Motilal Nehru

President: 1861-1931 (Amritsar 1919, Calcutta 1928)

Pandit Motilal Nehru, an eminent lawyer and politician, was born on 6 May 1861. The Nehrus hailed from Kashmir, but had settled in Delhi since the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Motilal Nehru’s grandfather, Lakshmi Narayan, became the first Vakil of the East India Company at the Mughal Court of Delhi. His father, Gangadhar, was a police officer in Delhi in 1857, when it was engulfed by the Mutiny.

When the British troops shelled their way into the town, Gangadhar fled with his wife Jeorani and four children to Agra where he died four years later. Three months after his death Jeorani gave birth to a boy who was named Motilal.

Motilal Nehru spent his childhood at Khetri in Rajasthan, where his elder brother Nandlal became the Diwan. In 1870 Nandlal quit Khetri, qualified as a lawyer and began to practice law at Agra. When the High Court was transferred to Allahabad, he moved with it.

Meanwhile Motilal Nehru passed the matriculation examination from Kanpur and joined the Muir Central College at Allahabad. Athletic, fond of outdoor sports specially wrestling, brimming over with an insatiable curiosity and zest for life, he soon attracted the attention of Principal Harrison and his British colleagues, in the Muir Central College, who took a strong liking to this intelligent, lively and restless Kashmiri youth.

He decided to become a lawyer, topped the list of successful candidates in the Vakil's examination in 1883, set up as a lawyer at Kanpur, but three years later shifted to Allahabad where his brother Nandlal had a lucrative practice at the High Court.

Unfortunately, Nandlal died in April 1887 at the age of forty - two, leaving behind five sons and two daughters. Young Motilal Nehru found himself, at the age of twenty - five, as the head of a large family, its sole bread-winner.

In 1889, his wife Swarup Rani gave birth to a son, who was named Jawaharlal. Two daughters, Sarup (later Vijayalakshmi Pandit) and Krishna (later Krishna Hutheesing) were born in 1900 and 1907 respectively. In 1900, he purchased a house at Allahabad, rebuilt it, and named it Anand Bhawan (the abode of happiness).

His legal practice was meanwhile growing. A rise in his standard of living was paralleled by a progressive westernisation, a process which was accelerated by his visits to Europe in 1899 and 1900. Thorough going changes, from knives and forks at the dining table to European governesses and tutors for the children, ensued.

In May 1905, Motilal Nehru again sailed for Europe, this time with his whole family. He returned in November of the same year after putting Jawaharlal to school at Harrow. From Harrow, Jawaharlal Nehru went to Cambridge where he took a Tripos in Natural Science before being called to the Bar in 1912.

Motilal's early incursions into politics were reluctant, brief and sporadic. The list of 1,400 delegates of the Allahabad Congress in 1888 includes, ‘Pandit Motilal, Hindu, Brahmin, Vakil, High Court, N.W.P. (North-Western Provinces).’

He attended some of the subsequent sessions of the Congress, but unlike his Allahabad contemporary Madan Mohan Malaviya, he was no more than a passive spectator. It was the tug - of - war between the Moderates and the Extremists in the aftermath of the Partition of Bengal which drew him into the arena and, strangely enough, on the side of the Moderates.

In 1907, he presided over a provincial conference of the Moderate politicians at Allahabad. In 1909 he was elected a member of the United Provinces Council. He attended the Delhi Durbar in 1911 in honour of the visit of King George V and Queen Mary, became a member of the Allahabad Municipal Board and of the All India Congress Committee. He was elected President of the United Province Congress.

Nevertheless, it was not politics but domestic and professional pre - occupations which were the dominant interest of his life during this period. But from 1912 onwards when Jawaharlal Nehru returned from England, there were forces at work, both at home and in the country, which were to lead Motilal Nehru into the maelstrom of national politics.

The First World War generated deep discontent in several sectors of Indian society which found a focus in the Home Rule Movement. He had been reluctant to join the Home Rule League, but the internment of Mrs Besant in June 1917 brought him into the fray. He became the President of the Allahabad branch of the Home Rule League. Now began a perceptible shift in his politics. In August 1918 he parted company with his Moderate friends on the constitutional issue, and attended the Bombay Congress which demanded radical changes in the Montagu - Chelmsford Reforms.

On 5 February 1919, he launched a new daily paper, the Independent, as a counterweight to the well established local daily paper, the Leader, which was much too moderate for Motilal's taste.

The emergence of Mahatma Gandhi on the Indian political stage changed the course of Indian history; it also profoundly influenced the life of Motilal Nehru and his family. The Rowlatt Bills and the publication of the Satyagraha pledge in February 1919 deeply stirred Jawaharlal Nehru; he felt an irresistible call to follow the Mahatma.

