Modi remark: SC clears Rahul, restores MP status
DECCAN CHRONICLE | Ashhar Khan
New Delhi: Senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is all set to return to the Lok Sabha. The Supreme Court on Friday stayed his conviction in a 2019 defamation case on his "Modi surname" remark, paving the way for the revival of his Lok Sabha membership. Celebrations broke out at the AICC office as hundreds of jubilant Congress workers thronged the Akbar Road party headquarters. It now remains to be seen whether Gandhi is able to attend Parliament and participate in the no-confidence motion next week. Sources said it "will depend on the Lok Sabha Speaker on how fast he completes the formalities". Congress’ Lok Sabha leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury on Friday urged the Speaker to allow Gandhi to attend the House after the Supreme Court stayed his conviction in a criminal defamation case.
Congress MPs are expected to meet the Lok Sabha Speaker on the issue. Taking to Twitter for his initial reaction, Gandhi said: "Come what may, my duty remains the same. Protect the idea of India."
Addressing a press conference with Rahul Gandhi, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said the process of disqualification of Rahul Gandhi took just 24 hours… let’s see how long does the restoration takes. The debate and voting on the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha is to take place on August 8-10 next week.
Speaking at the press conference, Mr Gandhi said: "Truth always triumphs, if not today, then tomorrow or the day after. I thank people for their support."
Kharge added: "It is a very happy day for us, democracy has won, the Constitution has won… I welcome the Supreme Court judgment, the Constitution is still alive," he added.
A three-judge bench of Justices B.R. Gavai, P.S. Narasimha and Sanjay Kumar said no reason was given by the trial court judge while convicting Gandhi except that he had been admonished by the apex court in a contempt case. The apex court had then closed the contempt proceedings against Gandhi for wrongly attributing to it his "chowkidar chor hai" remark against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in connection with the Rafale case, with a warning to be more careful in future after the senior Congress leader had tendered an unconditional apology.
The top court said in so far as the conviction was concerned, it has considered that the sentence for an offence punishable under Section 499 (defamation) of the Indian Penal Code is a maximum of two years’ imprisonment or a fine or both, and the trial judge has awarded the maximum sentence of two years.
"Except the admonition by the Supreme Court in a contempt case, no other reason has been granted for this (conviction) by trial judge. It is to be noted only on account of this maximum sentence imposed by the trial judge, the provisions of the Representation of the People Act have come into play… Had the sentence been a day lesser, the provisions would not have been attracted, particularly when an offence is non-cognisable, bailable and compoundable. The least the trial court judge was expected to do was to give some reason to impose the maximum sentence. Though the appellate court and the high court have spent voluminous pages rejecting the stay on conviction, these aspects are not considered in their orders," the bench said.
Referring to its earlier order in a contempt case against Gandhi, the apex court said while filing his affidavit in the contempt petition, he ought to have been more careful and exercised a degree of restraint in making such remarks which are alleged to be defamatory.
The apex court said Gandhi’s conviction and subsequent disqualification not only affected his right to continue in public life but also that of the electorate who had elected him to Parliament to represent their constituency. "No doubt the utterances were not in good taste and a person in public life is expected to exercise caution while making public speeches. Taking into consideration these and that no reason has been given by the trial judge for imposing the maximum sentence, the order of conviction needs to be stayed pending the final adjudication," the bench said.
As the hearing began, senior advocate Abhishek Singhvi, who appeared for Gandhi, told the bench that his client was not a hardened criminal and was never convicted despite several cases having been filed against him by BJP workers. Senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, appearing for former Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi, whose complaint had led to Gandhi’s conviction, said there was plethora of evidence against the former Congress president.
Gandhi had persistently refused to apologise for his remark but urged the Supreme Court to stay his conviction in the criminal defamation case stemming from his comment, asserting he was not guilty.
A metropolitan magistrate’s court in Surat on March 23 had sentenced Gandhi to two years in jail after convicting him under Sections 499 and 500 IPC. After that, his plea for a stay was rejected by a Surat sessions court on April 20. While dismissing Gandhi’s application, the court said his counsel failed to demonstrate that an "irreversible and irrevocable damage" was likely to be caused to him if he is denied the opportunity to contest elections under Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act 1951 on account of his conviction not being stayed.
In its order, the sessions court said the power accorded under Section 389(1) CrPC to suspend/stay the conviction is required to be exercised "with caution and circumspection" as observed by the Supreme Court in a number of pronouncements. "If such power is exercised in a casual and mechanical manner, the same would have serious impact on the public perception on the justice delivery systems and such order will shake public confidence in the judiciary," it said. The court observed that the appellant has not made out any case to suspend the conviction recorded against him.
In its July 7 order, the Gujarat high court refused to stay the conviction. Dismissing the plea, Justice Hemant Prachchhak noted that Rahul Gandhi was already facing 10 criminal cases across India, adding that the order of the lower court was "just, proper and legal" in handing a two-year jail term to Gandhi for his remarks. There was no reasonable ground to stay the conviction, the high court said.