Complete biography of Pundit Motilal Nehru



PUNDIT MOTILAL NEHRU belonged to the generation of great men in India, of which people like Rabindranath Tagore were a part. It is a curious fact that Motilal's birthday came on exactly the same day of the year and month as that of the poet: for he was born on May 6, 1861.

Pundit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Dr. Brajendranath Seal, that giant of mas­sive learning in Bengal. Sir Prafulla Chandra Roy, the renowned chemist, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, Sir Nilratan Sarkar, and Lala Lajpat Rai in the Punjab were some of his illustrious contemporaries. Many names might be recalled in other provinces, but space will hardly allow it. What I have tried to point out is that the "sixties" of the nineteenth century pro­duced a larger number of eminent men than the years that followed. It must not be for­gotten that Mahatma Gandhi himself comes just within this period.

Kashmiri Brahmans, to which class Pundit Motilal Nehru belonged, are well known all over the north of India both for their intellectual powers and fine appearance. They are, by birth, what may truly be called an aristocratic race, and easily recognised as such. Motilal was typical of this distinguished class and in his old age he gained the reputation of being the "aristocrat of the Assembly." His spotless khaddar dress, with his white Kashmiri shawl, suited him perfectly, and his portrait is rightly given the place of honour in his son's Autobiography. The fine features-which I have mentioned and- the fair complexion run through the whole family, and have descended from father to son.

Although, as a boy, Motilal took little interest in his school and college studies he was from an early age keenly interested in the subject of law. He came out first as "Gold medallist" in the High Court Vakil's examination and showed at once his marked ability. His father had died three months before he was born, so that he never knew what it was to have a father. But his elder brother, Nandlal, who was much older than himself, took the place of a father towards him during his school and college days and afterwards introduced him into his own practice at the Bar. This brother, however, died very early in Motilal's legal career and thus he was soon thrown upon his own resources.

According to the immemorial custom of India, Motilal was now obliged to bear the burden of all the members of the family who were settled in Alla­habad. This meant very hard work at his legal profession, from morning to night, building up his practice. But he thoroughly enjoyed it and very rapidly climbed the ladder which led to suc­cess.

All the facts which I have thus briefly related are to be found in the remarkable Autobiography written by his son, Jawaharlal, who was for many years his only child. Much later in life two daughters were also born to him and these three made up his family. But under the same roof there were a large number of cousins and near rela­tives, who formed a joint family together in the spacious house called Anand Bhavan.

It was there, at Anand Bhavan, that I first met Motilal Nehru. A family residence of this type is like the ancestral house of a clan in the Highlands of Scotland. Everyone who is a near relative, and also the servants who grow up in it, regard themselves as members of the joint family. Delhi and Allahabad were closely associated in their intellectual life in those times. There was a close fellowship also between Muslims and Hindus within the different intellectual groups. The com­mon Urdu language, in which very great pride was taken by both Hindus and Muslims, bound them together. The Western culture, which had come also into fashion, was another link common to this very small circle of English-educated people. The members of leading families met continually, especially at marriages. My own educa­tional work soon brought me into touch with Allahabad and also with Anand Bhavan.

Motilal Nehru was from the first quite lavish in his hospitality. More and more he had adopted, after each visit to Europe, the expensive standard of living common in the West. Exceed­ingly foolish stories about his Western habits were spread widely over the north of India, which were ridiculous to those who knew him in his own house; for whatever he did in this direction, as events proved, was merely on the surface, and could be thrown off at a moment's notice. He frankly admired the character of the Englishmen he met who had been trained in the English public schools. Therefore he sent his only son to Harrow, and never regretted that action. But all through his life he was far too deeply wedded to his own country and its traditions to make him ever forget his birthright.

When I first came to know him in­timately was in the autumn of 1919 at Amritsar and Lahore, where we met together during the first days of the Congress Enquiry into the Punjab disturbances and the acts which had been committed under martial law.

