The Supreme Court on August 4, 2023, stayed the conviction of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a criminal defamation case for the ‘Modi’ surname remark he allegedly made during a political rally in 2019.
The stay has paved the way for Mr. Gandhi to return to Parliament. He can participate in the ongoing monsoon session if the Lok Sabha Secretariat restores his membership.
A three-judge Bench headed by Justice B.R. Gavai, also comprising Justices P.S. Narasimha and Sanjay Kumar, pointed out that the Gujarat trial judge, other than severely admonishing Mr. Gandhi for his alleged remarks, failed to give even a single reason for serving the Congress leader with the maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.
The court said the Magistrate had insisted on handing the Congress leader the severest punishment when the penal code allowed a choice between imprisonment and fine or both.
‘Lack of reasons for punishment’
The Gujarat High Court too, the Supreme Court Bench said, while waxing eloquent about the various aspects of the case in a “voluminous” 120-page judgment had somehow skipped addressing the issue of complete lack of reasons for giving Mr. Gandhi the maximum punishment.
The top court said Mr. Gandhi was disqualified as MP from the Parliament for a total of eight years under Section 8(3) of the Representation of People Act solely due to the two-year sentence.
“Had the duration of the sentence been a day less, provisions of the Act would not have been attracted… The judge is expected to give reasons for imposing maximum sentence, particularly when the offence is non-cognisable, bailable and compoundable,” Justice Gavai observed.
The Bench noted that “disqualification not only affects the rights of the individual but also that of the electorate he represents in the Parliament… the ramifications are wide”.
“Is it not a factor that an entire constituency which elects a person will go unrepresented,” Justice Gavai asked.
Senior advocate A.M. Singhvi and advocate Prasanna S., for Mr. Gandhi, said the courts below had condemned the Congress leader to silence for eight years.
‘Mutual respect needed’
“There is room for dissent in democracy. There should be mutual respect in politics,” Mr. Singhvi said.
But the Supreme Court said Mr. Gandhi’s alleged remarks, if made, were “not in good taste”.
“A person in public life is expected to exercise a degree of caution while making public speeches… The petitioner [Mr. Gandhi] ought to have been more careful,” it observed.
The court reminded Mr. Gandhi of how it had advised him to be more careful in future with his public utterances while accepting his apology for his “chor” remarks during the previous general elections.
During the hearing, Mr. Singhvi submitted that he had not seen any other defamation case in which a maximum two-year sentence had been awarded to an accused.
He said there had been no reason for the Gujarat High Court to reject Mr. Gandhi’s plea to stay the conviction.
He said the case did not entail heinous offences such as rape, kidnap or murder, which involves moral turpitude. Mr. Singhvi said Mr. Gandhi stood convicted of defaming an “amorphous group”.
Mr. Gandhi had already missed two Parliament sessions. A list of cases filed against him show they were all by BJP “karyakartas”, Mr. Singhvi argued.
He debunked submissions that Mr. Gandhi had criminal antecedents.
Senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, for defamation complainant and Gujarat BJP MLA Purnesh Modi, argued that there were official witnesses, tapes and recordings of Mr. Gandhi’s comments. He said the electronic evidence showed a “clear intent” to defame an entire community of people with the ‘Modi’ surname because of his hatred for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
When asked in court, Mr. Gandhi had maintained that he did not remember his remark.
“How many politicians remember their speeches… They make at least 10 a day,” Justice Gavai remarked.
Challenging the July 7 Gujarat High Court decision which upheld his conviction, Mr. Gandhi asked how an “undefined amorphous group” could possibly be defamed in the first place.