He studied at Muir Central College, Allahabad. After passing the law examination in 1883, he began to practice in Allahabad, where his elder brother, Nandlal, had a roaring practice. Motilal's legal practice was also very successful. In 1899 and 1900 he went to Europe and began to develop a Westernized outlook.
This liberal outlook was in line with that of the moderates in congress. He began to attend the congress's annual sessions. His rise in politics was gradual: member of the U.P. council, member of the Allahabad municipal board, and ultimately president of the U.P. congress.
World War I brought momentous changes in the Indian struggle for independence, and Motilal Nehru emerged as a prominent leader in Indian politics. The ministry (1911–15) of Herbert Henry Asquith (1852– 1928) declared India at war with the Central Powers.
Nationalist leaders like Nehru supported the war efforts of the British government with the hope that India would be suitably rewarded in its path toward self-government. Nehru followed a strategy of cooperation with the colonial power to achieve self-government. A resolution of self-government on December 1916 was passed by the INC.
The moderate and extremist wings of the INC were united at the Lucknow session of 1916. Nehru played an important role in this. His contribution also was present in bringing about Hindu-Muslim unity in the Lucknow Pact of 1916.
This was also the time of the Home Rule League, which was founded by the English theosophist Annie Besant (1847–1933), who had emigrated to India. After much deliberation, Nehru joined the league when Annie Besant was imprisoned in June 1917. He was made the president of the Allahabad branch of the Home Rule League and demanded home rule or self-government of India after the end of World War I.
The British government initiated the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, and the INC wanted major changes to the British proposal. Nehru attended the Bombay session of the INC and supported the congress's demand. He also published a daily newspaper called the Independent beginning in February 1919.
In Indian politics events were moving fast. Mohandas K. Gandhi had called for a general strike in April 1919 after the enactment of the draconian Rowlatt Act, which empowered authorities to arrest and detain without trial. The Jallianwalla bagh massacre followed. Nehru was a member of the inquiry committee that had been constituted to investigate the massacre.
He argued the cases of persons who had been booked by British authorities. Nehru became the president of the Amritsar session of the INC in December 1919. The next year he was the general secretary of the congress.
The emergence of Gandhi brought a new direction to the Indian freedom movement. It greatly affected Motilal Nehru and his family. Nehru cast his lot with Gandhi and supported the noncooperation movement. He resigned from the U.P. council and gave up his lucrative law practice. Nehru began to wear traditional Indian dress and lead a spartan lifestyle. The British government arrested him in December 1921 and put him in jail for six months.
After his release Nehru found that the noncooperation movement was in decline. Gandhi had called it off in February after the Chauri Chaura incident. Nehru gave up noncooperation and made plans for entry into the legislative councils.
He was one of the founding members of the Swaraj (self-rule) Party in January 1923 and contested the elections. R. K. Shanmukham Chetty (1892–1953), the first finance minister of independent India, was the chief whip of the Swaraj Party. It became the largest party in the central legislative assembly and in some legislatures of the provinces.
Nehru found it difficult to control different factions in the Swaraj Party in spite of his dominating role. He returned to the mainstream of the INC, and the Swaraj Party functioned as a political wing of the INC from 1925 onward. The INC opposed the formation of the Simon Commission of 1927, as it contained no Indians.
It was boycotted, and an all-party conference appointed a committee headed by Nehru to prepare a constitution for a free India. The Nehru Report spelled out dominion status for India like that of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
The radical wing of the INC, led by Motilal's son Jawaharlal, opposed the Nehru Report. They wanted complete independence, and the Calcutta session of the INC in December 1928, presided over by Motilal Nehru, witnessed heated debates. Gandhi's intervention averted a split.
It was decided that the INC would launch civil disobedience for complete independence if the British would not grant dominion status within a year. Jawaharlal Nehru was the president of the historic Lahore session of the INC in 1929. Gandhi launched the salt satyagraha with his famous Dandi March in March 1930. Nehru was arrested but released, as he was not in good health. He died on February 6, 1931.
Motilal Nehru was one of the important figures in the history of the INC. He was a great parliamentarian and an eloquent speaker and organizer. Although overshadowed by his famous son, Motilal Nehru had carved a niche for himself in the Indian anticolonial struggle.