Part One of the *Presidential address of Rahimatulla Sayani to the Indian National Congress, 1896*


I beg to thank you most heartily for the great honour you have conferred upon me by electing me President of this your Twelfth Congress. It is the highest honour which my fellow­countrymen can bestow upon me. I am aware that it is also an honour which carries with it a serious responsibility, as it is by no means a light task to guide the deliberations of so large, so varied, and so distinguished an assembly, representing as it does all that is loyal and patriotic, enlightened and influential, progressive and disinterested, in the country. I am further conscious of the fact that the position to which you have elected me has been invariably occupied in the past by extremely able leaders enjoying the full confidence of the people at large, and that under any circumstances. it will be beyond my power to come up to the standard of my immediate predecessor in this chair [Surendranath Banerjee], who is so well known as one of the brightest ornaments of the country generally and especially of the province of Bengal. Relying, however, upon merciful Providence and on your indulgence and forbearance as also on your sympathy and support, I hope I may be able to discharge the duty you have entrusted me with to your satisfaction.

1) Origin of the Congress

Some time prior to the Christian year 1885, certain Indian gentlemen who had received their education in the English language and been trained to English methods, and who had moreover derived their ideals of political institutions from English philosophers aud statesmen, met together to deliberate amongst themselves on the advisability of convening a meeting of some of the most enlightened men of each province for the purpose af discussing the moral and material condition of the country and taking practical steps for its amelioration. A meeting was accordingly resolved upon; and as its conveners were God-fearing, law-abiding, peace-loving and peaceful subjects, distinguished for their independence, for the purity of their public lives, for the honesty of their purpose, and for their political sagacity, their invitation was largely and cordially responded to.

The meeting was attended by delegates deputed from each province, and by some Europeans who warmly sympathised with the object. The discussion unmistakably emphasised the fact that there was a general consensus of opinion amongst the educated Indians that the existing political condition of the country was susceptible of a vast improvement. Then there was no doubt that the people had well-founded grievances which required to be redressed, and serious disabilities which needed removal. All were agreed that in order to achieve those objects, so conducive to the greater happiness and contentment of the people, it was advisable to adopt all legitimate and constitutional means and proceed on the methods employed by Englishmen themselves for agitation; that if agitation was carried on on such principles, never mind however long, there was a fair and reasonable chance of success, especially with the cooperation of such Europeans as were ready and willing to extend their sympathy and moral support to a movement so legitimate and national.

It was accordingly decided that a Congress should be held of all educated and eminent Indians, leaders of various centres, and all admirers of the political institutions of England, with the express purpose of appealing to Government to redress grievances and remove disabilities from which the people suffered, and to secure such other reforms as the exigencies of the time and the progress of the country demanded, consistently of course with the liberal principles and the declared policy of the British Government as laid down years ago in statutes and charters, in Royal proclamations and resolutions of Parliament. Accordingly the necessary steps for organising such a Congress were taken. The principal promoters of that organisation were themselves the products of English education, while the persons invited to attend from the different Presidencies were similarly the products of that same vivifying agency.

There was also the facility of travel on account of the rapidity and cheapness of communication -- the result of railways, one of the most important boons which English civilisation conferred on our country. There was also the security to person and property assured by the Pax Britannica. Thus the call to attend fell upon willing ears, and the invitees readily complied. All the elements necessary to secure a full attendance were combined, leading to cordial cooperation in the noble work thus initiated. In short, the country was ripe for the movement, so that delegates from the principal centres eagerly flocked to give expression to the "sober second thoughts of the people." They were all responsible citizens assembled to focus the manifold political grievances of the people and give them their needed articulation.

For the first time they met on a common platform to achieve a common object: namely, to represent in the name of their countrymen the grievances under which they suffered, and to give voice to their political sentiment and aspirations. They keenly felt the desire for wholesome reform, and discussed with freedom and candour their political condition, which they considered to be degrading. Their intellectual attainments recoiled against what they considered to be political subservience; their educated notions revolted against political disabilities; and their hearts aspired to attain a higher national ideal of citizenship under the beneficent rule of the British which they fully appreciated.

It was an ideal worthy to be encouraged and fostered by all right-minded and justice-loving Englishmen, and took complete hold of them. The habitual lethargy of the Indian disappeared under the potent influence of this new and lofty standard of political regeneration. Ideas of a fair share in the management of the affairs of their own country, and the enjoyment of greater constitutional freedom, pervaded all minds. It was not a mere sentimental cooing between loving cousins, nor a mere stage show got up for the amusement of [the] public at Christmas time, but a very serious organisation of combined intellectual strength, intended for the discussion of very serious matters.