His son, Jawaharlal Nehru, had come up alone, in the first instance, immediately after martial law had been withdrawn and the entry into the Punjab had become possible. We had lived together for some time at Harkishen Lai's house in Lahore before any one else arrived. Each day, when we came back from one disturbed area after another, we used to compare notes in the evening. Then Motilal Nehru himself came, as soon as he was free from his engagements. Mahatma Gandhi soon followed, when the order against him was withdrawn. It was painful to witness how shock after shock went home, when they both examined, as trained lawyers, the evidence which we put before them. Some of the worst things that were done under martial law were not done in Amritsar or in Lahore, but in the Gujranwala district, in villages whose names even were quite unknown. It was a lesson that I never forget to notice how very carefully they sifted the evidence, and at once put aside as untrustworthy all that I had collected, at second-hand, on hearsay only.

Long before this Enquiry was over, the more urgent call suddenly came to me to go out to Kenya and South Africa. I was very sorry to go away, but before I left the Punjab a golden opportunity had been given me of seeing at first­hand those two leaders of India, as they then were, closely associated to­gether in this common investigation on behalf of those who had suffered under martial law.

That memorable year 1919, in Indian history, changed once and for all the mode of life of Pundit Motilal Nehru. Before this time, as we have seen, he had made some of his closest friends in Europe, and also among the ruling classes in India who were British by race and tradition. He greatly admired that tradition, while holding himself free to criticise it. He had also many friends among the aristocracy of India. His whole mind had been steeped in law and constitutional government. Though he had been for some time a member of the Congress, he had always represented the Right rather than the Left. But Amritsar shook the very foundations of the faith on which he had built up his life hitherto; and when he presided over the National Congress, which was held at Amritsar that very year, 1919, he felt that the parting of the ways had come between him and his old liberal friends. Then, when at last the call came to join the Non-Co-operation Movement, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, he was fully prepared to accept it. He did this slowly and deliberately, realising all the conse­quences which it involved.

He would have been the first to acknowledge that, in his own home, there were those on both sides of the family-the women no less than men -who were eager to help him to make this great decision to join Mahatma Gandhi. Then, as soon as he had made it, the whole family became united. Jawaharlal's mother and wife and daughter took part in the struggle side by side with Motilal Nehru himself and his son.

Yet there was a marked difference from the very first that soon revealed itself. Motilal Nehru, as I have just said, was quite obviously inclined to the Right in all his actions and decisions. Even after he had joined the Non-Co­operation Movement this continued. So, after the first flush of the new venture of Non-Co-operation was over and it became logically evident to him that he could win more power by entering the Central Legislative Assembly, he was prepared to do this along with his great friend C. R. Das of Bengal. He was thus led materially to differ from Mahatma Gandhi. Those who followed the latter were called No- changers. As a parallel organisation, the Swaraj Party was formed by Motilal Nehru and C. R. Das. The parlia­mentary methods of obstruction, which Parnell and his Irishmen had so bril­liantly tried out at Westminster, were put into execution at Delhi.

The next time I met Pundit Motilal Nehru was at Juhu, near Bombay, where Mahatma Gandhi was recovering from his very serious operation in the Sassoon Hospital at Poona. He came and stayed at Juhu for some time in order to be near Mahatmaji and talk things over; and I had many oppor­tunities of seeing the lighter side of his character as the two leaders together made great fun of one another. Mahat­maji was convalescent and recovering health. He was thus in a joking mood with everyone. The whole Nehru family was in residence at Juhu during those extraordinary days, while Motilal and Gandhi talked out-as it seemed to me, almost interminably-the pros and cons of "Council Entry." Neither convinced the other; but, meanwhile, in the intervals between these long con­versations, I had got to know Pundit Motilal Nehru very much better than I had ever done before. I was also able to witness and appreciate his deep admiration for Mahatma Gandhi as a man. As a "Mathama" he was far less interested in him; but that made every­thing between them more human. He would chaff Gandhi mercilessly and nothing pleased him better. I wish I could remember some of the jokes, which were of a very elementary character, but they have quite passed from me. Just one I recollect how he called Mahatma Gandhi "a bit of a dandy" because of his spotlessly white khaddar! Behind all the merriment, however, was firm­ness on both sides which became at times crucially painful because the two minds, so strongly dissimilar, would not always work together. Yet the affection between them became all the deeper because of their very differences.

