The Surat district and sessions court on Monday stayed Rahul Gandhi’s two-year sentence for defamation and decided to hear on April 13 his application against his conviction, as hordes of Congress leaders and supporters descended on the Gujarat town in solidarity despite a government clampdown.
Rahul needs a stay on his conviction to have an opportunity to get his Lok Sabha membership restored.
The Congress leader, who was in court where the proceedings were wrapped up in 20 minutes, has been granted regular bail and exemption from personal appearance on April 13.
The complainant, Gujarat BJP lawmaker Purnesh Modi, has been asked to submit his responses by April 10.
After the court proceedings, Rahul tweeted: “This is a battle against ‘Mitra Kal’ to save democracy. In this struggle, truth is my weapon and truth is my support.”
Later in the evening after reaching Delhi, Rahul posted on Facebook: “Hazar koshish kar lo, ye sawal nahin rukne waale. Desh jawab lekar rahega (Try a thousand tricks, these questions won’t stop. The country will compel you to answer).” The reference was to the questions Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn’t want anybody to ask in Parliament or outside.
Congress leaders from Delhi, Gujarat and neighbouring states and armies of party supporters had arrived in Surat. The party accused Gujarat’s BJP government of detaining hundreds of its workers on their way to the town.
The Congress rebutted the BJP’s charge that a legal procedure was being turned into a political circus, saying there was nothing wrong in expressing solidarity with the leader.
“Our satyagraha is against injustice. What else can you do in a democracy when the government is being vindictive and undemocratic? You stand up for the truth and that’s what we are doing,” Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot said, summing up the mood in the party.
Rahul had arrived at Surat around 2.15pm along with a large number of senior party leaders. Many Congress leaders from states neighbouring Gujarat had come on their own.
Those who accompanied Rahul to court included chief ministers Gehlot, Bhupesh Baghel (Chhattisgarh) and Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu (Himachal Pradesh), Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Digvijaya Singh, Anand Sharma, K.C. Venugopal, Pawan Bansal, Harish Rawat, Ajay Maken, Shaktisinh Gohil, Avinash Pandey, Kumari Selja and several advocates, including the criminal lawyer, R.S. Cheema.
All the senior leaders from Gujarat — including state unit chief Jagdish Thakor, Bharatsinh Solanki, Amit Chavda and Arjun Modhwadia — were at the airport to receive Rahul. Several leaders from Maharashtra and Rajasthan were present with their supporters. Thakor said: “Lakhs of Congressmen and women would have been in Surat today but party workers from Maharashtra, Rajasthan and the neighbouring districts of Gujarat were stopped by the police. Their mobile phones were snatched and many were detained.”
Congress communications chief Jairam Ramesh posted several photographs of party workers sitting inside police stations in Gujarat. “Reports of Congress leaders and workers being stopped by Gujarat government from reaching Surat (are) being received since morning,” he tweeted. “The BJP’s anti-democratic face is getting exposed repeatedly. We condemn this attitude and demand immediate release of our party workers.”
A Youth Congress worker from Mumbai posted a video from inside a police station where he was being detained. “I am Yash Haritwal, general secretary of South Central Mumbai Youth Congress. We were going to Surat early morning to support Rahul Gandhi. We were stopped at Valsad toll plaza and told that we can’t proceed,” he says in the video. “They snatched our IDs and took us to the police station. They warned us against making any video. I am secretly making this video from a corner. There are 25-30 of us detained here. We are being treated as criminals.”
The BJP accused the Congress of hooliganism. But Baghel said: “Hooliganism is what they are doing in Bengal and Bihar. We are only standing with our leader.” He was alluding to the communal tensions created on Ram Navami. Sukhu justified the party workers’ response, arguing that this showed that the “Congress family was united in this hour of crisis”. After Rahul’s March 23 conviction and sentencing by a lower Surat court, which led to his disqualification from the Lok Sabha, the Congress had shown little urgency to seek legal relief. It had instead focused on a political campaign to drive home the message that he was a victim of political vendetta.
The party held demonstrations, protest marches and news conferences across the country, alleging Prime Minister Modi was trying to silence Rahul to protect the “corrupt businessman” Gautam Adani, whose affairs the Congress leader was questioning. On Monday, the Congress stuck to the same messaging, saying Rahul had been targeted to frighten the Congress into sitting silently at home, and asserting that the ploy would never succeed. The Mahila Congress and party students’ wing NSUI held a dharna in Delhi, and Youth Congress workers demonstrated across the country. Rahul has been convicted for wondering at a rally in 2019 “how all these thieves bear the same surname ‘Modi’”.