Surely they thought, and thought honestly, they were not mere theorists or sentimental dreamers, but intelligent, loyal, patriotic, well-meaning, public-spirited men, representing the collective wisdom and ability of what was soon to become a United India. Feelings of sympathy and brotherhood pervaded the members, and everyone was prepared to give anxious thought and patient consideration to what each other had to advance and urge. They felt that the Congress was but the first rich harvest of what had been sown long before by wise and beneficent British statesmen in the shape of schools and colleges. They further felt that the Congress was but the visible embodiment of a new education and a new awakening such as the country had not seen for centuries before -- the strong impact of Western civilisation on Eastern thought.

In fact, they felt that there could be no doubt of the strength and depth of this awakening having national regeneration as its ultimate aim and object. They felt that their object was rational and practical -- that under the vivifying influence of the Congress, all the various people of the country could slowly and steadily be welded into one inseparable, indissoluble whole, to the everlasting benefit of India and the glory of England, and that those who attended then as members of the first Congress would in the fullness of time be recognised as the great pioneers of the movement.

2) Declarations of the Congress Leaders

The following is a brief analysis of the declarations of the Congress leaders:

(a) To remember that we are all children of our mother-country, India, and that as such we are bound to love and respect each other and have common fellow-feeling for each other, and that each one of us should regard as his own the interests of the rest of us.

(b) That we should endeavour to promote personal intimacy and friendship amongst all the great communities of India, to develop and consolidate sentiments of national growth and unity, to weld them together into one nationality, to effect a moral union amongst them, to remove the taunt that we are not a nation, but only a congeries of races and creeds which have no cohesion in them, and to bring about stronger and stronger friendly ties of common nationality.

(c) That we should endeavour specially to promote personal intimacy and friendship amongst all the earnest workers in the cause of India; to eradicate by direct friendly personal intercourse, all possible racial or provincial prejudices amongst all lovers of India; and to develop and consolidate sentiments of national unity, to effect a moral union amongst them which may stand as a solid bulwark against all external elements likely to divide or separate.

(d) That we should work together for our common elevation; that we should work in the spirit that we are Indians and owe a duty to our country and to all our countrymen; that we should all work with a singleness of purpose for the amelioration of our country.

(e) That in carrying out our work, we should take care that no questions should be decided without full previous preparation and detailed discussion of it all over the country; that no point should be pressed unless there prevails an absolute or an almost absolute unanimity of opinion amongst the thinking and educated classes of our countrymen.

(f) That we should confine our attention to these questions only, in which the entire nation has a direct participation; that we should pass only such resolutions as are not the issue of the brain of a single individual, but are the result of the best thoughts of many minds during a long period; that we should give due deference to the views and feelings of each other amongst the whole people of our country; that we should deal with those questions alone, on which the whole of the educated and thinking portion of British India is substantially agreed.

(g) That we should conduct our proceedings with moderation and dignity so as to disarm all adverse criticism; that every member should be afforded an opportunity of maturely and gravely considering each question in all its bearings; that we should conduct our proceedings in such a way that whenever any resolution or decision has been come to, it should proceed from the Congress with authority and be received outside with respect; that we should conduct our proceedings in such a way that we may acquire and maintain a character for moderation, sagacity, and practical good sense; that we should be moderate in our language, and in our demands; that we should remember that it is only by patience, perseverance, and long effort that we can hope to succeed.

(h) That we should remember that right and truth must ever prevail in the end; that it is not by violence or by noise that great things are achieved, nor by ambition or self-seeking; that it is by calm, indomitable reliance on that moral force, which is the supreme reason, that a nation's life can be regenerated; that we should avoid taking jumps into the unknown.

(i) That the best interests of the Indian taxpayer lie in peace, economy, and reform; that his motto should be peace, loyalty, and progress. That the first, most essential requisite for his ha­piness is the assurance of permanent peace and the rigid maintenance of law and order.

(j) That our business is to represent to Government our reasonable grievances and our political disabilities and aspirations.

