through the crude tools of plunder and tribute and mercantilism but operated through the more disguised and complex mechanism of free trade and foreign capital investment.

The essence of 19th century colonialism, they said, lay in the transformation of India into a supplier of food stuffs and raw materials to the metropolis, a market for the metropolitan manufacturers, and a field for the investment of British capital.

The early Indian national leaders were simultaneously learners and teachers. They organized powerful intellectual agitations against nearly all the important official economic policies. The nationalist economic agitation started with the assertion that Indians were poor and were growing poorer every day.

Dadabhai Naoroji made poverty his special subject and spent his entire life awakening the Indian and British public to the ‘continuous impoverishment and exhaustion of the country’ and ‘the wretched, heart-rending, blood-boiling condition of India.’ Day after day he declaimed from public platforms and in the Press that the Indian ‘is starving, he is dying off at the slightest touch, living on insufficient food.’

The early nationalists did not see this all-encompassing poverty as inherent and unavoidable, a visitation from God or nature. It was seen as man-made and, therefore, capable of being explained and removed. The problem of poverty was, moreover, seen as the problem of increasing of the ‘productive capacity and energy’ of the people, in other words as the problem of national development. This approach made poverty a broad national issue and helped to unite, instead of divide, different regions and sections of Indian society.

Economic development was seen above all as the rapid development of modern industry. The early nationalists accepted with remarkable unanimity that the complete economic transformation of the country on the basis of modern technology and capitalist enterprise was the primary goal of all their economic policies.

Industrialism, it was further believed, represented, to quote G.V. Joshi, ‘a superior type and a higher stage of civilization;’ or, in the words of Ranade, factories could ‘far more effectively than Schools and Colleges give a new birth to the activities of the Nation.’

Modern industry was also seen as a major force which could help unite the diverse peoples of India into a single national entity having common interests.  Consequently, because of their whole-hearted devotion to the cause of industrialization, the early nationalists looked upon all other issues such as foreign trade, railways, tariffs, currency and exchange, finance, and labour legislation in relation to this paramount aspect. At the same time, nearly all the early nationalists were clear on one question: However great the need of India for industrialization, it had to be based on Indian capital and not foreign capital.

Constitutional Reforms

The Moderates demanded the expansion and reform of the Legislative Council. The members of the councils should be directly elected by the people. They raised the slogan, “No taxation without representation.” Later on they put forward the claim of a raj or self-government within the British Empire.

The demands of the Moderates were to be articulated strictly through constitutional channels of agitation, to prove to the colonial government that the Indian elite were now ready for representative government.

Since British rule was considered providential, there was no question of disturbing the order that had been painstakingly established in the colony.

The agitations were carried on through pamphlets, newspapers and speeches, where arguments were made, critiquing specific issues on which reforms were sought.

Within this discourse, there were frequent professions of loyalty emphasizing the debt that the colony owed its rulers, and this politics of ‘mendicancy’ was strongly critiqued by Extremists later.

The nature of this agitation was also intermittent. In its early years, the existence of the Congress was confined to the annual session, and for the rest of the year most leaders were busy with their personal careers.

Administrative Reforms

One of the first political associations of an all-India character, the Congress’ primary demand was for greater native participation in the colonial government.

Demands voiced by Dadabhai Naoroji in 1885 included the need to hold the Indian Civil Service examination simultaneously in London and India, and ensure that the maximum age for taking the examination was not reduced, adoption of a system of un-covenanted services, increase in representation of Indians in legislative councils, reduction in military charges and civil expenditure.

They wished for the Indian colony to be placed directly under the control of the British parliament. What Moderates envisaged for India was dominionstatus, even though, in the initial sessions of the Congress there was no demand for ‘home rule’.

Defence of Civil Rights

The moderate leaders wanted greater representation only for the western-educated elite, even though they claimed to represent the interests of the country as a whole. Gokhale had described his ilk as ‘natural leaders’ of the country, on account of their education.

But even in the Moderate phase there were moments of great mass euphoria – Surendranath Banerjee’s arrest in 1883 had been greeted by the first open air political meeting in Calcutta supported strongly by students, the Indian association had organized huge meetings with ryots in the countryside before the passing of the Rent Act in 1885, and a furore had followed the Age of Consent Bill in 1890-91.

