On 23rd March, 2023, Indian National Congress’s former President Rahul Gandhi was convicted by Surat court, for defamation in relation to his one statement against ‘modi surname’. However, He got bail and his punishment was suspended by the court to give him time to appeal in session court.
Rahul Gandhi appealed against the order of the trial court to Surat Appellate Court, but, his appeal was rejected. He then, made a revision application to Guj High Court, Guj Court also refused to stay the conviction order.
Against the Order of Gujrat High Court, Rahul Gandhi made an appeal to Supreme Court. Supreme Court approved the application and stayed conviction.
From Surat Lower Court to Supreme Court, here is the timeline of Rahul Gandhi’s case on Stay on conviction-
- On 13 April, 2019, Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi gave a speech at Kolar near Bengaluru.
- Against the speech, On 14 April 2019, BJP MLA Purnesh Modi registered a private criminal complaint before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Surat contending that the speech is punishable as defamation under Section 500 r/w. Section 499 (Provision for offence of defamation) of the Indian Penal Code.
That such comment made by Rahul Gandhi was published in the newspapers of the news agency IANS Karnataka State of Kolar on 14.04.2019.
- In his complaint, he said that in such speech, Rahul Gandhi addressed the Hon’ble Prime Minister as a thief and compared him with economic offenders of India like Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi, Lalit Modi and Vijay Malya. He asked the people gathered in the meeting as to why all thieves have the surname Modi and the petitioner defamed Hon’ble Prime Minister by saying that in Rafale dealing Hon’ble Prime Minister is 100% thief and not chowkidar.
- On the basis of that complaint, Chief Judicial Magistrate has taken cognizance under Section 190(A) of the Code and recorded the statement of the complainant. But, on 23.02.2022 Magistrate quashed and set aside the said complaint.
- Against the order of CJM, Purnesh Modi filed application before Guj High Court and that Court (Coram: Hon’ble Mr.Justice V. M. Pancholi) vide order dated 07.03.2022 granted interim relief.
- On 16 Fab 2023, Purnesh Modi withdrew petition from stating that sufficient evidence has come on record of the concerned Trial Court.
- Thereafter, Chief Judicial Magistrate, Surat concluded the trial and held the petitioner guilty for the offence punishable under Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC and sentenced him to undergo simple imprisonment of two years.
What Surat Trial Court had said
Considering various case laws and written statements, the Trial Court has held and observed thus:-
“For the only reason that defamation of “Modi” community or caste has been caused, present complaint has not been lodged, but on account of hurt caused to the complainant also, present complaint has been lodged. Further, during lecture given by the accused, on giving the name of thieve to Shri Narendra Modi, and comparing him with economic culprits of the Government of India viz. Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Mehul Choksi, Vijay Malya, he may have stopped his lecture at that point of time.
Further, he may have discussed regarding “exclusively said people only. But, the accused has, intentionally for causing insult of the persons with surname “Modi” and known as “Modi”, stated in his lecture as to “Why the names of all thieves is Modi.””
Thus, on 23rd March, 2023, Rahul Gandhi was convicted by Surat Trial court. However, He got bail and his punishment was suspended by trial court to give him time to appeal in session court.
The Case in Appellate Court
Rahul Gandhi appealed against the decision under Section 389(1) of the criminal Procedure code, 1973 and appellate court pronounced the decision on 20th April. The Court dismissed the application to stay conviction order passed by lower court by saying that,
“It is not disputed fact that the Appellant was the Member of Parliament and President of the second largest political party and looking to such stature of Appellant he should have been more careful with his words, which would have large impact on the mind of people. Any defamatory words coming from the mouth of Appellant are sufficient enough to cause mental agony to aggrieved person.
In this case, by uttering defamatory words viz. comparing persons having surname ‘Modi’ with thieves would definitely have caused mental agony and harm the reputation of complainant, who is socially active and dealing in public.”
Case in Gujrat High Court
Against the decision of the Surat Appellate Court, a revision application was filed by Rahul Gandhi to Gujrat High court under Section 397 read with Section 401 for quashing and setting aside the order of the appellate court and to stay the order passed by lower court.
Gujrat High Court gave 120 pages judgement and dismissed the revision application. While dismissing the application for stay of conviction order, the court said,
“Considering the facts and circumstances of the present case and the evidence on record, it appears that the Trial Court has not committed any error of facts and law in passing the impugned order of conviction against the accused for the alleged offences.In the instant case, the conviction is under Section 499 of the IPC for the offence of defamation not just against one person but a large segment of the society – an identifiable class.
