Remembering Nehru: From the Mughal Court to Jawaharlal

Remembering Jawaharlal Nehru on his birth anniversary.

9 min read

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. (Photo: Hardeep Singh/<b>The Quint</b>)

The Nehru family has a long history in India, from serving in the Mughal Court, to playing a pivotal role in the making of the Indian National Congress. Where did India’s first Prime Minister come from?

On Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary, The Quint is republishing this piece from its archives – an excerpt from MJ Akbar’s book Nehru: The Making of India. This article was originally published on 27 May 2016.


Nehrus are believed to have migrated, Noar, or Naru, in Badgam district and the other near the small town of Tral. Another claim says that the family came from the Rainwari area on the outskirts of Srinagar. (A famous family, as is well known, suddenly gets many ancestors.)

Jawaharlal Nehru with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv and Sanjay (Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Nehru Memorial Museum and Library</a>)
Jawaharlal Nehru with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv and Sanjay (Photo Courtesy: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

However, it is certain that the Nehrus were part of the Mughal court and had some zamindari rights over a few villages. But by the generation of Mausa Ram Kaul and Saheb Ram Kaul, Raj Kaul’s grandsons, the inheritance had dissipated, perhaps in direct proportion to the decline of Mughal power. Mausa Ram’s son, Lakshmi Narayan, shifted his loyalty and became the first vakil of the East India Company, which had acquired a formidable presence by now at the Mughal court.

His son, Ganga Dhar, became a kotwal (chief constable) in the police at a very early age and held that job when the Mutiny reached Delhi in 1857. Ganga Dhar Nehru was only thirty. And it was that holocaust which, after a century and half, forced the descendants of Raj Kaul to leave the city which they had adopted.

From the ‘feeble, cowardly and contemptible’ Emperor Farrukh Siyar to the no less feeble, cowardly and contemptible Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Nehrus served as bureaucrats to the kingdom. Their fortunes vacillated with the uncertainties of the time; it was an age when emperors died of that very fatal epidemic called intrigue, and the court was a bedlam of climbers using every weapon known, from conspiracy to poetry, to usurp a little more from the collapsing treasury of a debilitated empire.

The last flicker of an imperial flame lit more than 300 years before it illuminated the country on 11 May 1857 when at about seven in the morning a parry of mutineeers crossed the Yamuna on a bridge of boats. Simon Fraser, the commissioner, was in bed. Hutchinson, the collector, was already in court, dealing with a criminal case, along with police officer Mainuddin Hasan of the Paharganj police station. Captain Douglas, the British officer posted to Bahadur Shah’s court, was receiving Munshi Jivanlal

It was actually the Emperor who was the first to learn that a revolution was at the door; he could, literally, hear its clamour. He told Captain Douglas to go to the window and tell them to take their patriotism elsewhere. The last scion of the great Mughals had long since surrendered all pretensions. But the people of Delhi were in another mood that day. A rumour had swept the city that the Shah of Iran had called upon them to revolt and would come to help. Though the British quickly secured the Calcutta gate, the citizens threw open the Rajghat gate and let in the mutineers from across the river.

The first casualty was Dr Chamanlal, an Indian Christian standing in front of his dispensary. The Emperor, in utter panic, appealed to the British to save him from patriotism. But there were no European troops in Delhi; the Sepoys, based in Rajpur, refused to obey their commander Brigadier Graves. Fraser, Douglas and Hutchinson were all to die soon, as were Jennings (the chaplain), his daughter Miss Jennings and her friend Miss Clifford.

Two Anglo-Indian youths working in the telegraph office finally sent out the word which was to alert Punjab and the eventual saviour, Brigadier John Nicholson; they tapped an urgent message to Ambala, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar: ‘The Sepoys have come in from Meerut and are burning everything — Mr Todd is dead, and we hear several Europeans. We must shut up.’ That final touch of Indian English is classically authentic.

