Rahul Gandhi held guilty of criminal defamation for remark about Modi surname

By, New Delhi/ahmedabad
Mar 24, 2023 01:38 AM IST

Former Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi filed the case against Gandhi for allegedly defaming the Modi community at a rally in Karnataka’s Kolar ahead of the 2019 national polls

Wayanad MP and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi faces an imminent threat of disqualification after a court in Surat on Thursday held him guilty of criminal defamation for a remark he made ahead of the 2019 national polls about the Modi surname.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. (Twitter)
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. (Twitter)

Gandhi will have to appeal to a higher court and get a stay on the conviction to prevent the disqualification -- something the Congress party said it will do -- even as the Lok Sabha Speaker’s office awaits a copy of the court order to take the next step.

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The conviction also means that the ongoing Parliament session will continue to see significant disruptions. All the demands-for-grants were guillotined on Thursday and approved without any discussion in the Lok Sabha. The Finance Bill will come up for passage in the Lower House on Friday.

Gandhi was convicted under Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which provides for imprisonment of up to two years, and later released on bail. The court suspended the sentence for 30 days on Gandhi’s plea .

After the conviction, Gandhi, in a tweet, quoted Mahatma Gandhi.

My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, non-violence the means to get it,” he tweeted.

Union law minister Kiren Rijiju, speaking outside Parliament on Thursday, said he will go through the details of the order before commenting.

“Whatever Rahul Gandhi speaks, it always affects the Congress party and the entire nation in a negative way,” Rijiju added.

Any elected representative who is sentenced for any offence for a period of two years or more faces immediate disqualification under the Representation of People Act, 1951 (RP Act). One provision of the Act that granted three months’ protection from disqualification was struck down in 2013 as “ultra vires” by the Supreme Court in the Lily Thomas case.

In Gandhi’s case, the Surat court that declared him guilty later suspended his sentence for 30 days on the request of his legal team, to give him an opportunity to challenge the decision.

On the face of it, this may mean that Gandhi’s disqualification will kick in after a month unless he is able to get a stay on the conviction (and not just the sentence) from an appellate court – in this case a sessions court – within that period.

However, a second interpretation is that disqualification can come into effect immediately since the suspension applies to the sentence, and not the conviction itself. In K Prabhakaran Vs P Jayarajan (2005), a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court held that suspension of sentence would have no bearing on the disqualification prescribed under the RP Act. “What is relevant for the purpose of Section 8(3) is the actual period of imprisonment which any person convicted shall have to undergo or would have undergone consequent upon the sentence of imprisonment pronounced by the court,” it said.

The process for disqualification is that an MP lodges a complaint with the Speaker, along with a copy of the court order. The Speaker then seeks legal advice, and takes a decision based on that.

Top functionaries in the Lok Sabha secretariat told HT that after the order reaches Speaker’s office — either sent directly by court or forwarded by any member — “the Speaker will send it to the Table Office for getting it vetted legally. Based on the legal inputs, he will decide if Gandhi should be disqualified immediately or not”.

A senior functionary added that the Speaker doesn’t have any discretionary power and has to follow what the Supreme Court has said in its verdict in the 2013 Lily Thomas vs Union of India case.

“The only issue that requires legal consultation is the court’s decision to suspend the sentence. The legal consultation would be important also in the context of the Lakshadweep MP Mohammad Faizal, whose conviction had been suspended by the Kerala High Court . The law ministry has recommended that Faizal should be reinstated in the House,” the senior functionary added.

The other key issue would be whether the Lok Sabha Speaker decides to wait for the 30 day-period to get over -- the chances of Gandhi getting a stay on the conviction in this period is high —or to disqualify the Wayanad MP after a quick consultation.

This does seem to be at the Speaker’s discretion. In October 2022, Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan was disqualified by the Speaker’s officer within two days of his conviction, but it took the UP assembly secretariat almost a month to disqualify BJP MLA Vikram Saini who was sentenced to two years in jail a riot case. Saini was convicted on October 11, 2022 and his disqualification was announced on November 7, 2022.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, defence minister Rajnath Singh and parliamentary affairs minister Pralhad Joshi met Birla in the evening for about 10 minutes. The Speaker’s office called it a courtesy meeting.

Gandhi cannot directly approach the high court or Supreme Court because his conviction is in a criminal case. However, a third party can move the higher judiciary seeking intervention on the grounds that the procedure and manner of the Surat court’s ruling hurt the larger public interest.

Former Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi filed the case against Gandhi for allegedly defaming the Modi community at a rally in Karnataka’s Kolar in 2019. “How come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?” Gandhi was quoted to have said.

The court on March 17 concluded the final hearing in the matter and said it will pronounce the verdict on March 23. Gandhi appeared for the third and last time before the court in October 2021 to record his statement and pleaded “not guilty”.

The Gujarat high court this year vacated an interim stay on the trial imposed in March 2022 on the complainant’s plea demanding Gandhi’s personal appearance. The final arguments in the Surat court resumed last month.

Gandhi’s lawyer argued the court proceedings were flawed and that Narendra Modi and not Purnesh Modi should have been the complainant in the case because the Prime Minister was the main target of Gandhi’s speech in Karnataka.

On Thursday, ahead of the verdict, Congress supporters assembled in Surat as a show of support for Gandhi. Posters calling him “Sher-e-Hindustan (lion of Hindustan)” were also put up.

After the verdict Rahul Gandhi and other Congress leaders went for lunch at a restaurant in Surat.

“Earlier the party had arranged for lunch for the leader at a five-star hotel in Surat, but Rahulji said that he wanted to eat simple Gujarati food, so the r plan was changed,” said Manish Doshi, a Gujarat Congress spokesperson.

In Delhi, Congress leaders held two back-to-back meetings, first at Rahul Gandhi’s place where P Chidambaram, K C Venugopal and a few others were present; then Abhishek Singhvi and Jairam Ramesh met at party chief Mallikarjun Kharge’s house. Gandhi has been advised to not make any speech about his conviction. He will also not attend Parliament during the ongoing budget session.

The party leaders said they will appeal against the conviction in a sessions court in next few days after they translate the court order into English. If the sessions court rejects its appeal, the Congress leaders will move to the high court.

Congress general secretary Ramesh announced that, on behalf of Opposition parties, his party has sought time to meet the President of India on Friday. Opposition groups will also protest at Vijay Chowk. The Congress will launch a state-wise agitation programme against Modi and Amit Shah, and called the issue a “political and legal issue”

Gandhi, who went to Surat this morning to appear in the court, returned to Delhi . He was received by a large number of Congress leaders at the airport.

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