Surat: A court in Surat in Gujarat on Thursday sentenced Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to two years in jail in a 2019 criminal defamation case filed against him over his “why all thieves have Modi surname” remarks.
Gandhi, who was present in the court when the verdict was pronounced, reacted later by quoting Mahatma Gandhi in a tweet in Hindi about truth and non-violence.
The court of Chief Judicial Magistrate HH Varma, which held Gandhi guilty under Indian Penal Code sections 499 and 500, also granted him bail and suspended the sentence for 30 days to allow him to appeal in a higher court, the Congress leader's lawyer Babu Mangukiya said.
As per the Representation of the People Act, a person sentenced to imprisonment of two years or more shall be disqualified "from the date of such conviction" and remain disqualified for another six years after serving time.
The Congress said Gandhi will file an appeal against the Gujarat court verdict, with a host of its leaders, including party president Mallikarjun Kharge and general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, speaking out angrily on the matter.
In his first reaction to the Surat court's verdict, Gandhi quoted Mahatma Gandhi in a tweet in Hindi about truth and non-violence.
"My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, non-violence the means to get it. -- Mahatma Gandhi,'' the Congress leader tweeted.
In another tweet, he paid tributes to freedom fighters Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru on their martyrdom day, saying they have learnt fighting fearlessly for the country holding on to truth and courage from these brave sons of Mother India.
In a tweet in Hindi, Kharge said, "Coward, dictatorial BJP government is incensed at Rahul Gandhi and Opposition because we are exposing their misdeeds and demanding a JPC."
"Under its political bankruptcy, the Modi government sends police, ED and imposes cases on political speeches. We will appeal in the higher court," he said.
Saying that an appeal will be filed in the matter, Kharge slammed the BJP.
If they point one finger at others there are four fingers pointed at them also, he told reporters.
"We knew such a thing could happen... they kept changing judges. But we have faith in the judiciary and will fight as per the law," he said.
Priyanka Gandhi also took to Twitter to back her brother and attack the BJP.
"A scared machinery of power is trying to suppress the voice of Rahul Gandhi through 'saam, daam, dand, bhed' (every trick in the book)."
"My brother has never been afraid, nor will he ever be. He has lived his life speaking the truth, will continue to speak the truth, will continue to raise the voice of the people of the country," she said in a tweet in Hindi.
In its order, the court said the accused was a Member of Parliament and whatever he delivers as his speech to the public makes a wide impact, which increases the seriousness of his crime.
"And if the accused is given less punishment, then it sends a wrong message to the public and the purpose of defamation is not fulfilled and anybody will easily slander someone," the court observed.
The court also said the Supreme Court had in the past asked the accused to remain alert in the future after he apologised in a case (SLP 46/2018) for his `chowkidar chor hai' remark.
"Despite the Supreme Court alerting the accused, there appears to be no change in his conduct. The accused is a MP, and addressing the public as an MP is serious because it makes a wide impact on the public," it said.
During the hearing on quantum of sentence, Gandhi, when asked about the punishment, submitted before the court that he had delivered the speech as per his duty in the interest of the public.
The Congress leader also told court he has no discrimination against anybody and loves and cherishes all the people of his country.
Gandhi's lawyer argued for a mild sentence claiming there was no intention to insult anyone.
"The complainant has not suffered any kind of pain or loss, and the accused has never been found guilty of any crime before and has not sought any mercy or forgiveness from anyone,” Gandhi's lawyer told the court.
The lawyer for the prosecution said it was important for the court to consider the "conduct" of the accused, who had in the past apologized in the Supreme Court and the apex court had asked him to remain alert in the future.
Despite this, he committed the present crime, and accused being the Member of Parliament, any lesser punishment will send a wrong message to the society, the prosecution lawyer told court.
A sentence of two years also invites his disqualification as a Member of parliament under Representation of the People Act, 1951, which holds that a member of Parliament or Legislative Assembly convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment of not less than two years shall be disqualified from the date of conviction.
The disqualification, however, does not kick in for three months as per the RP Act, and if an appellate court grants a stay on his conviction or sentence or both within this period, then Gandhi's disqualification stands stayed till the disposal of the hearing of the case, said Supreme Court lawyer Mahesh Jethmalani.
"The law mandates that if somebody is convicted and sentenced for two years, then he is liable for disqualification. But the disqualification does not kick in immediately, it comes after three months, unless within that three months he gets either his conviction or sentence or both suspended," Jethmalani said.
It is only the appellate court that can do this and not the court which convicted him, Jethmalani said.
"The appellate court can suspend his sentence and conviction, or both. If that happens, (Gandhi's) disqualification stays till the disposal of the hearing of the case," he said.
Reacting to the verdict, Gujarat Congress leader Amit Chavda said the entire country stood with Gandhi in his "fight for justice".
"We are Congressmen, we did not bow down before and will not bow down now. Truth can be harassed, not defeated. Truth always chooses struggle. @RahulGandhi, the whole country is with you in your fight for justice and struggle," Chavda said in a tweet.
Gujarat Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief CR Paatil, however, said people will teach Gandhi a lesson for defaming the nation.
"From the way Rahul Gandhi makes a comment on a community, it appears he does not have a control over what he says. I think if he reforms, then it will be good for the country because he has repeatedly defamed the country. This has made people angry, and he will have to pay for this," Paatil asserted.
The case was filed against Gandhi for his alleged remarks “how come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?” remarks on a complaint lodged by BJP MLA and former Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi.
The Lok Sabha MP from Wayanad made the remarks while addressing a rally at Kolar in Karnataka on April 13, 2019 during Lok Sabha elections campaigning.
Complainant and Surat West BJP MLA Purnesh Modi said he welcomed the court's verdict on Gandhi's speech made on April 13, 2019.