The Sepoys had been inspired by the tradition that Company rule would end in the moth year after Plassey, but romance had no chance against British drill and discipline. History was against them. Even the Emperor’s queen Begum Zeenat Mahal and his closest adviser Hakim Ahsanullah Khan were in league with the British. By 20 June the officers of John Nicholson’s column were dining in ‘the Elysium of the Dewan Khaas’. Captain Hodson ordered three princes, Mirza Moghul, Mirza Khizr Sultan and Mirza Abu Bakr, huddled in a bullock cart, to take off their clothes and then personally shot them dead. Twenty-one princes were hanged. Bahadur Shah opted for total silence; British sightseers would come to peer at this old man dressed in white, sitting crosslegged on a charpoy in the courtyard, while two attendants fanned him with peacock feathers, impotent emblems of sovereignty. When an English soldier came to look at this pathetic left-over, Bahadur Shah would bow and salaam and say, ‘Ban khushee…’ (‘I am so happy …’)

The Sikh soldiers with the Company found some justification for plunder in their famous popular prophecy that the Khalsa would reach Delhi one day. Among those they murdered were an uncle and a cousin of a man called Sayyid Ahrnad Khan.

Christian priests justified the butchery of Delhiites as proper retribution for the death of Mr Jennings, the chaplain. On 21 September, CJ Griffiths found the streets ‘deserted and silent, they resembled a city of the dead’. The poet Ghalib wrote: ‘Here there is a vast ocean of blood before me; God alone knows what more I have still to behold.’ Even as late as 31 October, Sir William Muir (lieutenant-governor, North-Western Province) received a report saying: ‘Delhi is still standing in all its magnificence. . . but the houses are desolate and plundered. The wretched inhabitants have been driven out to starve.

One family to suffer this fate was the Nehrus. After 150 years of fluctuating fortunes, they were on the road, with nothing salvaged but their lives – and that too barely. It was, strangely, Ganga Dhar’s belief in the English language which saved the family.

He and his wife Jeorani, two sons, Bansi Dhar and Nand Lal, and two daughters, Patrani and Maharani, were among the countless refugees trudging towards Agra when suddenly they were stopped by British soldiers. Kashmiris are very fair, and the soldiers thought that one of the daughters was a kidnapped English girl. The consequences are not too difficult to imagine.


But thanks to the fact that Ganga Dhar had taught his sons English they were able to communicate with the soldiers and convince them that they were mistaken. One of the more important things the British had done was to sanction a grant in 1823 to Delhi College (founded in 1792 near Ajmeri Gate to provide a conventional Islamic education) to begin classes in the English language. There were two Kashmiri Pandits, Mohan Lal and Ram Kishan Haksar, in that inaugural class of six. In 1843 Ganga Dhar Nehru joined the English classes himself, and from the very beginning of their education he put English on the curriculum of his two sons, Bansi Dhar and Nand Lal. This single act was to save the Nehrus, both physically and financially. Those who had learned Persian to serve the Mughals understood better than others that they would have to know English to serve the new master on the horizon.

The Nehru family, from left seated: Swarup Rani Nehru, Motilal Nehru, Kamala Nehru. Standing: Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Krishna Kumari, Indira and R.S. Pandit. (Photo Courtesy:&nbsp;<a href="">Nehru Memorial Museum and Library</a>)
The Nehru family, from left seated: Swarup Rani Nehru, Motilal Nehru, Kamala Nehru. Standing: Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Krishna Kumari, Indira and R.S. Pandit. (Photo Courtesy: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

Survival was a great struggle in Agra; and to compound the misery Ganga Dhar died at the very young age of thirty-four in 1861. Jeorani was shattered; worse, she was six months pregnant when her husband died. On 6 May 1861 was born the first Nehru to become a national hero of India. Motilal. Bansi Dhar got a job as a ‘judgement-writer’ in the Sadr-Diwani-Adalat at Agra. lie would to rise to subordinate judge in the judicial service.

