August 4, 2023 : In a significant legal development, the Supreme Court of India has granted a stay on the conviction of Rahul Gandhi, a prominent Congress leader and former Member of Parliament (MP), in the criminal defamation case related to his “why all thieves have Modi surname” remark. This decision effectively puts his disqualification as an MP on hold, allowing him to resume his political responsibilities.
A three-judge bench comprising Justices BR Gavai, PS Narasimha, and Sanjay Kumar issued the stay after evaluating the grounds presented by Rahul Gandhi’s legal team. The Court, while acknowledging the remarks were not in “good taste,” noted the lack of adequate reasoning by the trial judge for imposing the maximum punishment of two years under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code.
The bench underscored that the conviction held wider implications, not only for Rahul Gandhi’s personal rights but also for the electorate that had elected him. The absence of a coherent rationale behind the trial court’s decision to impose the harshest sentence prompted the Supreme Court’s intervention.
While the bench refrained from making any conclusions on the merits of the case, it highlighted the rarity of such a severe sentence for a non-compoundable, bailable, and cognizable offense that involves no moral turpitude. Rahul Gandhi’s legal team, led by Senior Advocate Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, emphasized that the conviction effectively silenced the Congress leader for eight years, as it led to his disqualification from participating in elections as per the Representation of Peoples Act.
The ‘Modi-Thieves’ remark had created a political uproar and resulted in a defamation case filed by BJP MLA Purnesh Mod. Singhvi argued that the class of persons with the Modi surname was not an identifiable group within the scope of Section 499/500 IPC, which deals with defamation complaints. Furthermore, he questioned the evidentiary basis of the case, asserting that the complainant had not personally heard the speech but relied on second-hand sources such as a WhatsApp message and a newspaper article.
The stay on Rahul Gandhi’s conviction has been received with mixed reactions. Supporters of the Congress party view it as a temporary reprieve that upholds democratic principles and affords a second chance for the elected representative to serve. Conversely, critics argue that the defamation case highlighted the need for more responsible political discourse and that the Supreme Court’s decision might set a precedent for less accountability in public statements.
As the legal battle continues, the case has highlighted the intricate balance between freedom of speech, political expression, and the legal boundaries of defamation in India’s democratic framework. The Supreme Court’s decision will likely have far-reaching implications for future cases involving political leaders, their statements, and the interplay between law and political discourse.