The portrait drawn by Jawaharlal of his father is one of the finest descrip­tions in his Autobiography."There was in him, "he writes,"strength of personality and a measure of kingliness. In any gathering where he was present he would inevitably be the centre and the hub. Whatever the place he sat at table, it would become, as an eminent English judge said later, the head of the table. He was neither meek nor mild. Consciously imperious, he created great loyalty as well as bitter opposition. It was difficult to feel neutral about him; one had to like him or dislike him. With a broad forehead, tight lips, and a determined chin he had a marked re­semblance to the busts of the Roman Emperors in the museums in Italy. There was magnificence about him and a grand manner, which is sadly to seek in this world of to-day.

"I remember," he adds, "showing Gandhiji a photograph of him, where he had no moustache, and till then Gandhiji had always seen him with a fine moustache. He started almost on seeing this photograph and gazed long upon it; for the absence of the moustache brought out the hardness of the mouth and chin; and he said with a somewhat dry smile that now he realised what he had to contend against. The face was softened, however, by the eyes and by the lines that frequent laughter had made. But sometimes the eyes glittered."

In all my own memories of him this gentler side predominated, and I remem­ber him chiefly by his lavish fund of humour and his eagerness to engage in a bout of wit and merriment especially with Gandhiji himself. Yet no one admired Gandhi more than Motilal Nehru. "That humble and lonely figure," he wrote about him, "standing erect, on the firm footholds of faith unshakable and strength unconquer­able, continues to send out to his countrymen his message of sacrifice and suffering for the Motherland."

On other later occasions it has been my privilege to see these two together, each great in his own way, but strongly dissimilar; and it has made me under­stand more clearly how this affection for Mahatma Gandhi has descended from father to son. Indeed, the whole Nehru family has joined in it.

The great event in the earlier days of Non-Co-operation, for which Pundit Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das were responsible, became known as "Council Entry." They had argued out to the bitter end with Mahatmaji the value of the movement, if they went boldly into the Councils as Parnell the Irish leader did fifty years ago in England, and thus obstructed the Government within the legislatures.

At last Mahatmaji gave way; and at the next elections the Swaraj Party, as it was called, was fully organised and every­where carried the polls. When Motilal Nehru was chosen to be leader of the opposition in the Central Assembly at New Delhi, as the head of the Swaraj Party, he felt himself once more entirely in his own element. He was no longer like a fish out of water. His whole legal training and his knowledge of assemblies had all along made him anxious to engage in a battle royal with the Imperial Government, using its own weapons to
defeat it. He was quite certain that he could bring it down to its knees.

In this opinion he was more or less justified; for the Government suffered outwardly defeat after defeat at his hands. Indeed, on all the larger issues, it could only rely on its own official and nominated members, and these, by themselves, were not sufficient to form a majority. But his triumphs proved to be Pyrrhic victories after all, because as soon as ever any Government measure was defeated it was at once certificated by the Viceroy. There was also a majority ready in the Upper House to reverse the decision of the Assembly.

A subtle danger, meanwhile, attacked the Swaraj Party. For every possible inducement was given to its members to serve on one Committee after another, or to take this post or that, bringing certain emoluments with them. When these were accepted, the full force of a revolutionary method of procedure was continually frustrated.

