Ever since Annie Besant joined the Congress, she wanted to activate the party, which had become almost defunct after the Surat split (1907). She wanted a movement for Home Rule on the lines of the Irish Home Rule League. For this purpose, she wanted a sanction from the Congress as well as the cooperation of the extremists. Madame Annie Besant was in favour of bringing the extremists back into the Congress. She started a campaign, in early 1915, through two papers—New India and Commonweal, held public meetings and conferences to demand that India be granted self-government. Though the Congress party decided to allow the extremists to rejoin the party in 1915, Annie Besant failed to convince the Congress and the Muslim League about Home Rule League.
When Annie Besant was planning, Bal Gangadhar Tilak wasted no time in starting the Home Rule League from Pune in April 1916. He too wanted to maintain his Maharashtra base. His Home Rule League was confined to Maharashtra, Central Province and the Karnataka region. In April 1916, the total members were 1400, but by early 1917, a whopping 32,000 people had become members. Annie Besant founded Home Rule League in September 1916, with George Arundale as Organisation Secretary, C.C. Rama Swamy Ayyar as General Secretary, and B.P. Wadia as Treasurer, and she herself as President. Both, Annie Besant and Tilak had similar goals and were in the same party, yet individually they formed two separate Home Rules because, as she herself clarified, the followers of the one did not like the other. But they showed maturity and divided the area of their work. Tilak’s League was active in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Central Provinces and Berar, and Annie Besant’s League was active in the rest of India.
Giving the reason for Home Rule, Annie Besant said, “India demands Home Rule for two reasons—first because freedom is the birth-right of every nation; second because her most important interests are now made subservient to the interest of the British Empire without her consent, and her resources are not actualised for her greatest needs.” Tilak showed more confidence and conviction when he announced fearlessly, “Swaraj (self-rule) is my birth-right and I shall have it.”
To mobilise the people, especially the young generation, Home Rule of Annie Besant organised discussion groups, reading rooms in cities, sale of pamphlets in large numbers, lecture tours, organised classes for students on politics, organised social work, took part in local government and collected funds. She propagated through her newspapers. She was assisted by her theosophical contacts and made Adyar as headquarters (near Madras). Though her Home Rule League had 200 local branches she had little control over them and managed to make only 27000 people its members, as compared to Tilak’s 32000 members.
Tilak’s League had six branches, one each in Central Provinces, Bombay city, Karnataka and central Maharashtra, and two in Berar. He toured different parts of Maharashtra and raised the issue of Swaraj with a greater force, and demanded formation of linguistic states and vernacular education in various parts of India. He demanded home rule on a secular basis. Home Rule League also raised the issues of Abkari tax, salt tax and land revenue to attract rural folk.
The movement was intensified in June 1917, when the Madras Government interned Annie Besant. Leaders like Moti Lal Nehru, Tej Bahadur Sapru, Munshi Narayan Prasad, C.Y. Chintamani and Asthana joined the Home Rule League to protest against the arrest of Besant. The greatest achievement of the movement, if any, was that it succeeded in bringing thousands of new generation leaders, and succeeded in spreading the Nationalist Movement in some new areas like Tamil Brahmans of Madras, urban professionals of United Province (UP), traders, lawyers of Bombay and Gujarat. Many leaders, who joined at that time, became important soldiers of Mahatma Gandhi. They were Jawahar Lal Nehru and Khaliquzzaman of United Province, Satyamurthi of Madras, Jitendra Lal Banerji of Bengal, Jamnadas Dwarkadas, Umar Sobhani, Shanker Lal Banker and Indu Lal Yajnik of Gujarat.
Though the Home Rule Movement failed to achieve its goal, it created a new environment in Indian politics, where agitations, public meetings, almost became routine. The immediate benefit it brought was in the form of Montagu- Chelmsford Reform (1918).