The offence of Section 499 is to be examined not merely in the context of the maximum punishment it entails but also in the facts and circumstances and the persons against whom it has been made and by whom it has been made, for the purpose of exercising the power under Section 389 of the Code.
The offence of defamation is not to be ignored as a mere trivial offence as has been sought to be suggested by the petitioner rather it must be examined from the point of view of mischief that the provision seeks to control and also from the point of view of the alleged defamation being of an individual or a larger class.
In the present case, in order to gauge the seriousness of the offence, another factor which compounds the case against the petitioner is that the defamation alleged was of a large identifiable class and not just an individual. Due to the said fact, the conviction partakes the character of an offence affecting a large section of the public and by definition, the society at large and not just a case of an individual centric defamation case.
Further, the fact that the petitioner is a senior leader of the oldest political party in India with a large presence and a prominent figure in the realm of the Indian political landscape, also ensures that every utterance of the petitioner automatically gets large scale publicity.
In the modern electronic media environment, this large scale publicity is lightning quick, difficult to contain and leaves a permanent imprint in the form of website links, videos, etc. The petitioner is assumed to be aware of the same and being a public personality is vested with the duty to exercise this vast power at his disposal with caution ensuring that dignity and reputation of a large number of persons or any identifiable class is not jeopardised due to his political activities or utterances.
Moreover, as many as ten criminal cases are pending against the applicant. It is now need of the hour to have purity in politics. Representatives of people should be man of clear antecedent. It also appears from the record that after filing of the said complaint, another complaints came to be filed against the present accused, out of which, one complaint was filed by the grandson of Vir Sawarkar in concerned Court of Puna when the accused used defamation utterances against Vir Sawarkar at Cambridge and another complaint was also filed in concerned Court of Lucknow.
In the backdrop of the said circumstances, refusal to stay the conviction would not, in any way, result in injustice to the applicant.”
Case in Supreme Court
Against the rejection order of Gujrat High Court, Rahul Gandhi filed appeal in Supreme Court. Supreme Court gave its decision on 4 August 2023. The Supreme Court allowed the appeal and stayed the conviction order of the appellant.
While referring the Rafael Case, where Rahul Gandhi filed an application expressing regret over his remarks on Rafael, the court said,
“Except the admonition given to the appellant (Rahul Gandhi) by this Court (Supreme Court) in contempt proceedings, no other reason has been assigned by the learned Trial Judge while imposing the maximum sentence of two years.”
On two years maximum punishment, Supreme Court said,
“Had the sentence been even a day lesser, the provisions of sub-section (3) of Section 8 of the Act would not have been attracted.
6. Particularly, when an offence is non-cognizable, bailable and compoundable, the least that the Trial Judge was expected to do was to give some reasons as to why, in the facts and circumstances, he found it necessary to impose the maximum sentence of two years.
7. Though the learned Appellate Court and the learned High Court have spent voluminous pages while rejecting the application for stay of conviction, these aspects have not even been touched in their orders.”
Talking about the content of speech, Apex Court said,
“No doubt that the alleged utterances by the appellant are not in good taste. A person in public life is expected to exercise a degree of restraint while making public speeches.
However, as has been observed by this Court while accepting affidavit of the appellant herein in aforementioned contempt proceedings (Rafael Case), the appellant herein ought to have been more careful while making the public speech.
May be, had the judgment of the Apex Court in the contempt proceedings come prior to the speech made by the appellant, the appellant would have been more careful and exercised a degree of restraint while making the alleged remarks, which were found to be defamatory by the Trial Judge.”
And, the Court stayed the conviction order by saying that,
“no reasons have been given by the learned Trial Judge for imposing the maximum sentence which has the effect of incurring disqualification under Section 8(3) of the Act (Representation of people Act, 1951), the order of conviction needs to be stayed, pending hearing of the present appeal.
We are of the considered view that the ramification of sub-section (3) of Section 8 of the Act are wide-ranging. They not only affect the right of the appellant to continue in public life but also affect the right of the electorate, who have elected him, to represent their constituency.”
This timeline was about the stay-on-conviction order. The appeal against conviction by Surat Trial Court is still pending in Appellate court as per current information (8 July 2023).
Written for TheLawmatics by Advocate A.H. Gangohi.