In a setback to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, a Surat Court on Thursday sentenced him to two years in jail in a 2019 criminal defamation case over his “Modi surname” remark. The Lok Sabha MP now faces the risk of disqualification.
The court of Chief Judicial Magistrate H.H. Varma, which held 52-year-old Gandhi guilty under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 499 and 500, also granted him bail and suspended the sentence for 30 days to allow him to appeal in a higher court.
Gandhi can escape immediate disqualification as a member of parliament if the appellate court suspends the conviction as well as the two-year jail term.
A defamation case was filed against Gandhi for his alleged remarks “How come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?” on a complaint lodged by BJP MLA and former Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi.
The MP from Wayanad in Kerala made the remarks while addressing a rally at Kolar in Karnataka on 13 April 2019 during the Lok Sabha poll campaign. Purnesh Modi welcomed the verdict. According to the Representation of the People Act, a person sentenced to imprisonment of two years or more shall be disqualified “from the date of such conviction” and remain disqualified for another six years after serving the jail term.
The court noted that the seriousness of Rahul Gandhi’s crime increased because a speech delivered by a Member of Parliament has a “very wide impact on the public.”
Chief Judicial Magistrate H H Varma observed that if the accused was given a lesser punishment, it would send the wrong message to the public, and the purpose of defamation law would not be fulfilled.
Gandhi could have limited his speech to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya, Mehul Choksi, and Anil Ambani, but he “intentionally” made a statement that hurt individuals carrying the Modi surname, and thereby committed criminal defamation, the court said in the judgement.
The accused knew the impact his remarks would have on the public as the speech was delivered during an election campaign, the court said, adding that the Congress leader knew how he would gain from his controversial remark.
“The accused himself is a Member of Parliament, and the address made by a person in his capacity as an MP has a very wide impact on the public, because of which the seriousness of the crime increases,” the court said.
“If the accused is given lesser punishment, it will send a wrong message to the public and the purpose of defamation (law) is not fulfilled and slandering will become easy,” it further said.
The court also mentioned the criminal contempt proceedings initiated against Gandhi by the Supreme Court in 2018 over his “chowkidaar chor hai” remark, and noted that the apex court had then asked him to remain “alert” in the future after he tendered unconditional apology.
“Even though the accused was advised by the Supreme Court to remain alert, there does not seem to be any change in his conduct,” the magistrate’s court observed. Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter to give his initial reaction in Hindi by quoting Mahatma Gandhi about truth and non-violence.
“My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, non-violence the means to get it. — Mahatma Gandhi.” In another tweet, he paid tributes to freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru on their martyrdom day, saying they have learnt fighting fearlessly for the country holding on to truth and courage from these brave sons of Mother India.