Modi surname remarks: Surat court sentences Rahul to two years in jail; grants bail
Deccan Chronicle. | DC Correspondent
Rahul Gandhi made the alleged remarks while addressing a rally at Kolar in Karnataka ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi arrives at Surat District Court for hearing of a criminal defamation case filed against him over his alleged 'Modi surname' remark, in Surat, Thursday, March 23, 2023. The court convicted Gandhi in the case. (PTI Photo)
NEW DELHI: Political temperatures soared after a Surat court on Thursday held Congress MP Rahul Gandhi guilty in a 2019 defamation case and sentenced him to two years imprisonment. The court, however, approved Mr Gandhi's bail and stayed his arrest for 30 days to allow him to appeal. The sentencing order also triggered a debate over the possibility of Mr Gandhi being disqualified as an MP.
The Congress said that Mr Gandhi will file an appeal against a Gujarat court verdict. While Mr Gandhi, who was present in court, later quoted Mahatma Gandhi on truth and non-violence, a host of Congress leaders, including party president Mallikarjun Kharge and general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, spoke out angrily on the matter.
Reacting, the BJP asserted that if Mr Gandhi abuses people, the law will take its course and slammed the Congress for criticising his conviction in a defamation case, questioning whether the Opposition party wants Mr Gandhi to have complete freedom to abuse others.
Following the verdict, Mr Gandhi tweeted, quoting Mahatma Gandhi, "My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, non-violence the means to get to it -- Mahatma Gandhi."
He also paid tribute to freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru on their martyrdom day, saying they have learnt to fight fearlessly for the country, holding on to truth and courage from these brave sons of Mother India.
After Mr Gandhi was sentenced, defence minister Rajnath Singh told the media, "Mr Gandhi should accept that the harm or injury through words is deeper than those made by a sword. I would say we all should learn from this incident and make sure we don't cross the line while speaking in public."
The Aam Aadmi Party, meanwhile, came out in support of Mr Gandhi with chief minister Arvind Kejriwal alleging that a conspiracy was being hatched to "eliminate" non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them.
The Union law minister Kiren Rijiju said: "Whatever Mr Gandhi says causes harm. It causes harm not only to the party but also to others. It is not good for the nation."
Mr Rijiju said that some Congress MPs had told him that Mr Gandhi's style of functioning was affecting the main Opposition party. "Some Congress leaders have told me that Mr Gandhi's style of functioning has messed up things. It is causing harm to their party. Their party is sinking," the Union law minister said.
A court in Surat sentenced Mr Gandhi to two years in jail in the case, filed on a complaint by BJP MLA Purnesh Modi for his alleged remark, "How come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?"
Calling the Surat court's order against Mr Gandhi "erroneous", the Congress said it will appeal against it.
The Congress president slammed the BJP. Mr Kharge said: "If they point one finger at others, there are four fingers pointed at them also. We knew such a thing could happen. They kept changing judges. But we have faith in the judiciary and will fight as per the law."
Ms Vadra also took to Twitter to support her brother and attack the BJP. "A scared machinery of power is trying to suppress the voice of Mr Gandhi through 'saam, daam, dand, bhed' (every trick in the book)."
"My brother has never been afraid, nor will he ever be. He has lived his life speaking the truth, will continue to speak the truth, will continue to raise the voice of the people of the country," she tweeted.
Addressing a press conference, former Union law minister and senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad cautioned Mr Gandhi against making defamatory remarks, saying the Congress leader will find himself facing "more troubles" if he doesn't refrain from doing so.
He also hit out at Mr Kharge for questioning the court's order by reportedly citing that several judges hearing the matter were changed. The BJP leader advised him to make responsible comments and said, "Mr Kharge is the president of a national party. What does he mean by saying that the judge was changed again and again? It is a serious issue of contempt (of court) also. It was grossly unfair on the part of Mr Kharge to make such comments."
Mr Prasad said that making such comments show that the Congress does not believe in the judiciary. He asked: "Does it want to keep even the judiciary in its pocket?"
"If they think that they would get action in their favour by leveling allegations against the judiciary and putting pressure on it, it is their misconception," he said.
Mr Prasad pointed out that Mr Gandhi, with his comments, insulted people with the Modi surname, asserting that it was very much defamatory.
"The Congress party and others are saying many things, but they are not saying what Mr Gandhi had said," he said and asked, "Won't any action be taken against you if you insult a surname in such a way?"
After a Surat court held Mr Gandhi guilty in 2019 criminal defamation case and sentenced him to two years in jail, a debate over disqualification of the Congress’ Lok Sabha MP has started.
Asked whether Mr Gandhi will be disqualified from Lok Sabha, Mr Prasad cited the provisions made in the Representation of the People (RP) in this regard and said it is for Speaker Om Birla to decide. "This is the Speaker's decision. I don't have to say anything on that," he said.
According to the legal experts: "The position as per the Lily Thomas judgment of the Supreme Court is that a conviction that carries a sentence of two years or more will automatically result in disqualification. In a later judgment in the Lok Prahari case, the apex court said on appeal, if the conviction is suspended, the disqualification will also remain suspended."
Legal experts argue that Mr Gandhi will not be disqualified as a member of Parliament if an appellate court stays the conviction and suspends the two-year jail term awarded to him.
Senior lawyer and constitutional law expert Rakesh Dwivedi referred to the apex court's 2013 and 2018 judgments in the Lily Thomas and the Lok Prahari matters, respectively, and said suspension of sentence and stay of conviction were necessary to escape disqualification as a lawmaker under the RP Act.
As the debate raged on, Mr Gandhi received backing from the AAP. Supporting the Congress leader after he was sentenced, Mr Kejriwal tweeted, "A conspiracy is being hatched to eliminate non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them. We have differences with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Mr Gandhi in a defamation case like this. It is the job of the public and the Opposition to ask questions. We respect the court but disagree with the decision."
AAP Rajya Sabha member Raghav Chadha said Opposition forms the core of democracy and dissent should not be stifled. "Respectfully disagree with the court verdict against Mr Gandhi. The Opposition forms the core of democracy. Dissent should not be stifled. India has a strong tradition of critique. Attempting to reduce this to the viewpoint of one ideology, one party, one leader is unconstitutional and undemocratic."
Congress' Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his Chhattisgarh counterpart Bhupesh Baghel hailed Mr Gandhi as one fighting for truth who will not succumb to government pressure.