The fight for relief in the Rahul Gandhi criminal defamation case in the Supreme Court will revolve around the question whether the term ‘Modi’ is an identifiable and definite group or collection of persons.
The Single Judge of the Gujarat High Court has held that the ‘Modi’ community or surname is a “well-defined identifiable and suable class”. In fact, Justice Hemant Prachchhak, in his 125-page judgment, said Mr. Gandhi’s offence is all the more serious because his “thief” remarks affected a large section of society and not just Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“The defamation alleged was of a large identifiable class and not just an individual… the conviction partakes the character of an offence affecting a large section of the public, and by definition, the society at large, and not just a case of an individual-centric defamation case,” the judge expounded.
Mr. Gandhi, who faces a two-year sentence for criminal defamation, has argued that “authentic literature shows that the word ‘Modi’ does not indicate any definite or clearly identifiable or determinate group of persons”.
Mr. Gandhi said the complainant’s claim that 13 crore people belonging to the Modi community was a “mockery of the law” as it would mean anyone could file for defamation. The surname ‘Modi’ is used even within the Muslims and Parsis besides a number of Hindu castes, Mr. Gandhi’s lawyers had contended.
Explanation 2 to Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code provides that criminal defamation extends to a “collection of persons”.
But the “collection of persons” should be clearly identifiable and definite. It should be “boundaried” and devoid of “woolly edges”, the Supreme Court said in its 2016 Subramanian Swamy judgment.
The Supreme Court’s 1965 verdict in Sahib Singh Mehra versus State of Uttar Pradesh case defines the contours of the phrase “collection of persons” in Explanation 2. The case dealt with a criminal defamation complaint given by a group of public prosecutors from Aligarh against a newspaper. The daily had accused prosecutors of taking bribes. The prosecutors claimed they were an “identifiable class”.
The Supreme Court held that “a collection of persons must be identifiable in the sense that one could, with certainty, say that this group of particular people has been defamed, as distinguished from the rest of the community”.
“There should be nothing indefinite about this group or collection of persons,” the Supreme Court had held.