But their relationship with the masses remained ambivalent and short-lived. After the Tenancy Bill was passed in 1885, the mass meetings were used by leaders of the Indian Association to lecture peasants on the desirability of elective legislatures for the country. J. R. McLane points out that there was an attempt to garner mass support but also a fear of mass participation and popular violence. Moderate leaders felt alienated from rural people even as they toured the countryside and in the event of a communal riot or grain riot, they felt just as vulnerable as Europeans and looked to the police or sepoys for protection.

Methods of Indian Moderates

To achieve their goals, the Moderates worked on a two-pronged methodology; one, create a strong public opinion to arouse consciousness and national spirit and then educate and unite people on common political questions; and two, persuade the British Government and British public opinion to introduce reforms in India on the lines laid out by the nationalists.

For this purpose, a British committee of the Indian National Congress was established in London in 1899 which had India as its organ. Dadabhai Naoroji spent a substantial portion of his life and income campaigning for India’s case abroad. In 1890, it was decided to hold a session of the Indian National Congress in London in 1892, but owing to the British elections of 1891 the proposal was postponed and never revived later.

The Moderate leaders believed that political connections with Britain were in India’s interest and that the time was not ripe for a direct challenge to the British rule. Therefore, it was considered to be appropriate to try and transform the colonial rule to approximate to a national rule.

Demands of the Moderates

  1. Demand for wider powers for the councils and training in self-government.
  2. Removal of poverty by the rapid development of agriculture and modern industries.
  3. Indianization of the higher administrative services.
  4. Freedom of speech and press for the defence of their civil rights.


The basic weakness of the Moderates lay in their narrow social base. Their movement did not have wide appeal.

The area of their influence was limited to the urban community. As they did not have the support of the masses, they declared that the time was not ripe for throwing challenge to the foreign rulers.

It can be said that the programmes and policies of the Moderate leaders fought for their narrow interests. Their programmes and policies championed the cause of all sections of the Indian people and represented nation-wide interests against colonial exploitation.

Attitude of the Government

The Indian National Congress was founded with the help and blessings of the British Government in general and the Viceroy Lord Dufferin. Therefore, the official attitude towards the Congress was of neutrality and indifference, if not favourable. But soon, especially after fourth session of INC (1888), the government adopted hostile attitude towards the organization.

Despite its moderate methods and its emphasis on its loyalty to the British crown, the INC failed to secure any substantial concessions from the government. Instead, the government encouraged elements hostile to the Congress, like the Aligarh Movement and Raja Shiva Prashad of Banaras.

The British attitude became even more hostile under Lord Curzon, whose greatest ambition was to assist the Congress to a peaceful demise. The government under Curzon wanted to weaken the nationalist elements in general and Congress in particular, by driving the wedge amongst the leader in the name of religion and communalize the Indian politics by partitioning Bengal in 1905, on communal grounds.


 After 1890 the Indian National Congress founded in London the British Committee to mobilize the public opinion and lobby in the British Parliament. It published a journal “India” and was dominated by Hume and Wedderburn after their final return from India.

The Congress adopted resolutions and called for the increase of representations in legislatures. They further demanded for the admission of more Indians to the Civil Service. The Government’s unfair tariff policies were opposed and the Indian mill owners entered into the stream of the national movement.

Gradually, representation from different parts of India increased and the Congress became a body of the Hindus, Muslims, Paris and Christians. Its message reached the ears of the people. Even though the leadership was confined to the middle class intellectuals, it raised its voice on behalf of the masses of India. Thus this Congress turned to be a broad based one liked and supported by the masses.

The Congress was fortunate enough to have enlisted dedicated leaders to guide the destiny of the country. They were instrumental in formulating the policies of the Congress.

For the first 20 years from 1885 -1905 the Congress worked as a moderate constitutional body. The main achievements of the congress during this period were to make itself a national body and spread political consciousness all over the country. The organisation gradually grew larger. The delegates came from all parts of India. The Congress used to discuss many important issues. It passed resolutions demanding inquiry into the administrative and legislative reforms of the country, reduction of military expenditures, and introduction of representative institutions, separation of the judiciary from the executive and the reform of the police administration. It expressed grave concern over the poverty of the people in general and the peasants in particular. The Congress also thought of the welfare of the peasants, development of local industries and spread of education.

The Congress on the whole worked as an opposite force on the British Government in India. On the other-hand the Government gave a deaf ear to the demands of the Congress.

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