A Surat court on Thursday convicted former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi in a criminal defamation case and awarded him a two-year jail term over his “why all thieves have Modi surname” comment.
Mr. Gandhi was present at the court when the judge passed the verdict. The court suspended the sentence for 30 days, so that Mr. Gandhi can appeal in a higher court. The court has given bail to him on ₹10,000 bond. The Congress has said that it will appeal against the verdict.
Mr. Gandhi had made the remark during campaigning for the 2019 parliamentary polls. The criminal defamation case was filed against him by BJP MLA Purnesh Modi, who was earlier president of the BJP unit of Surat city. In his complaint, Mr. Purnesh Modi alleged that Mr. Gandhi while addressing a poll rally in 2019 in Karnataka defamed the entire Modi community with his remark, “How come all the thieves have Modi as the surname?”
Chief Judicial Magistrate H.H. Varma had last week concluded hearing final arguments from both sides. Mr. Gandhi had last appeared before the Surat court regarding the case, filed under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sections 499 and 500 (dealing with defamation), in October 2021 to record his statement.
“Rahul Gandhi has been previously advised by the Supreme Court to be careful about his statements but there is no change in his conduct. Rahul Gandhi is a sitting MP and as an MP, when you’re addressing the public, it is a serious issue,” the court observed in the judgement. “Statements of MPs have a very wide impact and this makes his crime more serious.”
Awarding the maximum sentence prescribed under the Sections he had been charged, the court held, “reduced sentence will send a wrong message to the public and the purpose of defamation will not be achieved.”
Thursday’s developments have put a question mark over Mr. Gandhi’s Lok Sabha membership from Wayanad.
In the landmark 2013 Lily Thomas v Union of Indiajudgment, the Supreme Court had clearly spelt out that a lawmaker stands immediately disqualified on attracting a sentence of two years or more unless the conviction is stayed by a higher court. The top court had struck down Section 8 (4) of the Representation of the People’s Act as “unconstitutional” that provided a three-month window to file an appeal and continue as a lawmaker until the case is disposed off.
After the verdict, Mr. Gandhi quoted Mahatma Gandhi and tweeted, “My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God and non-violence is the means to get it — Mahatma Gandhi’‘.
On his arrival from Surat, the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) chief and his mother, Sonia Gandhi, visited his 12 Tughlak Lane residence.
Maintaining that the order of Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Surat was “full of errors and legally unsustainable”, Rajya Sabha member and senior Supreme Court advocate Abhishek Singhvi asserted that the Congress would appeal against the order and was hopeful of getting a stay on the conviction from a higher court.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi accused the Congress of “insulting” every institution and recalled how Mr. Gandhi had torn an ordinance that the Manmohan Singh government had brought to deal with situations like the present one that result in immediate disqualification.
Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla’s office didn’t issue any formal statement on the issue but a “courtesy call” on Mr. Birla by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Mr. Joshi created a buzz in political circles.
However, sources claimed the Speaker’s office would take note of the development only when the Surat court’s order was officially communicated and the order would be legally vetted before taking a final decision on the disqualification issue is taken.
But the court order set off a series of meetings as well as show of support of political allies and adversaries alike. Along with Congress MPs, Mr. Gandhi was warmly welcomed at the Delhi airport by DMK leader T.R. Baalu while Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who is usually at loggerheads with the Congress leader, tweeted his support.
While senior leaders like K.C. Venugopal, Jairam Ramesh and legal minds like P. Chidambaram and Mr. Singhvi met Mr. Gandhi at his residence, Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge also held a meeting with 30 senior leaders to discuss legal remedies and if Mr. Gandhi should attend Parliament or stay away until he gets relief from a competent court.
“Coward, dictatorial BJP government is incensed at Rahul Gandhi and Opposition because we are exposing their misdeeds and demanding a JPC. Under its political bankruptcy, the Modi government sends police and the ED [Enforcement Directorate], and imposes cases on political speeches. We will appeal in the higher court,” Mr. Kharge tweeted.
Taking to Twitter, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said, “A scared machinery of power is trying to suppress the voice of Rahul Gandhi through saam, daam, dand, bhed (every trick in the book). My brother has never been afraid, nor will he ever be. He has lived his life speaking the truth, will continue to speak the truth, will continue to raise the voice of the people of the country”.
Later, speaking at the launch of a book on former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Mr. Kharge accused the BJP of trying to get Mr. Gandhi ousted from the Lok Sabha. “The person who speaks the truth and exposes you, you want to remove him through such means. Nobody gets two years jail for defamation, someone is given one year, six months, or apology is sought, but the provision for (disqualification) is two years and that is why they have applied it in complete,” he said.
The Parliamentary Affairs Minister said the government will decide its next course of action only after legal experts study the Surat verdict.
Mr. Singhvi told reporters at a press conference, “Make no mistake... All your [the government] attempts to create a chilling effect, a throttling effect, a strangulating effect on open fearless speech relating to public interest, will not stop either Shri Rahul Gandhi or the Congress Party.”
Pointing out flaws, Mr. Singhvi argued that the basic principle of a criminal defamation law requires defamatory statements to be against a specific person but Mr. Gandhi’s was a generic statement and didn’t have any malafide intent as required to be prosecuted under the law. He also questioned the Surat Court’s jurisdiction as the statement was made in Kolar (Karnataka).
“Without meaning to be tactical, there is an established provision, which has been expounded and elaborated by several Supreme Court judgements, called Section 202, precisely created to prevent mischievous prosecution complaints in areas without jurisdiction, where no cause of action has arisen. Clearly, Kolar speech has no connection with Surat,” Mr. Singhvi said.