Motilal Nehru was born on 6 May 1861, the posthumous son of Gangadhar Nehru and his wife Indrani. The Nehru family had been settled for several generations in Delhi, and Gangadhar Nehru was a Kotwal in that city. During India’s Independence struggle in 1857, Gangadhar left Delhi with his family and moved to 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.
Motilal passed the lawyer examination in 1883 and began practising as a lawyer at Kanpur. Three years later, he moved to Allahabad 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-earner of the extended Nehru family.
Many of Motilal’s suits were 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. 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 Strict 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 counter-blast 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.
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 later joined the Swaraj Party, which sought to enter the British-sponsored councils. Motilal 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 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 enacted by the British parliament. This demand was rejected by the Assembly, and as a result Nehru and his colleagues resigned their Assembly seats and returned to the Congress party.
The entry of Motilal’s son Jawaharlal Nehru into politics in 1916, started the most powerful and influential Indian political dynasty. When, in 1929, Jawaharlal Nehru was elected as Congress president 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, a counter to the all-British Simon Commission. The Nehru Report, the first constitution written by Indians only, envisioned 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, especially MA Jinnah for its unfair rules towards Muslims.
He was father of India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. 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 Gandhi 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 Gandhi beside him in his last days. On 6 February 1931 he died.