Motilal Nehru (6 May 1861 – 6 February 1931) was an Indian lawyer, an activist of the Indian National Movement and an important leader of the Indian National Congress, who also served as the Congress President twice, 1919–1920 and 1928–1929. He was the founder patriarch of India's most powerful political family, the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Early life and education
Motilal Nehru was born on May 6, 1861, the posthumous son of Gangadhar Nehru and his wife Jeevarani (or Jeorani). The Nehru family had been settled for several generations in Delhi, and Gangadhar Nehru was a kotwal in that city. During the Mutiny of 1857, Gangadhar left Delhi with his family and moved in Agra, where some of his relatives lived. By some accounts, the Nehru family home in Delhi had been looted and burnt down during the Mutiny. In Agra, Gangadhar quickly arranged the weddings of his two daughters, Patrani and Maharani, into suitable Kashmiri Brahmin families. He died in February 1861 and his youngest child, Motilal, was born three months later.
At this time, Motilal's two older brother, Bansidhar Nehru and Nandlal Nehru, were nineteen and sixteen years old respectively. Since the family had lost nearly all its assets in the upheaval of 1857, Jeorani turned to her brother, Amarnath Zutshi of Bazaar Sitaram in old Delhi, for support until her sons could begin earning. She did receive some support from him, but all of Delhi had suffered hugely during the recent mutiny and assistance could not be open-ended. Within a couple of years, Nandlal secured a job as a scribe in the court of a Raja of Khetri and began supporting his mother and brother.
Thus, Motilal came to spend his childhood in Khetri, second largest thikana (feudal estate) within the princely state of Jaipur, now in Rajasthan. His elder brother, Nandlal gained the favour of Raja Fateh Singh of Khetri, who was the same age as him, and rose to the position of Diwan (Chief Minister; effectively the manager) of the vast feudal estate. In 1870, Fateh Singh died childless and was succeeded by a distant cousin, who had little use for his predecessor's confidants. Nandlal left Khetri for Agra and found that his prior career at Khetri equipped him to advise litigants regarding their legal suits. Once he realised this, he exhibited his industry and resilience again by studying for and passing the necessary examinations so that he could practice law in the British colonial courts. He then began practising law at the provincial High Court at Agra. Subsequently, the High Court shifted base to Allahabad, and the family (including Motilal) moved to that city.
Thus began the family's association with Allahabad, which many people mistakenly believe is the city from where the Nehru family hails. Thanks to the professional success and generosity of Nandlal, the fatherless Motilal received an excellent and modern education in both Agra and Allahabad. Indeed, the far-sighted Nandlal ensured that his brother (and his own sons) became among the earliest Indians to receive a Western-style college education. Motilal passed the matriculation examination from Kanpur, and went on to attend Muir Central College at Allahabad, but failed to appear for the final year B.A. examinations. He later qualified as "Bar at law" from University of Cambridge and enlisted as a lawyer in the British Indian courts.
Motilal passed the lawyer examination in 1883 and began practising as a lawyer at Kanpur. Three years later, he moved to Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, to join the lucrative practice already established by his brother Nandlal. The following year, in April 1887, his brother died at the age of forty-two, leaving behind five sons and two daughters. Thus Motilal at the age of 25 became sole bread-winner of the family. Just as Nandlal had financed, nurtured and guided Motilal, now it became Motilal's duty to do the same for Nandlal's sons. This he did in debatable measure.
Many of Motilal's suits involved civil cases involving large land-owning families and soon he made a mark for himself in the legal profession of Allahabad. With the success of his practice, in 1900 he bought a large family home in the Civil Lines of the city, rebuilt it and named it Anand Bhavan (lit. Happy house). In 1909 he reached the pinnacle of his legal career by gaining the approval to appear in the Privy Council of Great Britain. His frequent visits to Europe, angered the Kashmiri Brahmin community as he refused to perform the traditional "prayashchit" or reformation ceremony after crossing the ocean (according to Orthodox Hinduism, one lost one's caste after crossing the ocean, and was required to perform certain penance rites to regain caste). He was the first Chairman of the board of directors of The Leader, a leading daily published from Allahabad.
On 5 February 1919 he launched a new daily paper, the Independent, as a counterblast to the Leader, which was much too liberal for Motilal's standard and articulate thought in 1919.
