A court in western India has found opposition leader Rahul Gandhi guilty of defamation for a speech he made in 2019 in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi, and sentenced him to two years in prison.
Gandhi was present on Thursday at the court in Surat, a city in Gujarat, which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. He was given bail and the sentence was suspended for 30 days.
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The criminal defamation case was filed against Gandhi by a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after a speech during the 2019 general election in which he referred to the surname Modi and asked how all thieves had the surname.
In the speech, Gandhi referred to the prime minister and two fugitive Indian businessmen, all surnamed Modi, while talking about alleged high-level corruption in the country.
Gandhi, 52, on Thursday told the court he had made the comment to highlight corruption and not against any community.
“Truth is my god,” he tweeted after the court verdict, quoting India’s iconic freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi. The two are not related.
The Prime Minister is not India!
In no way is the criticism of the PM or the Govt an 'attack on India'!
I will speak the truth, and fight for it, come what may. pic.twitter.com/2Mkg0BgpZD
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) March 20, 2023
An adviser to the federal government, Kanchan Gupta, said Gandhi, a member of the lower house of parliament, could face immediate disqualification from the legislature following the conviction, in line with a 2013 order of the country’s highest court.
Any disqualification for Gandhi, a former Congress president and its star campaigner, could complicate the party’s chances at the 2024 general election, where the BJP is widely expected to win a third straight term.
‘Cowardly, dictatorial’ BJP
But Gandhi’s lawyer B M Mangukiya said his client had not meant to insult anyone.
“When the magistrate asked Gandhi what he had to say in his defence, the Congress leader said that he was fighting to expose corruption in the country,” Mangukiya told reporters outside the court. “His comments were not meant to hurt or insult any community.”
Gandhi’s party said the case against him was brought by a “cowardly and dictatorial” BJP government because he was “exposing their dark deeds”.
“The Modi government is a victim of political bankruptcy”, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said on Twitter. “We will appeal in the higher court.”
Gandhi won support from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that rules Delhi and two of whose top leaders are in jail on what they call trumped-up charges.
“A conspiracy is being hatched to eliminate non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them,” AAP chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal wrote on Twitter.
“We have differences with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case like this. It is the job of the public and the opposition to ask questions. We respect the court but disagree with the decision.”
Modi’s government has been widely accused of using the defamation law to target and silence critics. Gandhi faces at least two other defamation cases elsewhere in the country, media reports said.
Gandhi is also on bail in another money laundering case that has been snaking its way through India’s glacial legal system for more than a decade. He denies any financial impropriety.
Gandhi is one of India’s main opposition leaders who will take on Modi when he seeks his third term as prime minister in 2024.
The Congress leader has repeatedly attacked the BJP and its ideological mentor – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right Hindu supremacist organisation – for dividing India, officially a secular nation, along religious lines.
The BJP has been accused of running an anti-Muslim agenda, with increasing attacks against the community since Modi became prime minister in 2014. Dozens of Muslims have been lynched in the past eight years amid rising Islamophobia. The BJP denies the charges.
The Congress party ruled for decades after its founders led India to independence from British colonial rule in 1947. But its fortunes have declined precipitously since the BJP easily defeated it in the general elections of 2014 and 2019.
The party currently controls less than 10 percent of the elected seats in parliament’s lower house.