6 May 1861: Motilal Nehru, Indian lawyer and politician, was born

“Motilal was to be one of the most important influences in setting a new course [during the freedom struggle].

~ Bal Ram Nanda, in his book “The Nehrus: Motilal and Jawaharlal”

The Nehru family is considered to be the first political family in India. It all started with Pandit Motilal Nehru, lawyer, activist, and freedom fighter. He is best known as our 1st Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru’s father. Pandit Motilal Nehru has a number of credits in his name, from being one of the top advocates during his time, to steering the Indian National Congress’s moderate faction towards civil disobedience and non-cooperation.

Early life

Born on the 6th of May 1861, Motilal had a rather unprivileged childhood. His father, Gangadhar, passed away three months before his birth. He was brought up by his elder brother, Nandalal, who was a junior lawyer, practicing in Allahabad. Young Motilal grew up in Allahabad, but went to school in Kanpur. Thereafter he joined the Muir Central College in Allahabad and pursued a B.A. degree. The most significant part of his college life was his interactions with his English professors. Nanda in his books remarks “The contact with his English professors was a strong, formative influence, implanting an intelligent, rational, sceptical attitude to life and a strong admiration for English culture and English institutions.” Motilal, however, never completed his degree, after failing his final year examination.

Law and Motilal’s Rise to Fame

After failing his B.A. degree, Motilal decided to sit for the law examination. He studied hard and ended up faring a very good result. He started his career from the bottom, as an apprentice under a senior advocate named Prithvi Nath.

In three years, Motilal began working as a lawyer with his brother. His perseverance, intelligence, and personality took him to new heights and soon he became one of the most sought after attorneys in the court halls. He could now charge higher consulting fees, which he did – from charging Rs. 2000 per month to “five figures” when he was in his forties. N.D. Ojha, an advocate who had worked with Motilal, recounts his methods, “Motilal was not only a shrewd lawyer and incisive in argument but also possessed in abundance a strong common sense. He was a good debater and had a gift of persuasive advocacy. He was a staunch friend and a straightforward opponent. Being full of humour and a man of ready wit he commanded the admiration of the Bench and the Bar alike.”

There is an instance that shows his wit during cross examinations – while cross examining a military officer he asked several questions that the officer felt were “superfluous”. He asked Motilal, “Do you think me to be a fool?” Motilal replied immediately, “Of course not. But perhaps I may be mistaken.”

It is therefore quite evident that Motilal Nehru was an admired legal professional, which brought him lots of clients and loads of money.

Affluent Times

Motilal’s affluent days began when money started pouring in from his cases and clients. Not having had much in his life earlier, Motilal consciously made sure he and his family lived like kings. He not only built a large house in Allahabad with swimming pool and horse stables, he also decorated the interiors with expensive artifacts bought during his visits to Europe. His suits were specially made by London tailors, and the house, which was named “Anand Bhawan”, had dinner parties every evening. His guests were carefully chosen and were both British and Indian.

Motilal also brought up his three children – son, Jawaharlal, and daughters Sarup and Krishna – with as much privilege. The kids had horse riding lessons, British governesses, and were home schooled by the best available English and Arabic tutors. Jawaharlal was sent to London for further studies. Motilal’s daughters were given the best education academically and culturally, which was not even allowed for women in those days. It is no wonder that Sarup and Krishna were two of the first women freedom fighters for India’s struggle for independence.

Political Beginnings

In the beginning, Motilal was not interested in either politics or fighting against the British to gain freedom. It was Jawaharlal who introduced his father to the British misgivings and corrupt practices. Motilal initially started with mildly criticizing the government for their ways. Even though he joined the Indian National Congress in 1888, his excitement towards politics was only seen after 1905, when “Partition of Bengal” was announced. Motilal was one of the moderates, who acknowledged the British contribution to India, and wanted to keep the methods of agitation ‘constitutional’.

There was a shift in his moderate views in 1917, when Anne Besant was imprisoned by the British. He officially separated himself from the Moderates in August 1918 by attending the Indian National Congress meet in Bombay, where the Congress demanded the British to make major changes in the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms. In this regard, he also established the “Independent”, a daily newspaper. It should be noted that Motilal was earlier associated with another newspaper, named “The Leader”, which now seemed to be too “liberal” for his views.

Freedom Struggle and back to Austerity

Motilal joined the “struggle” under Mahatma Gandhi and his son, Jawaharlal’s influence. He gave up his wealthy ‘westernized’ lifestyle after being inspired by Gandhiji’s philosophy of simple living. He also served as president of the Congress party for two terms, 1919 and 1928. After the Jallianwala Bagh incident in Amritsar, Motilal’s stand towards the British changed completely. He participated in civil disobedience, left his legal career, and joined the Non-Cooperation Movement, started by Gandhiji. He even got arrested during one of the protests.

For a little while, Motilal joined and helped form the “Swaraj Party”, whose main purpose was to contest elections along with the British. He won the elections from his seat and subsequently became the Opposition leader.

Motilal supported the concept of India being a Dominion to Britain. He even drafted a constitution in this regard, which needed to be approved from the Parliament to come into existence. This was the Nehru Report (1928). When this was rejected, Motilal realized that complete freedom was the only way forward. He returned to the Congress thereafter, and later resigned from the Assembly.

Motilal actively participated in the freedom struggle, alongside his son and Gandhiji. He was also arrested during the Civil Disobedience Movement. Due to ailments he was released from prison. He took his last breath on February 6th 1931.

Motilal Nehru is remembered as a fearless lawyer, rational parliamentarian, and loving father.


Also on this day:

1542 – Francis Xavier, the first Roman Catholic missionary to India, reached Old Goa

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