Why Rahul Gandhi wasn’t wrong to call Mahatma Gandhi an NRI

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It has become common fashion to pour scorn upon anything Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi does or says. Recently, the Congress scion came in for the usual criticism for saying that Mahatma Gandhi, along with many of India’s founding fathers were ‘NRIs’.

He said at a gathering at Times Square, New York City: “The original Congress movement was an NRI movement. Mahatma Gandhi was an NRI, Jawaharlal Nehru came back from England. (BR) Ambedkar, (Abul Kalam) Azad, (Sardar) Patel they were all NRIs. Every single one of them went to the outside world, saw the outside world, returned to India and used some of the ideas that they had got and transformed India.”

This led to a lot of commentators hitting out at Gandhi for his ‘gaffe’, but is it really one?

From common parlance, an NRI is any Indian citizen who lives, earns his living or studies abroad. Strictly speaking, from a legal perspective the definition of NRI is stated by Section 6 of the Income Tax Act of 1961 which says that you are considered a resident of India if you’ve spent at least 182 days in the country. You would also be considered a resident if you’ve spent at least 365 days in four years preceding the financial year and at least 60 days in that particular year, in the country.

Going by that legal definition, which is fitting since most of our founding fathers were barristers, anyone who spends less than 182 days, or less than 365 days in the last four years (plus 60 years), in India is then by definition a Non-Resident Indian or an NRI.

Considering the aforementioned definition, many of our founding fathers were ‘NRIs’, during some parts of their lives.

Years abroad:

Jawaharlal Nehru – 1907-1912 in England studying and practising law

Sardar Patel – 1910-1913 in England studying law

BR Ambedkar – 1913-1916 studying in US, 1916-17 and 1921-23 in England

Abul Kalam Azad – Born in Mecca 1888, came back to India in 1890

None of them however spent as much time abroad as Mahatma Gandhi, who went to England to study law in 1888 and spent two years and eight months there.

He returned to India to start his legal career but soon left for South Africa in 1893 to work for a law firm in South Africa. A one-year trip was extended to 20. In 1894, he was set to leave South Africa but decided to stay back when he learnt of a bill to strip Indians of their right to vote.

He ended up staying there for over 20 years, his experiences of racism that he faced in South Africa and England shaping his world view and giving him the tools to lead a nation in the fight for independence.

So incidentally, before we mock Rahul Gandhi for saying something, we ought to see if he’s right or wrong? But that would take some fact-checking, which is conspicuous by its absence in modern-day journalism and seems to be far less important than giving in to our pre-conceived notions.
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