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India Opposition Leader, Rahul Gandhi Jail Two Years For Defamation

India Opposition Leader, Rahul Gandhi Jail Two Years For Defamation, Modi 'Thieves' Remark
March 23, 2023



Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has been sentenced to two years in prison in a criminal defamation case for a speech he made in 2019 in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi.


Gandhi was present on Thursday at the court in Surat, a city in Gujarat, which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. He was given bail and the sentence was suspended for 30 days, to file an appeal against the conviction.


BBC reports that the Congress party MP was present in court for sentencing, which comes a year before general elections are due.


The criminal defamation case was filed against Gandhi by a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after a speech during the 2019 general election in which he referred to the surname Modi and asked how all thieves had the surname.


“The court has found Rahul Gandhi’s comment to be defamatory. The court found him guilty under IPC section 499 read with 500. He has been sentenced to two years in jail,” said Ketan Reshamwala, an advocate for complainant Purnesh Modi.


Gandhi said in court that he had made the comment to highlight corruption and not against any community. “Truth is my god,” he tweeted after the court verdict, quoting India’s iconic freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi. However, the two are not related.


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.


It was reported further that 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 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."