SC stays Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in ‘Modi surname’ defamation case

This means that Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla will have to revoke his disqualification as MP of Wayanad

Rahul Gandhi in Lok Sabha (Photo: NH Library)
Rahul Gandhi in Lok Sabha (Photo: NH Library)

Ashlin Mathew

Supreme Court on Friday stayed the conviction of Rahul Gandhi conviction in the criminal defamation case over the “why all thieves have the Modi surname” remark, which had led to his disqualification from Lok Sabha on 23 March 2023.

This means that the Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla will have to revoke his disqualification as MP of Wayanad and he can contest 2024 general elections.

The Supreme Court bench of Justices BR Gavai, PS Narasimha, and Sanjay Kumar observed that no reason has been given by trial judge for imposing max sentence, so the order of conviction needs to be stayed pending final adjudication.

Justice Gavai noted that the ramifications of such orders by lower courts are wide. “Not only petitioners' right to continue in public life has been affected, but also that of electorate who have elected him,” said Gavai.

While underscoring that the trial judge had not given any reasons, the top court noted, "The sentence for an offence punishable under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code is maximum of two years of sentence or fine or both. The learned trial judge, in the order passed by him, has awarded the maximum sentence of two years. Except the admonition to the petitioner by this Court in a contempt proceeding, no other reason has been granted by the learned trial judge while imposing the maximum sentence of two years."

The bench explained that Gandhi had been disqualified only because of the maximum sentence of two years imposed by the learned trial judge. "Had the sentence been a day lesser, then the provisions of Section 8(3) of the Representation of Peoples Act would not have been attracted."

When the offence was non-compoundable, bailable and cognizable, the top court observed that, the least which was expected from the learned trial judge was to give reasons for imposing the maximum punishment. "Though the learned appellate court and the High Court have spent voluminous pages in rejecting the applications, these aspects are not seen considered".

The bench pointed out that the comment made by Rahul Gandhi was not in "good taste" and that a person in public life ought to have been more careful while making public speeches.

Gandhi had, in a speech while campaigning during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections said, "Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi. How come all the thieves have 'Modi' as a common surname?"

The case arose after Purnesh Modi, BJP's Surat West MLA, had taken exception to the the remarks in question, claiming that Gandhi humiliated and defamed persons with the Modi surname.

While arguing for Gandhi, Abhishek Manu Singhvi highlighted that the complainant BJP MLA Purnesh Modi belonged to the Modh Vanika Samaj which included other communities as well.

While pointing out that Modi was not a caste name, Singhvi said there was no uniformity, homogeneity. "The complainant himself says he adopted the Modi surname later on," said Singhvi.

The senior advocate, who is also a Congress MP, stressed that for the offence of criminal defamation to be made out, there should be an intention to harm the reputation.

He pointed out that the complainant had not heard the speech himself, instead had got a message with a paper clipping on WhatsApp. He pointed out that the complainant himself had approached the High Court to stay the trial stating that he had to collect evidence, and a year later he got the stay vacated. A month after that Gandhi was convicted.

Singhvi underlined that as the consequence of the conviction Gandhi has last two sessions of the Lok Sabha and that a byelection would have to be notified for the Wayanad constituency. If the Supreme Court did not consider a stay on the conviction, then Gandhi would lose the entire term, added Singhvi. He contended that the effect of this disqualification was that Gandhi would be silenced for eight years.

“I am yet to see a non-cognizable, bail and compoundable offence, which is not against society, which is not kidnapping, rape and murder, in which the maximum sentence is given. How can this become an offence involving moral turpitude?”asked Singhvi.

Appearing for Purnesh Modi, senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani said that Gandhi's intention was to defame everyone with Modi surname.

"His intention was to defame everyone with the surname Modi just because it is the same as that of the Prime Minister. You have defamed an entire class out of malice," said Jethmalani.

Justice Gavai quipped that the trial court has "preached". "He gives quite a lot of preachings as to what is expected, makes an interesting reading. Some of the judgments coming from the Ld Solicitor General's State makes for interesting reading," said Justice Gavai.

In March, a Surat magisterial court had convicted and sentenced Gandhi to two years in prison for criminal defamation after BJP's Surat West MLA Purnesh Modi filed a case against Gandhi for remarks made in a speech in Karnataka's Kolar.

When the case reached the Gujarat high court, on July 7 it had dismissed Gandhi's plea for a stay on his conviction, observing that "purity in politics" was required. The High Court had noted that, "the offence committed by the accused falls in the category of moral turpitude".

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Published: 04 Aug 2023, 2:08 PM