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Annie Besant

First female President of Indian National Congress: 1847-1933 (Calcutta, 1917)

Annie Besant was born in London on 1 October 1847. Her father William Page Woods was half - Irish and half - English, and belonged to a distinguished family, one of his ancestors having been the Mayor of London and another a Lord Chancellor.

She was instrumental in helping to start the first trade unions in London. She joined the Fabian Society and was a close associate of Sydney Webbs, George Bernard Shaw, George Lansbury, Ramsay MacDonald and several other prominent socialists of the time.

In 1866 she read two theosophical books written by Mr A. P. Sinnet, a prominent theosophist and in 1889 she was given Mme H. P. Blavatsky's ‘The Secret Doctrine’ for review. This book was to her a revelation.

She joined the Theosophical Society in May 1889 and became Mme Blavatsky's devoted pupil and helper. She became a prominent worker in the Society and was elected President which position she held till her death on 21 September 1933.

She first came to India on 16 November 1893. In October 1913 she spoke at a great public meeting in Madras recommending that there should be a Standing Committee of the House of Commons for Indian affairs which would go into the question of how India might attain freedom.

She founded a weekly newspaper 'Commonweal' in January 1914 for her political work. In June 1914 she purchased the 'Madras Standard' and renamed it 'New India', which thereafter became her chosen organ for her tempestuous propaganda for India's freedom.

She called this freedom ‘Home Rule’ for India. She was a delegate to the Indian National Congress in 1914. In 1915, in Bombay, at a meeting called by her, she explained her plan for the establishment of the Home Rule League.

In 1916 this work intensified. People eagerly read the 'New India' for news of the progress of the movement and read Dr Besant's editorials in the paper. The Home Rule League was started on 1 September 1916.

She failed in her first effort to persuade Bal Gangadhar Tilak to combine their two movements. In June 1917, with G. S. Arundale and B. P. Wadia, two of her principal workers, she was interned at Ootacamund.

Because of the wide protest all over India and abroad, the internment order was withdrawn, and in August 1917 she was made the President of the Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress. As a result of her campaign and because of the pressure of public opinion in India, the Montagu - Chelmsford proposals were enacted by the British Parliament.

In 1920 Gandhi ji launched his campaign of Satyagraha, and at the Congress of 1920 in Lahore Annie Besant with five others stood against the overwhelming flood of support in favour of Gandhi ji's plan. A whole lifetime of fighting by constitutional means and within the law left her with a deep distrust of massive law - breaking in whatever cause it might be. For holding these views, her popularity swiftly waned.

However, her creative work for India went on. Between 1922 and 1924, in consultation with such colleagues as Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, Sir C. P. Ramaswarni Aiyar, Sir P. S. Sivaswami Aiyar, Rt. Hon. V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, Sir Purshottamdas Thakurdas, Sir Hari Singh Gour and others, she drafted the Commonwealth of India Bill which was presented in Parliament by Mr. George Lansbury in December 1925. However it did not go beyond the first reading stage.

In 1917 she started the Women's Indian Association to which she gave her powerful support. In 1924 the Association had 51 branches. In 1927 the first All India Women's Conference was held in Poona and it became a permanent and powerful body. She was in the forefront of all constructive work done during the forty years of her active service in India.

“The argument that Democracy is foreign to India cannot be alleged by any well informed person. Maine and other historians recognise the fact that Democratic Institutions are essentially Aryan, and spread from India to Europe with the immigration of Aryan peoples. Panchayats, the ‘village republics’ had been the most stable institution of India, and only vanished during the last century under the pressure of the East India Company's domination.”

From the Presidential Address - Dr. Annie Besant. I.N.C. Session, 1917, Calcutta.