Rahul Gandhi to return as MP as Supreme Court stays conviction | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Rahul Gandhi to return as MP as Supreme Court stays conviction

Aug 05, 2023 05:00 AM IST

Addressing a press briefing after the court’s stay, Gandhi said the “truth always triumphs”.

The Supreme Court on Friday stayed Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in a criminal defamation case on the grounds that the trial judge failed to explain why he deserved the maximum two-year punishment under the law, and held that the continuation of his disqualification from Parliament would deprive proper representation to the people of his constituency .

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi leaves after a meeting at AICC headquarters, in New Delhi, on 4 August, 2023. (PTI)
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi leaves after a meeting at AICC headquarters, in New Delhi, on 4 August, 2023. (PTI)

The decision paves the way for the revival of Gandhi’s status as an MP after being ineligible for 134 days, and means that he could participate in the no-confidence motion debate against the Narendra Modi government’s council of ministers in the Lower House next week.

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Addressing a press briefing after the court’s stay, Gandhi said the “truth always triumphs”.

“My path is clear. I have clarity in my mind on what I have to do and what my work is. I thank the people who helped us. I also thank the people for their love and support,” he said.

Gandhi was elected to the Lok Sabha from Kerala’s Wayanad in 2019. He was convicted on March 23, 2023 by a Surat trial court, which awarded him a maximum two-year-jail term in a case relating to his comments on the “Modi” surname at a poll rally. The sentence meant that the Lok Sabha secretariat declared his disqualification on March 24. Gandhi’s appeal in the Gujarat high court was rejected on July 7.

Even as a bench of justices BR Gavai and PS Narasimha said that Gandhi ought to have been “more careful” in making remarks in the wake of his public standing, it stressed that he stood disqualified as an MP under the Representation of People Act (RPA) only because of the two-year-jail term, and that even a day less would have saved his membership.

Therefore, the court held, it was imperative for the Sural trial court to specify the reasons for handing him out the maximum punishment under the charge of defamation in March this year, when the offence has clearly been categorised as bailable, non-cognisable, and compoundable in the Indian Penal Code.

Calling the ramifications of the punishment “wide”, the top court pointed out that not only Gandhi’s right to continue in public life has been affected by virtue of the sentence awarded, but also that of electorates of the constituency who elected him.

“Considering the aforesaid circumstances and particularly that no reasons have been given by the trial judge for giving him maximum sentence which has incurred him the disqualification, order of conviction needs to be stayed during the pendency of proceedings before the appellate court,” said the bench in its order.

It further emphasised that though the Surat sessions court and the Gujarat high court penned down voluminous judgments while rejecting Gandhi’s plea for a stay on his conviction, the aspects of maximum punishment as well as its ramification were not delved into.

About Gandhi’s conduct, the top court recalled that in November 2019, he was admonished by the Supreme Court in a contempt case after he wrongly attributed certain remarks to it. At the time, Gandhi was asked by the Supreme Court to remain careful about his public utterances after he submitted affidavits tendering unconditional apology.

The court on Friday noted that while the alleged defamatory remarks in this case were made by Gandhi in April 2019, the top court’s order in the contempt case came in November 2019.

“No doubt that alleged utterances are not in good taste. Persons in public life are expected to exercise a degree of caution while making public speeches. As observed by this court while accepting his affidavit in contempt petition (in 2019), he ought to have been more careful. Maybe if these observations came before the petitioner made these utterances, he would have been more careful before...He should have exercised a degree of restrain in making such remarks which are alleged to be defamatory,” it added in the order.

The top court clarified that the stay on Gandhi’s conviction would operate until the Gujarat sessions court, where his appeal against the conviction order of the Surat trial court, finally decides the matter. It also expedited the proceedings before the sessions court.

During the proceedings on Friday, senior counsel Abhishek Singhvi strongly disputed that Gandhi’s alleged offence can be categorised as an offence involving moral turpitude. “This is not an offence against society. This is a non-cognisable, bailable, and compoundable offence and without any reasoning, the trial court awards me the maximum punishment, leading to his disqualification. Can this man be silenced for eight years because of this? In democracy, we have dissent,” he contended.

Appearing for Purnesh Modi, senior counsel Mahesh Jethmalani opposed a stay on Gandi’s conviction. “His intention was to defame every person with surname Modi, just because it matches that of Prime Minister. This is ex facie malice...and he has never denied saying it,” Jethmalani argued.

Gandhi is eligible to return to Parliament as early as Monday, officials said, adding that the Lok Sabha Secretariat received a copy of the Supreme Court’s order on Friday evening. The officials added that the Secretariat has to issue a notice before the revival saying Gandhi’s suspension has been removed following the court’s decision. As of going to print on Friday, it was unclear if this had been issued.

In an affidavit on Wednesday, Gandhi submitted in the Supreme Court that he would not apologise to settle the criminal defamation case filed against him by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator Purnesh Modi over his remarks on “Modi” surname at a poll rally in 2019, maintaining that his conviction by the Surat court is unsustainable and that he has an “excellent” chance of success in his appeal.

Requesting the apex court to stay his conviction, the Congress leader said that his is an “exceptional case”, considering that the offence is a trivial one and that irreparable harm accrues to him as an elected MP because of continuing disqualification. “The petitioner is a parliamentarian and a leader of the Opposition, and therefore it was necessary for him to critically evaluate the conduct and performance of the ruling establishment,” he said in the affidavit.

On July 21, the top court had issued a notice on Gandhi’s appeal against the Gujarat high court order that declined to put on hold his conviction and a two-year jail term in the criminal defamation case. The appeal was filed on July 15, a week after the high court dealt a blow to his endeavour to revive his Lok Sabha membership, ruling that the Congress leader “breached modesty” and that his offence involved “moral turpitude”.

In his plea, Gandhi urged the top court to immediately stay his conviction to enable him to regain his MP status, arguing the conviction order would lead to throttling of free speech, free expression, free thought, and free statement.

“It would contribute to the systematic, repetitive emasculation of democratic institutions and the consequent strangulation of democracy which would be gravely detrimental to the political climate and future of India,” the Congress leader said.

Gandhi complained that a political speech in the course of democratic political activity, critical of economic offenders, and also of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been held to be an act of moral turpitude inviting the harshest punishment.

Responding to the court notice, Purnesh Modi, MLA from Gujarat’s Surat-West, on July 31 said that Gandhi’s personal hatred towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi led him to cast grossly defamatory aspersions on persons who incidentally bore the same surname as the Prime Minister.

During the Congress press briefing on Thursday afternoon, Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge said: ““Satyameva Jayate....we all are happy and welcome the judgement of the Supreme Court. It is not only the victory of Rahul Gandhi but a victory of democracy and the Constitution...It’s a victory of people.”

Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said, “The conspiracy against Rahul Gandhi has failed today.”

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal welcomed the SC stay and said it reinforced trust in Indian democracy.

“I welcome Hon’ble Supreme Court’s intervention in an unjust defamation case against Rahul Gandhi ji. It reinforces people’s trust in Indian democracy and the judicial system. Congratulations to him and to the people of Wayanad,” the AAP national convener said in a tweet.

The BJP’s IT department head Amit Malviya tweeted, “Rahul Gandhi may have survived this one but for how long?”

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