If English saved Bansi Dhar, then an Englishman rescued Nand Lal. Principal Anderson of Agra College used his influence to put Nand Lal on the payroll of Raja Fateh Singh, prince of a small state, Khetri, in Rajasthan. Nand Lal began as a teacher, then became private secretary and ended up as diwan, or prime minister, of the state. The family enjoyed a life of comparative ease which the position in Khetri brought. The growing and vivacious Motilal had the good fortune of learning from Qazi Sadruddin, the tutor of Raja Patch Singh, and became proficient in Arabic and Persian even before he entered his teens, when he went to Kanpur, where his brother Bansi Dhar was posted, to join the local high school Motilal’s English was a little awry, but he had no shortage of confidence. The twelve-year-old wrote to H Powell Esq., the headmaster:

I respectfully beg to inform your honour that I am quite prepare for the examination of both classes i.e. 4th and 5th. Perhaps you know that when I informed to the Principal for my promotion in the 4th class, he refused and said, ‘the other boys have also right as you have?’ Therefore now, I wish to he promoted in the 4th class by my own power.

Motilal did not do very well after matriculation in Muir College at Allahabad; but then academic achievement is not a family trait.


The teachers at Muir included scholars like Augustus Harrison, W. H. Wright, Pandit Adityaram Bhattacharya and Maulvi Zakaullab. Nand Lal served in Khetri till 1870, when his patron Raja Fateh Singh died. The heir dropped his father’s advisers., inevitably, and Nand Lal returned to Agra, qualified as a lawyer and started practice at the Sadr-Diwani-Adalat. When the High Court moved from Agra to Allahabad in 1866, he followed. From the ruins of Delhi to hunger in Agra to power in a tiny desert principality of Rajasthan to the bourgeois comfort of a lawyer’s life in Allahabad was the journey of one lifetime. But from here the Nehrus were to radiate across the subcontinent and then across the world, taking the name of Allahabad out of India’s religious texts and into world history. The British made Allahabad the capital of the North-Western Provinces (as the United Provinces were called till 1901) in 1858, and the city acquired a university and the High Court, and automatically witnessed a revival.

Motilal was married in his teens, as was the norm. He had a son soon after, but both mother and son died in childbirth. He continued his education, but gave up the examination for a degree after sitting for the first paper, in the mistaken belief that it had done badly.

Jawaharlal writes about his father’s young days: ‘He was looked upon as one of the leaders of the rowdy element in the college He was attracted to Western dress and other Western ways at a time when it was uncommon for Indians to take to them except in big cities like Calcutta and Bombay.’

Motilal now shifted to law and found a natural talent for it; he was first in the vakils’ examination. In 1883 he started practice at Kanpur under a senior who was a family friend, Pandit Prithinath Chak. In 1886 he moved to Allahabad to join his elder brother; and the very first case he argued won him praise. Emotionally, Nand Lal embraced his younger brother in the court room itself. By then Motilal had been married again, to the beautiful Swamp Rani from Lahore, with her ‘Dresden china perfection’ (to quote the son’s description). Their first child, a son, did not survive — the second child Motilal had lost. A sharper tragedy followed, in April 1887, at the still young age of forty-two, Nand Lal died, leaving behind his wife Nandrani, two daughters and five sons.

Jawaharlal Nehru with his mother Swarup Rani and father Motilal Nehru, 1894. (Photo: <a href="">Nehru Memorial Museum and Library</a>)
Jawaharlal Nehru with his mother Swarup Rani and father Motilal Nehru, 1894. (Photo: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

Bansi Dhar’s job forced him to live elsewhere, and quite suddenly 25-year-old Motilal was catapulted to the very crucial position in Indian society of head of the family. Within two years, the joy he had so often sought from fortune entered his life. At eleven—thirty at night on 14 November 1889 (the seventh day of Marghshirsh Badi 1946 by the Hindu Samvat calendar), Swarup Rani gave birth to a boy. And this child, Motilal’s third son, by his second wife, survived.

Motilal called him Jawaharlal, a name which his son never quite liked.

(This story was first published on 27 May 2016 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Jawaharlal Nehru’s death anniversary)

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