SC stays Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in ‘all Modis thieves’ case

NEW DELHI — Supreme Court stays Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in the criminal defamation case over the ‘Modi surname’ remark. The conviction in the case had led to his disqualification as MP.

Last month, Gandhi moved the Supreme Court challenging the Gujarat High Court’s July 7 order which dismissed his plea seeking a stay on his conviction in a defamation case over his “All Modi thieves” remark.

The appeal has been filed by Gandhi through advocate on-record Prasanna S.

Gandhi was disqualified as a Member of Parliament on March 24, 2023 after a Gujarat court convicted him and sentenced him to a two-year imprisonment on charges of criminal defamation for comments he made about the Modi surname.

In a setback to the 53-year-old politician, the HC dismissed his petition for a stay on conviction on July 7, observing that “purity in politics” is the need of the hour.

A stay on Gandhi’s conviction could have paved the way for his reinstatement as a Lok Sabha MP but he failed to get any relief from either the sessions court or the Gujarat High Court.

In his verdict, Justice Hemant Prachchhak noted public representatives should be “men of clear antecedent” and that a stay on conviction is not a rule but an exception exercised only in rare cases. There was no reasonable ground to stay the conviction, he added.

Delivering a 125-page verdict, Justice Prachchhak had also said Gandhi, a former Congress president, was already facing 10 criminal cases across several states, adding the lower order awarding him a two-year jail term for his remarks was “just, proper and legal”.

The judge maintained it was not an “individual-centric defamation case”, but something which affected a “large section of the society”.

The court also noted Gandhi took Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s name in his speech to “add sensation” and with an intention to “affect the result” of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

On July 7 itself, BJP MLA Purnesh Modi, the complainant in the defamation case against Gandhi, filed a caveat in the top court seeking that he be heard if the Congress leader moves a plea challenging the high court verdict refusing to stay his conviction in the case.

A caveat is filed in an appellate court by a litigant seeking an opportunity of being heard before any order is passed on the appeal of an opponent challenging the order or judgement of the court below.

Purnesh Modi, a former minister in the Gujarat government, had filed a criminal defamation case in 2019 against Gandhi over his “How come all thieves have Modi as the common surname?” remark made during an election rally at Kolar in Karnataka on April 13, 2019.

The high court judge Justice Prachchhak had said, after the current complaint was filed, another was submitted in a Pune court by the grandson of Hindutva ideologue V D Savarkar for the Congress leader’s “defamatory utterance against Veer Savarkar at Cambridge”. Also, a separate complaint against him was filed in a Lucknow court.

In this backdrop, refusal of stay on conviction will not in any way result in injustice to the applicant, the judge had said, adding, “the impugned order passed by the appellate court is just, proper and legal, and does not call for any interference.”

While noting that there was no reasonable ground to stay the conviction at this stage, Justice Prachchhak had also directed the district and sessions court of Surat to hear Gandhi’s appeal against the conviction “as expeditiously as possible”.

Referring to Gandhi’s submission that the offence for which he was convicted was not serious, the judge had noted his conviction is a “serious matter affecting a large segment of the society and needs to be viewed by this court with the gravity and significance it commands”.

Countering Gandhi’s submission that the offence was not serious, the court had noted, “the accused was member of parliament, president of second largest national level political party and president of the party that ruled the country for more than 50 years, who was giving a public speech to the thousands of people and made a false statement in the election with clear intention to affect the result of the election.”

“It appears that the accused suggested the name of the Hon’ble Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) to add sensation, apparently and for an intention to affect the result of the election of the candidate of the concerned constituency belonging to the political party of the Prime Minister.”

“The accused did not stop there but imputed that ‘saare choro ke naam modi hi kyu hai’. Thus, the present case would certainly fall within the category of serious offence,” the court had said.

A metropolitan magistrate’s court in Surat had on March 23 sentenced the former Congress president to two years in jail after convicting him under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 499 and 500 (criminal defamation).

Following the verdict, Gandhi, elected to the Lok Sabha from Wayanad in Kerala in 2019, was disqualified as an MP under the provisions of the Representation of the People Act.

Gandhi then challenged the order in a sessions court in Surat along with an application seeking a stay on his conviction. While granting him bail, the sessions court on April 20 refused to stay the conviction, following which he had approached the high court.