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.)
However, it is certain that the Nehrus were part of the Mughal court and had some zemindari 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. Those aristocrats with any desire for calm kept away from Delhi; others, with more ambition, like the Marathas and Jats, extracted a heavy price in return for letting the Mughal facade remain; yet others, invaders from Persia, came, looted and returned. And slowly, from the east, the troops of John Company worked their way up, their de facto power transformed by degrees into de jure authority.
The last Great Mughal, Aurangzeb, died on 3 March 1707, with the confession of faith on his lips and the burden of pessimism in his heart. From his death-bed he wrote to his son Azam: ‘I came alone and am going alone. I have not done well to the country and the people, and of the future there is no hope.’ His three living sons, Muazzam, Muhammad Azam and Muhammad Kam Baksh, immediately began fulfilling their father’s prophecy- By early 1708 Muazzam had killed his two brothers on two battlefields, Azam at Jajau near Agra in June 1707 and Kam Baksh near Hyderabad in 1709. Bahadur Shah, as he titled himself, might have maintained the empire, but he died of natural causes on 27 February 1712 — the last to die thus in a long while. His heir Jahandar Shah killed three brothers for the throne, then allowed his courtesan Lal Kumari to rule so that ‘violence had full sway. It was a fine time for minstrels and singers and all the tribes of dancers and actors.’ Using two powerful satraps, the Sayyid brothers, Farrukh Siyar strangled Jahandar Shah in the Red Fort in 1713; then the Sayyid brothers finished him in the same way. The brothers made and killed two more kings until Muhammad Shah brought a measure of stability. Stability, that is, for himself, not the empire. He dedicated himself completely to political inaction and pleasure. Every regional power helped itself to a part of the empire: Deccan went to Nizam-ul-Mulk; Awadh became semi-independent under Saadat Khan; Bengal went to Murshidabad and via Siraj-ud-Dowla to the English; the Marathas took west and central India; the Jats established their kingdom near Agra; the Rohillas founded Rohilkhand north of Ganga; the Sikhs took Punjab. Foreign invaders trooped in to loot the treasure of glorious generations, beginning with Nadir Shah. Within thirty years the achievements of two centuries had been squandered. In 1739 Nadir Shah entered Delhi in triumph and, infuriated at the sight of his dead soldiers who had been killed by some overambitious citizens, ordered a great massacre. He left with all the crown jewels including the Kohinoar and the Peacock Throne; a total of 15 crores of rupees in cash, jewels, 1,000 elephants, 7,000 horses,10,000 camels, 500 builders and masons, 100 eunuchs and countless slaves looting India then became a bit of a habit. Ahmad Shah Abdali, who succeeded Nadir, did it constantly between 1748 and 1767.
In 1764 the Jats removed the silver roof from Rang Mahal, and in 1787 the Rohilla chief Ghulam Qadir Khan blinded Shah Alam II while his men dug the floors of the Red Fort in search of buried treasure. In 1788 the Maratha Scindias made the Mughal their protectorate, before Delhi passed into British control in 1803 after the Maratha wars. In the west Arthur Wellesley captured Ahmadnagar on 12 August, defeated Daulat Rao Scindia arid Raghuji Bhonsle at Assaye, north of Aurangabad. on 23 September and completed the rout by 15 December. In the north Lord Lake captured Aligarh, Delhi and Agra, routing the Scindia’s northern armies in September at Delhi and in Alwar in November. By the treaty of Surji-Arjungaon on 30 December, Scindia renounced all his claims on the Mughal emperor. Henceforth, that formality would remain with the British. The blind Shah Alam II was now under the control of the Company. As Sir Thomas Munro wrote: ‘We are now the complete masters of India, and nothing can shake our power, if we take proper measures to confirm it.’ The Grand Mughal was formally demoted by the British from emperor to king; a civilian colony was established within Shahjahanabad and a military cantonment beyond The Ridge. The administration was under a British Resident. There was peace. The blinded Shah Alam died (1803) in bed, a luxury few Mughal princes had experienced of late. So did Akbar Shah II, after thirty-one powerless years, in 1837. It was his successor Bahadur Shah II who, much against his will, was forced into an unexpected spasm of heroism before he died, writing beautiful if pathetic verse in a gaol in Burma, yearning for six yards of his motherland for a grave. He didn’t get it.
The last flicker of an imperial flame lit more than 300 years before 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, C. J. 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.
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 our 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 lie 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. Bansi Dhar’s job forced him to live elsewhere, and quite suddenly 25-scar-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.