Nehru, Motilal

views updated May 21 2018


NEHRU, MOTILAL (1861–1931), attorney and political leader, president of Indian National Congress (1919 and 1928). Motilal Nehru was the father of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru; the grandfather of the third prime minister, Indira Gandhi; and great-grandfather of her son, the fourth prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi. One of British India's wealthiest and wisest lawyers, Motilal abandoned his life of Western luxury in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre at Amritsar in 1919 to follow Mahatma Gandhi's call for nonviolent noncooperation (satyagraha). That December, Motilal presided over India's National Congress, which met in Amritsar.

Motilal Nehru was less revolutionary, however, than either Gandhi or his own son, Jawaharlal, and he refused to boycott elections to India's new Legislative Councils following the enactment of Edwin Montagu's 1919 Government of India Act. Motilal joined forces with his Bengali barrister friend, Chitta Ranjan Das (1870–1925), to start their Swarajist (Freedom) Party in 1923, sponsoring Indian candidates to run for council seats in local elections, which Gandhi and his Congress disciples boycotted. The Swararjists did fairly well, but when their candidates won seats to provincial legislative councils, instead of supporting the British viceroy and his government, their strategy was to vote against and criticize every measure proposed by the government from within its own council chambers. Nehru and Das both knew the new viceroy Lord Reading, a jurist, well enough to argue with him personally, while Gandhi retreated to his rural ashram, spinning and weaving cotton, focusing his energies on village self-help as the best means of attaining self-rule (swaraj), or "freedom."

Soon after Das died in 1925, Nehru lost faith in the efficacy of the party they had founded, and before the end of his own life he returned to Gandhi's way. Together, they worked to revive Congress demands for changes leading to independence, too long ignored by British Tory indifference and arrogance. Nehru accepted for one last time the heavy burden of presiding over the Calcutta Congress in 1928. His own heart was weakening by then, but he went to Calcutta more to keep his only son from leaving the Congress in disgust and frustration. He sponsored Jawaharlal, with Mahatma Gandhi's support, to preside over the next Congress in Lahore, which resolved to call in December of 1929 for purna swaraj (complete freedom) from the British Raj in one year.

Motilal and Jawaharlal would both be back in jail, however, long before India's freedom was finally won. Yet by securing for Jawaharlal the helm of the Congress when he did, Pandit Motilal assured his son the first premiership of independent India, sixteen long years after his own death.

Stanley Wolpert


Nanda, B. R. The Nehrus: Motilal and Jawaharlal. New York: John Day, 1963.

Panikar, K. M., and A. Pershad, eds. The Voice of Freedom: The Speeches of Pandit Motilal Nehru. London: Asia, 1961.

Wolpert, Stanley. Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Motilal Nehru

views updated May 18 2018

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

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 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. □