Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has obtained bail from a Sessions Court in Surat, pending his appeal against a bizarre conviction for defamation recorded by a judicial magistrate’s court. In an unusual judgment, the trial court had given him the maximum permissible prison term of two years, claiming that a Member of Parliament deserved to be awarded the highest punishment because of his status. As a result of the two-year jail term, he has now become ineligible to remain a legislator and the Lok Sabha Secretariat has notified his disqualification. He may be able to regain his seat only if the appellate court stays his conviction, or the appeal itself is allowed and the verdict is set aside. The Sessions Court has posted the application for hearing on April 13, and asked the complainant, Purnesh Modi, a Bharatiya Janata Party Member of the Legislative Assembly, to file his reply to the plea by April 10. Mr. Gandhi’s appeal focuses on both legal aspects of defamation and the factual aspects behind his remarks that referred to the surname ‘Modi’ figuring in a list of people who he accuses of carrying on business to the detriment of national interests. The trial court’s conclusion that Mr. Gandhi had sought to make political gain by defaming 13 crore people who carry the surname ‘Modi’ will have to be tested against the legal position that only a definite and determinable group of people can be the object of defamation.
The relevant provision on defamation, Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, contains an explanation that a ‘collection of persons’ can also be aggrieved by a defamatory remark. However, whether an amorphous group of people joined only by a surname can be such a ‘collection of persons’ is a relevant question. This becomes especially salient when the remarks are being construed as a slur on some backward communities. While the finding that the speech was defamatory was damaging in itself, the quantum of sentence has yielded some separate grounds for the appeal. Mr. Gandhi has contended that the judgment cites no precedent for giving the maximum punishment and that there is no discussion on the consequence of the two-year jail term. The appeal deserves to be heard and disposed of with some urgency as it may be an unacceptable precedent for legislators to be arbitrarily convicted for politically loaded remarks and awarded precisely the quantum of punishment required to get them disqualified. A flagrant example such as this may lead to a surge in the filing of multiple criminal cases in different jurisdictions by political rivals. It may also have the deleterious effect of courts being used to tailor the quantum of punishment to suit political requirements.