A Surat court on Thursday convicted Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case relating to the “Modi” surname and awarded a two-year sentence, occasioning a legal basis for his disqualification as MP and a ban on contesting elections for the next eight years unless the conviction is stayed by a higher court soon.
Rahul is preparing to challenge the verdict before a higher court — the magistrate suspended the sentence for 30 days to enable this — and his legal team believes the “erroneous judgment” will be stayed and eventually overturned.
A stay on the conviction will remove the grounds for disqualification but Congress leaders said they feared the Narendra Modi government might start the disqualification process right away to prevent Rahul from raising the Adani controversy in Parliament, and to intimidate the Opposition as well. Senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad dodged a question on this, saying the decision was the Speaker’s.
Congress leaders picked holes in the judgment and several senior lawyers too expressed surprise at Rahul being handed the maximum two-year sentence permissible for defamation.
They told The Telegraph that conviction in defamation cases usually entails a symbolic punishment, ranging from a day’s jail term to a month’s. However, the minimum sentence required to disqualify a lawmaker — and ban him or her from contesting elections for six years after the completion of the sentence — is two years.
The Congress is not too worried about an election bar because it believes the conviction will be set aside. Chief judicial magistrate H.H. Verma’s verdict came on a complaint filed by a BJP legislator from Gujarat, Purnesh Modi, who had accused Rahul of defaming all the people bearing the surname “Modi” through a remark at a public rally in Kolar, Karnataka, in 2019. Rahul was quoted as saying: “Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi… how all these thieves bear the same surname ‘Modi’. If you search deeper, a few more will emerge.”
Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi are businessmen accused of fleeing India to avoid cases of financial irregularities. Congress spokesperson and senior lawyer Abhishek Singhvi said: “The heart of criminal defamation law is personal sense of hurt, and malice is an essential ingredient. None of the three persons named in the speech had filed a complaint. You can’t level a vague charge of the entire community getting hurt. There was no malicious intent about all the people bearing the ‘Modi’ surname; the speech was about corruption and other important national issues like unemployment and price rise.”
Rahul tweeted after the verdict: “Mera dharm satya aur ahimsa par aadharit hai. Satya mera bhagwan hai. Ahimsa usey pane ka saadhan (My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God. Non-violence is the path to truth).” He asserted his determination to fight on in another tweet on the martyrdom day of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru.
Rahul tweeted: “I have learnt to fight for the country on the strength of truth and courage from these valiant sons of Bharat Mata. Inquilab Zindabad!” Singhvi said: “The 170- page judgment, (which is) in Gujarati, is being translated. The erroneous, infirm, judgment is full of errors and legally unsustainable conclusions.”
The Congress is gearing up to fight the case all the way up to the Supreme Court. Party leaders emphasised that there was no evidence that Rahul’s politics bore any antipathy towards people with the surname “Modi”. They argued that the context of his speech was absolutely clear: he merely wanted to underscore the message that Narendra Modi was linked to Nirav and Lalit Modi.
Singhvi said most BJP leaders had said far worse things about people and communities — especially Muslims — without attracting legal consequences. The news of Rahul’s conviction triggered angry responses from Congress leaders on social media. Many MPs rushed to Delhi airport to express solidarity with Rahul as he returned from Surat after attending court. Party president Mallikarjun Kharge tweeted: “The coward and autocratic government is scared of Rahul Gandhi and the Opposition because we are exposing their black deeds and demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee (into the Adani affair). The Modi government, suffering from political bankruptcy, is unleashing ED, police and filing cases for political speeches.”
Party communications chief Jairam Ramesh said the Enforcement Directorate, CBI and police “will tackle you if you raise your voice against injustice and Rahul Gandhi too is being punished for speaking the truth”. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra alleged that a frightened government was trying to crush Rahul’s voice but “my brother” cannot be silenced. The Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh chief ministers, Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel, alleged a vendetta. Party spokesperson Pawan Khera said: “Shah & Shahenshah want an India in which the Opposition sits silently in a corner, the media dances to the government’s tune, institutions remain under their control. The struggle to protect this beautiful country neither started yesterday, nor will it end tomorrow. This battle will continue and the Congress will lead it.”
The BJP welcomed the verdict and slammed Rahul, accusing him of insulting an entire community and of being a habitual offender. “Modis are a community, not just a surname. They are sportsmen, politicians, doctors and businessmen. If you brand a certain surname as thieves, then it is clearly defamatory,” Prasad, a senior lawyer, said.
“Rahul Gandhi said he believes in truth and non-violence. Does believing in truth and non-violence mean you will insult the people and give caste-related abuses?” Prasad also attacked Kharge, accusing him of undermining the judiciary and committing contempt of court with his comment highlighting the change of judge in the case. “I welcome the court verdict. I am also a Modi and I felt insulted,” Sushil Modi, a BJP Rajya Sabha member from Bihar who too has filed a case against Rahul, said.