Motilal Nehru was not a man to be easily swept off his feet; his legal background predisposed him against any extra - constitutional agitation. It was clear to both father and son that they were at the crossroads. Neither was prepared to give in, but at Motilal Nehru’s instance Gandhi ji intervened and counselled young Nehru to be patient.

Shortly afterwards events marched to a tragic climax in the Punjab; the holocaust of Jallianwala Bagh was followed by martial law. Motilal Nehru did what he could to bring succour and solace to that unhappy province.

He gave his time freely at the cost of his own legal practice, to the defence of scores of helpless victims of martial law, who had been condemned to the gallows or sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.

Elected to preside over the Amritsar Congress in December 1919, he 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 - cooperation at the special Congress at Calcutta in September 1920. His fateful decision to cast in his lot with Gandhi ji was no doubt influenced by the tragic chain of events in 1919. Apart from the compulsion of events, there was another vital factor without which he may not have made, in his sixtieth year, a clean break with his past and plunged into the unknown.

This was the unshakeable resolve of his son to go the way of Satyagraha. Immediately after the Calcutta Congress Motilal Nehru resigned from the United Provinces Council, abandoned his practice at the Bar, curtailed the vast retinue of servants in Anand Bhawan, changed his style of living, consigned cartloads of foreign finery to public bonfires and put on khadi.

In December 1921, both father and son were arrested and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. In February 1922 came the anti - climax, when Gandhi ji first announced and then suddenly cancelled mass civil disobedience.

In March the Mahatma himself was arrested, tried for sedition and sentenced to six years' imprisonment. When Motilal Nehru came out of gaol in the summer of 1922, he found that the movement had declined, the Congress organisation was distracted by internal squabbles, and the constructive programme could not evoke the enthusiasm of the intelligentsia.

He felt that the time had come to revise the programme of non - cooperation so as to permit entry into Legislative Councils. This revision was resisted by those who regarded themselves as the faithful followers of the Mahatma. A long and bitter controversy which nearly split the Congress ensued. However, Motilal Nehru and C. R. Das founded the Swarajya Party in January 1923, had their way, and contested the elections at the end of 1923. The Swarajya Party was the largest party in the Central Legislative Assembly as well as in some of the Provincial Legislatures.

From 1925 onwards it was recognised by the Congress as its political wing. The spotlight shifts for the next six years to the Legislative Assembly where Motilal Nehru was the leader of the Opposition. With his commanding personality, incisive intellect, great knowledge of law, brilliant advocacy, ready wit and combative spirit, he seemed to be cut out for a Parliamentary role. The Legislative Assembly, however, was no Parliament. It was a hybrid legislature elected on a narrow and communal franchise; it had a solid bloc of official, nominated, European and some Indian members who took their cue from the irremovable executive.

At first he was able to secure sufficient support from the Moderate and the Muslim legislators to outvote the Government. He ruled his own party with an iron hand, but found his task increasingly difficult from 1926 onwards when communal and personal squabbles divided and weakened the Swarajya Party.

Towards the end of 1927, with the appointment of the Simon Commission, there came a political revival. The exclusion of Indians from the Commission united Indian parties in opposition to the Government.

An All - Parties Conference was convened by Dr Ansari, the Congress President, and a Committee, including Tej Bahadur Sapru and headed by Motilal Nehru, was appointed to determine the principles of a constitution for free India. The report of the Committee - the Nehru Report as it came to be called - attempted a solution of the communal problem which unfortunately failed to receive the support of a vocal section of Muslim opinion led by the Aga Khan and Jinnah.

The Nehru Report, representing as it did the highest common denominator among a number of heterogeneous parties was based on the assumption that the new Indian Constitution would be based on Dominion Status. This was regarded as a climb - down by a radical wing in the Congress led by Subhash Bose and his own son who founded the ‘Independence for India League’. The Calcutta Congress in December 1928 over which he 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 Gandhi ji, according to which if Britain did not concede Dominion Status within a year, the Congress was to demand complete independence and fight for it if necessary, by launching civil disobedience.

The way was thus opened for Gandhi ji's return to active politics and for the revival of Satyagraha. Motilal Nehru was at first more amused than impressed by Gandhi ji's plans for the breach of the salt laws, but as the movement caught on it found him against the advice of his doctors in the centre of the political arena. He was arrested and imprisoned; but his health gave way and he was released. But there could be no peace for him when most of his family was in gaol and the whole of India was passing through a baptism of fire.

In the last week of January 1931, Gandhi ji 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 - Irwin Pact. Motilal Nehru had the satisfaction of having his son and Gandhi ji beside him in his last days.

On February 6, 1931 he passed away.

He had a rational, robust, secular and fearless outlook on life. A brilliant lawyer, an eloquent speaker, a great parliamentarian, and a greater organiser, he was one of the most notable and attractive figures of Indian nationalism in the Gandhian era.