Motilal Nehru

Motilal Nehru (1861-1931) was an Indian lawyer and statesman who influenced the fate of the Indian nation not only by direct political action but also through his offspring, whom he educated.

Motilal Nehru was born in Allahabad on May 6, 1861, into the Kashmiri Brahmin community, most aristocratic of Hindu subcastes. His father, serving as a police officer in Delhi, had lost his job and property in the mutiny of 1857. A posthumous son, Nehru got his early education at home in Persian and Arabic and spoke Urdu as his mother tongue, reflecting the fusion of Hindu and Moslem cultures in the United Provinces. He attended the government high school in Cawnpore and matriculated at Muir Central College in Allahabad. Though he did not complete his degree, he passed the examinations as a lawyer. Following an apprenticeship in Cawnpore, he began practice at the High Court in Allahabad in 1886.

Nehru was twice married but while still in his teens lost his first wife and a child. Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, and Krishna Hutheesing were children of his second marriage. Nehru was a strong-willed, imperious man who lived the life of an English gentleman, traveled in Europe, and imported to India one of the first automobiles.

Motilal Nehru was too independent to acquiesce in orthodox caste strictures. Returning to India from a trip to London, he explained: "My mind is made up. I will not indulge in the tomfoolery of the prayshchit [purification ceremony]." He developed advanced social ideas and wielded a powerful influence in forging the secular outlook of the Congress party organization. When Mohandas Gandhi appeared on the political scene, he attracted a large following of young nationalists, including Jawaharlal.

The relationship between Motilal Nehru and his son was very close and significant in the leadership of the nationalist movement. Motilal Nehru and Gandhi by 1920 were also close allies as leaders in the Congress Working Committee, Nehru representing the Congress party Old Guard and Gandhi the new power of the masses. Through Gandhi's influence Nehru gave up his practice and devoted himself wholly to the nationalist cause. Gandhi hesitated to make important decisions without consulting both Nehrus.

Known as a moderate realist early in his career, Motilal Nehru became increasingly revolutionary with age. To a group of several thousand people he proclaimed in 1917: "The Government has openly declared a crusade against our national aims … Are we going to succumb to these official frowns?" He was imprisoned together with his son in 1921. With Chitta Ranjan Das, Nehru formed the Swaraj (Freedom) party in 1922, which generaly followed Congress party policies. He served several times as president and secretary of the Congress party. One of his chief concerns was the problem of Hindu-Moslem unity, reflecting the blend of influences in his background. His son, Jawaharlal, and granddaughter, Indira Gandhi, both prime ministers of India, gained experience and a taste and aptitude for politics through his guidance. He died on Feb. 6, 1931.


Further Reading on Motilal Nehru

Books on Nehru include S.P. Chablani, ed., Motilal Nehru: Essays and Reflections on His Life and Times (1961); Bal Ram Nanda, The Nehrus: Motilal and Jawaharlal Motilal Nehru (1962); and Beatrice Lamb, The Nehrus of India: Three Generations of Leadership (1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Bhattacharyya, Upendra Chandra, Pandit Motilal Nehru: his life and work, Delhi: B.R. Pub. Corp.; New Delhi: Distributed by D.K. Publishers' Distributors, 1985.