Gujarat HC refuses to grant Rahul Gandhi stay on conviction in defamation case
The Gujarat high court has refused to put on hold Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's conviction and two-year jail term in a criminal defamation case.
The Gujarat high court on Friday dealt a blow to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s endeavour to revive his Lok Sabha membership as it refused to put on hold his conviction and a two-year jail term in a criminal defamation case, ruling that the Congress leader “breached modesty” and that his offence involved “moral turpitude”.
The verdict sparked a political row with the Congress saying it will appeal the decision in the Supreme Court and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) saying Gandhi was a “habitual offender” in insulting people, pointing to his comments on the Modi surname before the 2019 general elections that prompted the criminal defamation case and eventually cost him his Lok Sabha seat.
“The present conviction is a serious matter affecting a large segment of society and needs to be viewed by this court with the gravity and significance it commands... It is now the need of the hour to have purity in politics. Representatives of people should be men of clear antecedent,” said justice Hemant P Prachchhak, rejecting Gandhi’s criminal revision application seeking a stay on his conviction.
The high court order means that Gandhi’s disqualification from the Lok Sabha will continue. While Gandhi cannot be arrested since his jail term remains suspended for now, only a stay on his conviction by the Supreme Court or a favourable judgment in his appeal by a sessions court can enable him to contest next year’s Lok Sabha elections.
Under the law, the conviction and two-year jail term renders Gandhi unfit to enter either House of Parliament for a period of eight years. But this can be reversed if he can get the conviction overturned or suspended by a higher court.
The 125-page judgment on Friday stressed on the fact that being a member of Parliament, Gandhi had a “bounden duty not to scandalise any person from the society” and 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”.
“Being a public personality, he 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... refusal to stay the conviction would not, in any way, result in injustice to the applicant,” held the court.
It further noted that there are 10 criminal cases pending against Gandhi, including the one filed by the grandson of VD Savarkar in a Pune court over the Congress leader’s controversial remarks on Savarkar at Cambridge University.
“In fact, the applicant is trying to seek stay of his conviction on absolutely non-existent grounds. It is a well-settled principle of law that stay of conviction is not a rule but an exception to be resorted to in rare cases,” added the court. At the same time, it also requested the sessions court to decide Gandhi’s criminal appeal against the trial court’s March 23 conviction order “as expeditiously as possible”.
Senior leader Abhishek Singhvi said the Congress had full faith in the judiciary.
“Now, we are going to Supreme Court… but the largest court is public and its conscience. People have understood the basic fact that the cottage industry of BJP, based on vendetta, has unleashed these diverse complaint-filing activity across the country to throttle Rahul Gandhi’s voice,” he said, adding that they were waiting for the judgment for 66 days.
Gandhi’s legal team has to now get at least a stay on the conviction in the next 10 months to allow the former Congress chief to contest the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. “The core legal issue is how on earth can anyone from an undefined, amorphous group of 10-13 crore people get up and have locus to claim defamation. Without answering this core question, the court appears to hold indirectly that anybody can claim to have been defamed without showing any personal loss or damage,” Singhvi said.
The BJP welcomed the order. “All across the country, Modi surname is usually of backward and most backward castes. This was a completely objectionable statement,” said senior leader Ravi Shankar Prasad.
The BJP leader said that Gandhi always defamed eminent leaders and the country. “We would like to ask Congress — why can’t you control Rahul Gandhi? Why can’t you train him to speak properly? Had he apologised in this matter, it would have ended... It has become a chronic habit of Rahul Gandhi to abuse, defame and shower the worst kind of abuses on eminent leaders and organisations,” Prasad added.
On March 23, a Gujarat magisterial court convicted Gandhi for his remarks after a BJP leader, Purnesh Modi, filed a criminal complaint. The Congress leader was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, which disqualified him as an MP under the Representation of People Act. Gandhi was declared disqualified as MP from Kerala’s Wayanad on March 24, following a notification of the Lok Sabha Secretariat.
Gandhi approached the sessions court, which rejected his plea for a stay on his conviction on April 20, compelling him to approach the high court. The April 20 order cited Gandhi’s stature as an MP and former chief of the country’s second-largest political party, and said he should have been more careful in his comments.
Represented by Singhvi, Gandhi argued before the high court that the offence for which he was awarded the maximum sentence of two years was not serious and that it did not involve any moral turpitude. During the arguments in May, Singhvi submitted before the high court that the consequences of denying a stay on the verdict will be irreversible, besides depriving the electorates of his constituency a representative to voice their concerns in the House. A possible bypoll in Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency will also cause significant expenditure, he added.
Senior advocate Nirupam Nanavaty, appearing for the complainant, opposed any interference in the magisterial court order, contending that it was indeed a matter of moral turpitude. He added that the trial court inflicted a sentence which was permissible in law. The high court had on May 2 reserved its verdict.
Delivering its judgment on Friday, the high court noted that Modi surname holder and members of Modi community were certainly identifiable and well-defined classes, and thus, the seriousness of Gandhi’s offence was compounded by the fact that the defamation alleged was of a large identifiable class, and not just an individual.
“The conviction of the petitioner involves the impairment of the cherished fundamental right to dignity and reputation of a large segment of the population. The public standing of the petitioner and the fact that any utterance of the petitioner attracts large scale publication gravely impairs and damages the reputation of the complainant and the identifiable class in question,” said the court.
It added that Gandhi used the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his election rally in Karnataka’s Kolar in April 2019 to add sensation, to affect the electoral fate of the BJP candidate of that constituency.
“And then the accused did not stop there but imputed that “saare choro ke naam modi hi kyu hai (why are all thieves named Modi)”. Thus, the present case would certainly fall within the category of seriousness of the offence...The revisioner has breached the modesty, even if his version is accepted and further he owes a duty to each individual and society in general not to influence the election on the basis of false fact. Thus, under the facts and circumstances of the case, the offence committed by the accused falls in the category of moral turpitude also,” underlined the court.
Calling the sessions court order “just, proper and legal”, the high court further told Gandhi that his statements attract huge publicity owing to his stature as a senior leader of the oldest political party in India, with a large presence.
“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,” it said.
The mere fact that the maximum punishment is of two years would not come to Gandhi’s aid to convince the court to disregard the seriousness of the offence, said the high court, concluding “there is no reasonable ground to stay the conviction of the applicant in the facts and circumstances of the case”.