The following is a brief summary of the subjects discussed by the various Congresses held up to date: Working of Indian Administration; The Council of the Secretary of State for India; Legislative Councils; Simultaneous Examinations; Annexation of Upper Burma; Poverty of India; Public Service; Trial by Jury; Separation of Executive and Judicial Functions; Volunteering; Education; Industrial Condition of India; Arms Act; Police. Administration; Abkari; State Regulation of Vice; Permanent Settlement; Plate Duties; Salt Duty; Forest Laws; Currency; Military and Civil Expenditure; Medical Service; Compensation Allowance; Forced Labour; Cotton Duty; Financial Condition of India Recruitment of Higher Judicial Service; Freedom of the Press, Water Cess; South Africa; Legal Practitioners Bill; and Grievances of Railway Passengers.

The following are the places where the Congress has held its sittings: Bombay (twice), Calcutta (twice), Madras (twice), Allahabad (twice), Nagpur (once), Lahore (once), Poona (once).

The following are the names of the gentlemen who have presided at Congress Meetings: Mr. W.C. Bonnerjee (twice), Mr. Dadabhai Naoroji (twice), Mr. Budrudin Tyabjee (once), Mr. George Yule (once), Sir W. Wedderburn, Bart. (once), Mr. P. M. Mehta (once), Mr. P. Ananda Charlu (once), Mr. Alfred Webb (once), Mr. Surendranath Banerjea (once).

Growth of the Congress

From the brief outlines of the history of the origin of the Congress herein given, of the declarations of its leaders, of the subjects it has discussed, of the places in which it has beld its sittings, and of the persons who have presided over its deliberations. it is clear that the Congress was the direct outcome of the noble policy of England in introducing Engtish education in India, and diffusing knowledge over the length and breadth of this country by means of schools and colleges, and thus awakening the rising young men of our country to a sense of the duties they owed to themselves, to their neighbours, and to their countrymen generally.

That although most of these young men had not travelled to Europe nor even crossed the ocean that separates their country from the rest of the world -- indeed some of them had hardly travelled in their own country, and a few of them had never left even the confines of the towns which had given them birth -- all of them had, by studying all that is best and ennobling in English literature and freely conversing with noble-minded Englishmen, acquired a knowledge of the events that had happened and were happening in Europe, and especially in England, that thrice happy Island, the home of liberty and progress. They had, amongst other things, learnt how the existing political institutions of England had obtained their present form; how English patriots, through adverse circumstances, had, by never-failing courage and indomitable perseverance, acquired one after another their present privileges of liberty of thought and freedom of action both in the field of religion and politics.

We all know [that] in ancient times noble persons who resolved to devote their lives to the beautifying of their mother-cities, used to travel far and wide, and in their extensive travels used to come across the beauties of other cities, and from such beauties [used] to form general notions of beauty; and how, on their return to their native cities, [they] used to endeavour to beautify their own cities in accordance with the notions of beauty thus formed by them. In a similar manner our educated young men, whilst mentally travelling through the realms of the History of Europe generally, and particularly the History of England, had their attention drawn to the political history of England, and thus acquired ideas of liberty, which in course of time they thought of applying to their own country.

In short, they became anxious to regenerate the political condition of India. They felt, however, that the vast majority of their own countrymen, among whom higher education had not yet permeated, would at first give them not support but rather ridicule, and would obstruct them. At the same time they anticipated that the ruling class might misunderstand them. They felt they had serious difficulties to contend with in the initial stage. Misrepresentation and misunderstanding are elements which every new movement has to combat with. They resolved, therefore, to be cautious and circumspect, and at every step to feel the ground before they actually put their foot thereon.

They were, of course, prepared to face adverse and hostile criticism, obloquy and accusations. The English martyrs, they knew, had undergone all this, nay, even suffered tortures and death. But our young men felt they had certain advantages which English martyrs had not. The Government had educated them, had in a manner sown the seeds of and fostered their new ideas. Some Englishmen themselves sympathised with them. Under the aegis of English rule they had toleration; and believing in their new faith, and resolved to go through all trials, all struggles, all vicissitudes, they started to put their ideas into execution.

The origin of the Congress was thus an epoch in the history of the country, and with the establishment of the Congress began a new era in the political history of India; and during the years that have followed, the movement has extended from a comparatively few persons to the whole of the educated classes, and has already begun to agitate the masses; and if it is guided in the future, as it has been guided in the past, by moderation, prudence, and sagacity, is bound to have a decisive influence on the destinies of British India for the good of the country and for the glory of England. The Congress is now favoured with the presence of about two thousand members from as many hundred places, all speaking the "sober second thoughts" of the people, and counting amongst them the foremost leaders of opinion in the country, and all the culture, the intelligence, and the public spirit -- indeed, the collective wisdom -- of the united, educated, and thinking portion of British India. It holds its sittings in the most important cities in the empire, under the presidency of the most prominent Indians of the day, as well as of Englishmen of the genuine sympathy of the late Mr. George Yule, Sir William Wedderburn, and Mr. Alfred Webb.