During these difficult years, Pundit Motilal Nehru undertook almost alone the immensely arduous task of drawing up a form of constitution, by which India should have full Dominion Status within the British Commonwealth. His son, Jawaharlal, could not endure the limited terms on which this constitution was being framed, because they did not make absolutely clear that India's full indepen­dence was the goal. A considerable amount of friction arose between father and son on this issue and a compromise was reached at last with great difficulty, whereby the offer to accept this "Dom­inion Status" constitution would expire at the end of the year 1929.

It will not be possible to write much about the later years of his life during which he had to suffer imprisonment for taking an active part in the Civil Resistance Move­ment along with many other members of his family. Long before he took part in the struggle he had been afflicted for very many years with an acute form of asthma, which caused him great physical pain and put a severe strain upon his heart. But his utterly resolute temperament would not allow him for a moment to stand by while others suffered, even though he was already to all intents and purposes an invalid and had reached his 70th year.

In the jail, his illness rapidly grew worse, and it was obvious that prison life was doing him untold injury, because he could get no proper treatment for his asthma and heart trouble, under jail conditions. Yet he became immediately angry if anyone suggested that he should be released because of his infirmities. He went to the length of sending a telegram to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, saying that he did not wish to claim any exemption. But on the doctors' im­perative orders he was discharged after exactly ten weeks' imprisonment.

Then came the fifth arrest of his only son, Jawaharlal. The old father pulled himself together and declared to everyone present that he was going to be ill no longer. For a time his indomitable spirit prevailed; but after a short period the blood came back into his sputum in greater quantities than ever. Therefore, he was urged to go to Calcutta for the purpose of taking a sea voyage along with a friend who was a doctor: but his condition so quickly grew worse that he could not make his journey any further than Calcutta. Yet even then his will was quite unconquerable, and he carried forward every part of his civil resistance just as before.

He returned to Allahabad, and his son Jawaharlal was discharged a little while before the others in order to be with him. Mahatma Gandhi had also been discharged at Yeravda and many others among the Congress leaders. These came to Allahabad and were able to meet him, one by one, for the last time before his death.

"I am going soon," he said to Mahatma Gandhi, "and I shall not be here to see Swaraj. But I know that you have won it."

The end came on February 6th. For many millions, in every part of India, it seemed as if a dear personal friend had been taken from them. His son writes:

"I was dazed all that day, hardly realising what had happened, and a succession of events and large crowds kept me from thinking. Great crowds in Lucknow, gathered together at brief notice-the swift dash from Lucknow to Allahabad sitting by the body, wrapped in our national flag, and with a big flag flying above the- arrival at Allahabad, and the huge crowds that had gathered for miles to pay homage to his memory. There were some ceremonies at home, and then the last journey to the Ganga with a mighty concourse of people. As evening fell on the river bank on that winter day, the great flames leapt up and consumed that body which had meant so much to us, who were close to him, as well as to millions in India. Gandhiji said a few moving words to the multitude and then all of us crept silently home. The stars were out and shining brightly when he returned, lonely and desolate."

Messages came pouring in from every side-from those who had been his most stalwart opponents in the Assembly, from the Viceroy and Lady Irwin, as well as from those dear companions who had stood side by side with him in the civil resistance campaign.

"This, tremendous volume of good will and sympathy" wrote Jawaharlal, "took away somewhat the sting from our sorrow; but it was, above all, the wonderfully soothing and healing pres­ence of Gandhiji that helped my mother and all of us to face that crisis in our lives."

Looking back after all these years, it has now become evident to thinking men all over the world that the good fight which Motilal Nehru fought was carried through to the end with a chivalry and courtesy towards his opponents that made his cause truly great and noble. His name is honoured today in India, not only by his fellow countrymen, but also by every European. In his own career, as a statesman he stands out more prominently than ever, as one who brought the debates of the Central Assembly at Delhi to a higher parliamentary level than has ever been reached before or since. Certainly no one has ever been so great as he, as Leader of the Opposition. In this, and in a thousand other ways, he has been one of the "Makers of Modern India."