Rahul Gandhi’s Criminal Defamation Conviction and Sentencing Unjustified, says Supreme Court

The Bench held that the two-year jail term awarded to Rahul Gandhi for his Modi remark was excessive and devoid of reason.

Today, the Supreme Court stayed Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in the criminal defamation case against him over the ‘Modi surname’ remark in 2019. The three-Judge Bench quashed the Gujarat High Court’s judgement which refused to stay a lower court’s decision to award an extreme two-year jail sentence to Gandhi, which effectively disqualified one of the strongest critics of the Prime Minister from his Lok Sabha membership. His alleged crime—saying ‘Why are all these thieves named Modi?’. 

Appalled by the lack of strong reasoning for such a strict sentence, a Bench comprising Justices B.R. Gavai, P.S. Narasimha and Manoj Misra stayed the Trial Court’s decision. The stay will apply until Gandhi’s larger appeal against the lower court decision is heard on merits by the Gujarat High Court. Cognisant of the impact of Gandhi’s disqualification on the impending 2024 elections, the court suggested the petitioners try and expedite the proceedings before the High Court. 

Arguments by Senior Advocate Abhishek M. Singhvi, Appearing for Rahul Gandhi

The complaint against the opposition leader was filed by Purnesh Modi, a member of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly, who felt that Gandhi’s remarks defamed the whole of the ‘Modi’ community consisting of over 13 crore people. Opening the arguments in Court, Singhvi insisted that this was untrue. He stated that there were several homogenous communities in Gujarat, with the ‘Modi’ surname, and these 13 crore Modis did not form a homogeneous group of people. For this reason, the entire community could not be collectively impacted by the phrase. Singhvi pointed out that the complainant was someone who did not originally use his Modi surname but included it as part of his name in the 1980’s. Hence, he lacked the authority to approach the Court.

For a comment to be considered a defamatory statement, the accused must have the ‘intention’ to cause damage or defame under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The appellants argued that Gandhi had no intention to defame those who bore the ‘Modi’ surname and hence his comments did not amount to criminal defamation. 

To describe a passing comment from Gandhi as ‘moral turpitude’ was an extreme action by the Gujarat High Court, according to Singhvi. These comments from the opposition leader could not be compared to a grave crime such as rape or murder. The Gujarat High Court had called Gandhi a repeat offender, as a basis to convict him. Singhvi declared this unacceptable, as Gandhi had never been convicted in any criminal defamation case before the 2019 incident. He also informed the Bench that most of the cases against Rahul Gandhi were filed by Bharatiya Janata Party’s karyakartas, hinting that the complaint was baseless and reeked of political ill intent. 

Further attempting to destroy any credibility of the complaint, Singhvi informed the Court that the complaint was not based on ‘direct evidence’, but on a video that Purnesh Modi saw on his WhatsApp.

Singhvi concluded by stating that the lower court excessively imposed a maximum sentence of two years for a comment made in passing. This was disproportionate to the offence he committed. The result of this quantum of sentence was Rahul Gandhi’s immediate disqualification from Parliament under Section 8 of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951 which disqualifies a member who has been convicted of two years of imprisonment. Singhvi claimed the people of Wayanad, Kerala—Gandhi’s Lok Sabha constituency since 2019 —were impacted by his disqualification. Overnight, they were left without any representation in Parliament. The Congress leader would also be denied participation in the upcoming elections if the trial court sentencing is to be upheld. 

Arguments by SA Mahesh Jethmalani, Appearing for Complainant Purnesh Modi

Following Singhvi’s compelling arguments, SA Mahesh Jethmalani rebuttal landed rather unsuccessfully. He tried to convince the Court that the complainant’s oral statement and testimonies of eye witnesses provided strong evidence to prove that Rahul Gandhi’s comments were defamatory. Attempting to truly convey the impact of Gandhi’s words, Jethmalani quoted from the alleged speech to the Bench.

‘In sab choron ke naam Modi, Modi, Modi, Kyun hai? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi” (Why are all these thieves named Modi? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi). 

Jethmalani pointed out that the comment did not stop there. Gandhi followed it with ‘Aur agar thoda dhundoge, bahut sare Modi nikal aayenge’ (if you look further, you will find more Modi’s) 

Jethmalani connected these two sentences to mean that it was clear that the appellant wanted to defame the whole Modi community—all arising from his hatred for the Prime Minister. 

On the question of the sentencing, Jethmalani submitted that the Trial Court and the High Court took into account Rahul Gandhi’s previous charges of contempt of court in 2018 and other pending cases against him. Therefore, the imposition of the maximum sentence was justified. 

Justice Gavai was quick to interject and pointed out that a sentence below two years, even if it was one year, 11 months and 29 days, would not have led to the disqualification from Parliament. Justice Gavai seemed to imply that there was a larger reason for the Trial Court to award him a disproportionate sentence, which happened to be enough to render him disqualified. 

Jethmalani continued that the relevant factors for consideration in criminal defamation were twofold—whether a statement was indeed made and if it was in fact ‘defamatory’.  

If the answer to both questions was in the affirmative, the accused would not have a case. Justice Gavai wondered if lack of representation in the accused’s constituency is a factor that the Court should consider. Jethmalani responded that members of Parliament can be re-elected, and a constituency would find new representation with the next round of elections. Hence, this was not something to consider in a defamation case. 

Gandhi’s Comments Distasteful, but Not Warranting Two Years of Jail 

After a closed-door discussion, the Bench unanimously decided to stay the conviction. Justice Gavai dictating the Order held that there was ‘no doubt’ that Rahul Gandhi’s comments were distasteful. He emphasised that public figures must be careful about what they say. However, the top court found the lower Court lacking in sufficient justification while imposing the maximum sentence. The Bench also gave weightage to the rights of the people in Wayanad constituency, voicing concern that they would be left without their elected representative. The Court stayed his two-year jail term till the larger questions in the appeal were decided by the appellate High Court.