In a criminal defamation lawsuit, Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has been given a two-year prison term.
The Gujarat state court found Mr. Gandhi guilty for remarks he made in 2019 during an electoral rally regarding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s last name.
He was given a 30-day bail and will appeal the conviction, so he won’t be going to jail right away.
A year before the scheduled general elections, the punishment hearing was attended by the Congress party MP.
Speaking at an election rally in Karnataka state in April 2019, ahead of the last general election, Mr Gandhi had said: “Why do all these thieves have Modi as their surname? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi.”
Nirav Modi is a fugitive Indian diamond tycoon while Lalit Modi is a former chief of the Indian Premier League who has been banned for life by the country’s cricket board. Mr Gandhi argued that he had made the comment to highlight corruption and it was not directed against any community.
The case against him was filed on the basis of a complaint by Purnesh Modi, a lawmaker from India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, who said that Mr Gandhi’s comments had defamed the entire Modi community.
But some have said they are puzzled by the order.
Legal scholar Gautam Bhatia tweeted that “references to a generic class of persons” – surnames in this case – are not “actionable unless an individual can show a direct reference to themselves”.
“If a man says ‘all lawyers are thieves’, then I, as a lawyer, cannot file a case against him for defamation unless I can show its imputation aimed at me,” Mr Bhatia said.
India’s criminal defamation law is British-era legislation under which there can be a maximum prison sentence of two years, a fine or both.
Free speech advocates have often argued that the law goes against the principles of freedom and that it is is used by politicians to silence their critics.
In 2016, some top Indian politicians including Mr Gandhi filed legal pleas arguing for defamation to be decriminalised. But India’s Supreme Court upheld the validity of the law, saying that the “right to free speech cannot mean that a citizen can defame the other”.
The Congress party tweeted that Mr Gandhi would appeal and said “we will fight and win”.
Mr Gandhi has not commented publicly yet but has tweeted a quote in Hindi from India’s independence leader Mahatma Gandhi: “My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, and non-violence the means to get it.”
His lawyer, Kirit Panwala, told BBC Gujarati that Mr Gandhi had told the judge after the order that he had made the speech “in favour of democracy”.
He also said that their defence of Mr Gandhi was based on four points: “Firstly, Mr Gandhi is not a resident of Gujarat and so, before the complaint, an inquiry should be conducted. Secondly, there is no community named Modi. Thirdly, there is no association of people with Modi as their surname and lastly, there was no ill intention behind Mr Gandhi’s speech.”
Some have raised questions over Mr Gandhi’s status as a member of parliament after the conviction.
Defamation, by itself, cannot be a ground for disqualification in India. An MP can be disqualified from the office for offences ranging from promoting enmity, and election-related fraud. But they can also be disqualified if sentenced for two years or more for an offence.
Mr Gandhi is the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which has given three prime ministers to India. His great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first and longest-serving prime minister of India. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was the first female prime minister of the country, and his father, Rajiv Gandhi, was India’s youngest prime minister.
Their party, the Congress, governed India almost continuously – except for a few years – from independence in 1947 to 2014, when Narendra Modi’s BJP swept to power by a landslide. Since then, the Congress has become a shadow of its former self, and was routed again by the BJP in the 2019 general election.