A court in Surat on March 23 convicted Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a criminal defamation case filed in 2019 by Purnesh Modi, a member of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly; Chief Judicial Magistrate H.H. Varma sentenced Rahul Gandhi to two years’ imprisonment. However, the judge granted him bail and gave him a month to appeal against the decision in a higher court.
The case is about Rahul Gandhi reportedly saying “How come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?” during a Congress campaign rally in Kolar in Karnataka in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Speaking to Frontline on the day of the verdict, Rahul Gandhi’s lawyer Babu Mangukiya said: “This judgment cannot sustain the scrutiny of the courts. To begin with the court has not followed the correct procedure of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).” He explained that this was a summons trial case, not a warrant trial. In the case of a summons trial, once the court records all the evidence from all the witnesses of the complainant, it evaluates the evidence and issues the summons if it finds there are grounds to do so.
Mangukiya also said that once this is done, the court puts the evidence in front of the accused and says it believes it is a good case to put to trial. The process involves examining and cross-examining witnesses in front of the accused, which was not done in Rahul Gandhi’s case.
He added: “The first component of a summons trial case was not followed by the judge. Secondly, this court has no jurisdiction. Also, the incident occurred in Karnataka. How did the Gujarat court get involved? Third, the evidence brought before the learned judge has not been properly proved. Electronic evidence has been presented without certification. Who produced this evidence? There is no credibility to the pen drive and CDs brought to the court.”
The judgement has grave consequences, according to lawyers familiar with the case. Sanjoy Ghosh, a constitutional lawyer, said that as per Section 8 (3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, a two-year imprisonment can disqualify an elected representative from the Lok Sabha.
Essentially, if a higher court does not stay the lower court’s judgment, Rahul Gandhi will not be allowed to contest elections. The Act also states that the disqualification will take effect only “after three months have elapsed” from the date of conviction. Rahul Gandhi can file an appeal in the High Court within that period.
Rahul Gandhi’s explanation
The Congress leader was in Surat for the hearing on March 23. His lawyer K.C. Panwala told local mediapersons that Rahul Gandhi had explained to the judge that his comment was made to expose corruption and did not target a specific community. He pleaded not guilty, saying whatever he said was in the interest of the people. Soon after leaving the court, Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “My religion is truth.” Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he said in Hindi: “My religion is based on truth and non-violence, truth is my God, and non-violence is a way to achieve it.”
Rahul Gandhi was held guilty under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Section 499 deals with defamation, and states: “Whoever, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person, is said, except in the cases hereinafter excepted, to defame that person.”
IPC Section 500 deals with punishment for defamation. The law says that punishment entails simple imprisonment for two years or a fine or both.
Champalal Bothra, a Congress leader in Surat, said: “Gandhi’s statement is not a crime. The hate speeches that carry on unchecked do not seem to get the attention of the law. This is politically motivated.”
Purnesh Modi, the complainant in the case, is the sitting Surat West MLA and was a Cabinet Minister during Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel’s first term. Bothra said while Purnesh Modi was a reasonably popular politician, he probably got involved in the case hoping to curry favour with senior BJP leaders.
The case began in 2019 and the final arguments were heard last month. Rahul Gandhi attended three hearings in person, including the session where the verdict was pronounced.
Soon after the verdict, BJP politicians reiterated their demand for an apology from Rahul Gandhi “for discrediting Parliament and the country”.