Why Rahul Gandhi’s conviction and 2-year sentence has left many puzzled

The Surat court’s verdict holding Congress MP Rahul Gandhi guilty of defamation and sentencing him to two years in prison has left even experts wondering.

Why Rahul Gandhi’s conviction and 2-year sentence has left many puzzled
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi (ANI Photo)

Congress leader and Lok Sabha MP from Wayanad Rahul Gandhi was on Thursday sentenced to two years’ imprisonment by a Surat court after he was found guilty of defamation over remarks made in 2019. While the axe of disqualification hangs over his head following his conviction, experts appeared to be puzzled by the two-year sentence awarded to Gandhi by the court.

Stating that Rahul Gandhi’s statement was extremely improper and it was totally unwarranted, senior advocate Dushyant Dave, said: “In public life you do not abuse each other like this, but his conviction is wrong because you do not convict people over this kind of an issue. While Rahul was wrong, the conviction is equally wrong. The criminal defamation case is a serious issue but it is not something that should lead to conviction of two years.”

India’s criminal defamation law is a British-era legislation, and the Indian Penal Code punishes the offence with simple imprisonment of up to two years, or with fine, or both.

“The maximum punishment has been given for this offence, which is two years. The sentence could have been one year or six months but why did it have to be two years?” wondered PDT Achary, former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha.

In a tweet, constitutional legal scholar, Gautam Bhatia wrote that “defamation law 101 is that references to a generic class of persons”- surnames in Rahul Gandhi’s 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 case against him for defamation unless I can show its imputation aimed at me,” Bhatia said.

Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh tweeted in Hindi that “This is new India. If you raise your voice against injustice, then ED, CBI, police, FIR will be set loose on you. Rahul Gandhi too is being punished for speaking the truth and raising his voice against the dictator. The law of the country gives an opportunity to Rahul Gandhi to appeal and he will exercise the right,” adding, “We are not afraid.”

Gandhi tweeted a quote in Hindi from Mahatma Gandhi: “My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, and non-violence the means to get it.”

Aam Aadmi Party national convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, too, supported the Congress MP.” Kejriwal said in a tweet in Hindi: “A conspiracy is being plotted to get rid of non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them. We have differences with Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case like this. It is the job of the public and the Opposition to ask questions. We respect the court but disagree with the decision.”

SC verdict on defamation law

Interestingly, in 2015, Rahul Gandhi, with Kejriwal and others had filed a petition challenging the constitutional validity of Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC which make defamation a criminal offence punishable with up to two years in jail.

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”.

Meanwhile, the ruling BJP, which had upped its attack on Rahul Gandhi and wanted his membership suspended from the Lower House, has welcomed the Congress leader’s conviction and sentencing in the Modi surname case.

On Thursday morning, the Court of Chief Judicial Magistrate HH Varma sentenced Rahul Gandhi to two years in jail and also imposed a fine of Rs. 15,000 after finding him guilty under Section 504 of the IPC, pertaining to intentional insult with the intent to provoke a breach of peace. Rahul Gandhi was present in the court when the verdict was delivered. On the Wayanad MP’s plea, his sentence was suspended, and bail was granted to enable him to move an appeal against his conviction within 30 days.

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First published on: 23-03-2023 at 17:23 IST