He started on the path to become wealthy among the few leaders of the Indian National Congress. Under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi in 1918, Nehru became one of the first to transform his life to exclude western clothes and material goods, adopting a more native Indian lifestyle. To meet the expenses of his large family and large family homes (he built Swaraj Bhavan later), Nehru had to occasionally return to his practice of law.
Motilal Nehru twice served as President of the Congress Party, once in Amritsar (1919) and the second time in Calcutta (1928). Elected to preside over the Amritsar Congress (December 1919), Motilal was in the centre of the gathering storm which pulled down many familiar landmarks during the following year. He was the only front rank leader to lend his support to non-co-operation at the special Congress at Calcutta in September 1920. The Calcutta Congress (December 1928) over which Motilal presided was the scene of a head-on clash between those who were prepared to accept Dominion Status and those who would have nothing short of complete independence. A split was averted by a via media proposed by Gandhiji, according to which if Britain did not concede Dominion Status within a year, the Congress was to demand complete independence and to fight for it, if necessary, by launching civil disobedience. He was arrested during the Non-Cooperation Movement. Although initially close to Gandhi, he openly criticised Gandhi's suspension of civil resistance in 1922 due to the murder of policemen by a riotous mob in Chauri Chaura in Uttar Pradesh. Motilal joined the Swaraj Party, which sought to enter the British-sponsored councils.
Nehru had been elected to the United Provinces Legislative Council where he staged the first walk-out in protest of the rejection of a resolution he had moved. In 1923, Nehru was elected to the new Central Legislative Assembly of British India in New Delhi and became leader of the Opposition. In that role, he was able to secure the defeat, or at least the delay, of Finance bills and other legislation. He agreed to join a Committee with the object of promoting the recruitment of Indian officers into the Indian Army, but this decision contributed to others going further and joining the Government itself.
In March 1926, Nehru demanded a representative conference to draft a constitution conferring full Dominion status on India, to be and enacted by the parliament. This demand was rejected by the Assembly, and as a result Nehru and his colleagues left the Assembly and returned to the Congress.
The entry of Motilal's glamorous, highly educated son Jawaharlal Nehru into politics in 1916, started the most powerful and influential Indian political dynasty. When in 1929, Motilal Nehru handed over the Congress presidency to Jawaharlal (Jawaharlal was not elected but had Gandhi's backing), it greatly pleased Motilal and Nehru family admirers to see the son take over from his father. Jawaharlal had opposed his father's preference for dominion status, and had not left the Congress Party when Motilal helped found the Swaraj Party.
Motilal Nehru chaired the famous Nehru Commission in 1928, that was a counter to the all-British Simon Commission. Nehru Report, the first constitution written by Indians only, conceived a dominion status for India within the Empire, akin to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It was endorsed by the Congress Party, but rejected by more nationalist Indians who sought complete independence. The report was rejected by the Muslim leadership of India, specially MA Jinnah, who warned majority Hindu leadership of "short sightedness and oppressiveness of commission". A prophecy coming true after 19 years when sub continent was divided into two independent states.
At a young age, Motilal was married to Bhonashuri Devi, daughter of Prithvi Nath Nagu, in a traditional arranged marriage. Bhonashuri gave birth to a still-born son and herself died during the delivery. A few years later, Motilal married Swaroop Rani Thussu, sister of Prem Nath Thussu, in another traditional arranged marriage. Their eldest son Jawaharlal was born in 1889, followed by two daughters, Sarup (later Vijayalakshmi Pandit) and Krishna (later Krishna Hutheesing) in 1900 and 1907 respectively.
Death and legacy
Motilal Nehru's age and declining health kept him out of the historic events of 1929–1931, when the Congress adopted complete independence as its goal and when Gandhi launched the Salt Satyagraha. He was arrested and imprisoned with his son; but his health gave way and he was released. In the last week of January 1931 Gandhiji and the Congress Working Committee were released by the Government as a gesture in that chain of events which was to lead to the Gandhi-lrwin Pact. Motilal had the satisfaction of having his son and Gandhiji beside him in his last days. On 6 February 1931 he died.
Motilal Nehru is remembered for being the patriarch of India's most powerful political dynasty which has since produced three Prime Ministers. Two of his great-great-grandsons, Rahul Gandhi, and Varun Gandhi are members of the lower house of Indian parliament, the Loksabha and belong to The Congress and BJP parties respectively. Rahul Gandhi is also the General Secretary of Congress Party.