A O Hume And The Birth Of The Indian National Congress

AO Hume, the founder of the Indian National Congress was a principled Scotsman. What made him take up the Indian cause?

At the very genesis of the Indian National Congress was a member of the Imperial Civil Service – a Scotsman named Allan Octavian Hume who worked in British India.

Son of a reformer Joseph Hume, he trained as a surgeon, then as a civil servant in the East India Company College at Haileybury. He was posted in India eight years before the revolt of 1857. When the mutiny broke out, his district Etawa was among the worst affected. As region after region turned on the British, Hume ceased the collection of revenues – avoiding any action that could provoke the locals.

After two years of bloody battles, the era of the East India Company in India was over. Soon, the British Crown would take over affairs in the subcontinent. But Hume never recovered from the shake-up of the revolution – the Indian people had clearly found their rulers lacking. The atrocities committed in war – not least from the British side – demonstrated that a gulf existed between Indians and the British.

Hume was lucky, in that he made his office one of fieldwork over paperwork, as his biographer Willian Wedderburn describes him as “coming into direct contact with all classes of people”. He served the government in various capacities – moving from District Officer to Secretary to the Government of India. But these promotions only emboldened his critique of British policies in India.

Hume invested great effort into spreading education and called the system of making land a form of security one of “the cruel blunders”. He blamed a large part of the nation’s poverty on revenue policies, and published a pamphlet called “Agricultural Reforms in India” in 1879 which espoused his opposition to many government policies. This won him no favours, and the same year was the virtual end of his official career. He hung on for a couple of years to complete a book on the game birds of India – and quit in 1882.

The times demanded an all-India political movement. But what drove A.O. Hume to help in its founding depends on whether you believe him to be a safety valve, lightning rod or a man who believed in the supernatural.

The many roads to the Indian National Congress

According to the ‘safety valve’ theory, A.O. Hume was commissioned by the then Viceroy to create an Indian political party – that could vent the growing frustrations of the populace on a platform visible to and overseeable by the British. This theory paints the Congress as a constructed accomplice of the British.

The lightning rod theory takes the other perspective –  that Congress leaders knew they needed an Englishman (in this case, a Scotsman) to be able to reach the decision-makers of Empire. In this case, Hume becomes a conduit for their grievances – a billboard for the Indian people to make their case.

Historian Bipin Chandra dismisses both these theories to be constructed myths. Instead, he argues that Hume was influenced by a gaggle of mystic gurus from the Himalayas. As it turns out, history can be stranger than fiction.

Hume was a theosophist (he joined the Theosophical Society in 1880). Theosophy was a school of thought that imbibed mysticism and elements of every religion with a set of occult beliefs. Founded by the Russian emigrant Madame Blavatsky, it attracted believers in the supernatural; in particular, dissidents and disgruntled Westerners, who wanted to believe in something of the people and against the Empire.

A guiding ideological force of the theosophists was the ‘Great White Mahatmas of the Himalayas’ – a gaggle of gurus and mystics who lived in Tibet and communicated to the world through Blavatsky.

Initially, the Mahatmas adopted an odd messaging service – Blavatsky would filter all messages and keep them in a wooden box, from whence they dematerialized. The Mahatmas replies would appear without warning, dropped from the ceiling (this system was later revealed to be a setup of the room she lived in).

Hume considered these as sources for the pulse of the Indian people – and claimed to have acquired, through them, three hundred accounts of a looming revolution.

He wrote:

[They were] all going to show that these poor men were pervaded with a sense of the hopelessness of the existing state of affairs; that they were convinced that they would starve and die, and that they wanted to do something, and stand by each other, and that something meant violence.

In 1883, he wrote an open letter, provoking Calcutta’s intellectuals to take action and mobilize.

If you picked men, the most highly educated of the nation, cannot, scorning personal ease and selfish objects, make a resolute struggle to secure greater freedom for yourselves and your country, a more impartial administration, a larger share in the management of your own affairs, then we, your friends, are wrong and our adversaries right; then are Lord Ripon’s noble aspirations for your good fruitless and visionary, then, at present at any rate all hopes of progress are at an end and India truly neither desires nor deserves any better Government than she enjoys.

It worked. The first session of the Indian National Congress was held in 1885 – with Hume as the only European in attendance amongst a total of 72 political workers. It gathered some of the most vociferous leaders at the time: Dadabhai Nairoji, Dinshaw Wachaw, Pherozshaw Mehta and Annie Besant – to name a few.

The effect of the theosophical movement was that it brought together European and Indian thinkers – bridging the colour gap in a heavily segmented society. Mahatma Gandhi himself was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita through a Theosophist.

Bridging the gap

Voices in the darkness, or otherwise, Hume saw the need for an Indian political voice. In his famous poem, “Old Man’s Hope”, he exhorts the Indian people to rise up and take matters into their own hands.

Sons of Ind, why sit ye idle,
Wait ye for some Deva’s aid?
Buckle to, be up and doing!
Nations by themselves are made!

The father of the Indian National Congress believed in the cause of Indian emancipation, but this was a difficult proposal in those days. He fought against attempts to divide the Congress along communal lines, as well as against plans to build statues for demised members.

Politics and mysticism aside, Hume was also engrossed in the world of ornithology (of which he was called its ‘Pope’). He spent most of his remaining years as an avid birdman, publishing the journal Stray Feathers. His theosophical leanings were apparent here – he believed vultures could beat gravity to perform flight, a technique he called ‘Aethrobacy’, and one he claimed humans were capable of.

Whether the Congress was started on the premise of mystic voodoo or a government conspiracy, it owes a great debt to the passionate Scotsman who once referred to himself as a native of India.


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