4) Congress Presidents

The first President of the Congress was an able representative of Bengal, Mr. W.C. Bonnerjee, an able and experienced member of our legal profession (who is known to have more than once refused a High Court Judgeship), whose devotion to his country is well known.

The second President was my fellow-citizen, Mr. Dadabhai Naoroji, whose invaluable and disinterested services to his country for nearly half a century, not forgetting the work recently done in Parliament, are now [a] matter of history. In fact, he may be said to be the principal maker of the political history of the country.

The third President was my honoured and distinguished co­religionist, Mr. Justice Budrudin Tyabji, an educated and cultured Musalman of catholic views.

The fourth President was the late Mr. George Yule, a distinguished Anglo-Indian merchant, who had taken a deep interest in the welfare of the country and its people.

The fifth President was again an Anglo-Indian, a member of the Indian Civil Service, a distinguished champion of the Congress movement, Sir W. Wedderburn (Baronet) MP, who has worked in and out of Parliament with a devotion which has commanded the admiration of all India.

The sixth President was my valued friend, Mr. P. M. Mehta, one of the most enthusiastic and devoted adherents of the cause of India, whose record of services for the last thirty years is one of which every one of my countrymen ought to be proud.

The seventh President was Rai Bahadur P. Ananda Charlu, a distinguished representative from Madras, an eminent leader in his own Presidency.

The eighth President was again Mr. W.C. Bonnerji, of whom I have already spoken.

The ninth President was again Mr. Dadabhai Naoroji, the self-denying, unique patriot of India, whose advent to Lahore was the cause of those unparalleled demonstrations which are already historical.

The tenth President, Mr. Webb, was a warm-hearted and reflective Irish Member of Parliament in deep sympathy with our aspirations.

The eleventh President was the Hon. Surendranath Bannerji, whom I have already referred to.

This brief record shows the cosmopolitan character of this great movement. It also indicates how representative it has been of all the communities of this great empire, Hindus, Mohamedans, Parsis, and Anglo­Indians. Their addresses prove that the Congress is not a party organisation or a political caucus, but an assembly representative of the light and leading of this vast empire, dealing with public matters and serving public interests generally in a broad and catholic spirit, with the view not of supplanting, as is often erroneously and absurdly alleged, but of supporting the Government of this country.

5) Congress, the Eurasians, the Portuguese, the Jews

The only communities that remain yet un-honoured in this matter are the Eurasians, the Portuguese, and the Jews. It is not, I presume, from any lack of desire on the part of this Congress that they have not yet been honoured with the election of one of them as President, but because the communities are small, and it is difficult to find from them representative men. In the case of the Eurasians, this opportunity would have been gladly availed of had not the late Mr. D. S. White, the President of the Eurasian Association, been snatched away from us by the cruel hand of death, soon after the date of the first Congress held in Bombay, at which he was present. I hope, and this assembly will, I trust, share my hope, that these communities also will have their turn in proper time.

6) Congress and Mohamedans

With a record of such illustrious Presidents before me, and coming as I had to do immediately after one of the most eloquent modern Indian orators and leading spirits of the wealthy and educated province of Bengal, I naturally felt diffident of my ability to discharge the onerous and responsible duties devolving upon the occupant of this chair, but counting, as I have already stated, upon your indulgence, forbearance, and generosity, your sympathy and support, I consented to preside, resolved to follow the example of my esteemed friend Mr. Justice Budrudin Tyabji, who has had the benefit of eight years' residence in England, is a gentleman of manifold experience, moderate and considerate views on public affairs, and who has been eminently successful but is nevertheless an orthodox Musalman commanding the confidence and respect of his co-religionists. The one great object lesson which his example teaches is that Musalmans, with benefit to themselves, and consistently with Musalman interests -- even assuming the Mussalman interests, as unthinkingly alleged, are in conflict with interests of the rest of the Indians -- can and ought to take part in this national movement.

[on to *7) Congress Programme*]

*Sayani 1896 index page* -- *Glossary* -- *FWP's main page*