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‘Modi surname' remark: SC stays conviction of Rahul Gandhi; says person in public life expected to exercise caution in speeches
New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday stayed the conviction of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in the criminal defamation case over the 'Modi surname' remark while saying that person in public life is expected to exercise caution while making public speeches.
Rahul Gandhi was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment which disqualified him as an MP under the rigours of the Representation of People Act.
After his conviction in the case, Gandhi was declared disqualified as MP from Kerala’s Wayanad on March 24 following notification of the Lok Sabha Secretariat.
A bench headed by Justice BR Gavai said no reason has been given by the trial court judge for imposing maximum sentence, and “order of conviction needs to be stayed pending final adjudication”.
The apex court while granting relief to Gandhi said the ramifications of the trial court’s order are wide.
Not only was Gandhi’s right to continue in public life affected but also that of the electorate who elected him, the bench said.
The bench also said there is no doubt that the utterances of Gandhi were “not in good taste” and “person in public life expected to exercise caution while making public speeches”.
The top court further said that Gandhi ought to have been more careful.
“Trial judge has awarded maximum sentence of two years. Except for the admonition by Supreme Court, no other reason has been granted for this by the trial judge forwarding a maximum of two years of the sentence. It is to be noted only on account of this maximum sentence, provisions of the Representation of People Act have come into play. Had the sentence been a day lesser, provisions would not have been attracted,” the bench stated in its order.
When the offence is non-cognisable, bailable, or compoundable, the trial judge is expected to give reasons for imposing maximum sentence, it added.
“Though the court has spent voluminous pages rejecting stay on conviction, these aspects are not considered in their orders,” the bench further said.
The apex court was hearing the appeal of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi against the Gujarat High Court order declining to stay Gandhi’s conviction in the case.
Appearing for Gandhi, senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi told the bench that the case was non-cognisable, bailable, and compoundable offence and the offence was not against society, not kidnapping, rape, or murder. He asked how can this become an offence involving moral turpitude.
Gandhi is not a hardened criminal and there are many cases filed by BJP Karyakartas but was never any conviction, he said.
He further added that Gandhi has already missed two sessions of the Parliament.
Senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani appearing for complainant Purnesh Modi argued Gandhi through his speech defamed the entire class, just because it matches that of the Prime Minister.
During the hearing, the bench said there is no whisper by the trial court judge about the need to grant a maximum sentence to Gandhi.
The bench asked whether the Constituency being unrepresented is a relevant factor. It observed that it’s not just one individual's right being affected, but an entire electorate of a Constituency.
Earlier, filing an affidavit, Gandhi said that he was not guilty of in the ‘Modi surname' remark case, and requested the Supreme Court to stay his conviction, to enable him to participate in the ongoing sittings of the Loksabha and the sessions thereafter.
The complainant, Gujarat BJP MLA Purnesh Ishwarbhai Modi, in his reply before the apex court, used slanderous terms such as 'arrogant' to describe him only because he has refused to apologise, stated Gandhi’s affidavit.
The complainant in Rahul Gandhi’s criminal defamation case in which he was convicted and sentenced to two years in jail by the Surat court over the 'Modi surname' remark, told the Supreme Court that the attitude of the Congress leader reveals arrogant entitlement and he doesn’t deserve any relief in form of stay on his conviction.
Gandhi has shown arrogance rather than being apologetic over his remarks and his attitude rank as insensitivity to an offended community and contempt for the law, he told the apex court.
Approaching the top court, Gandhi also sought a stay of the Gujarat High Court verdict which upheld his conviction. He said the High Court verdict “has no parallel or precedent in the jurisprudence of the law of defamation”.
He contended that it was “not only curious but extremely significant, indeed sinister, that all earlier cases, including the one regarding the present speech, were filed by members and office bearers of the ruling party”.
It was submitted that the surname ‘Modi’, in different parts of the country, encompassed different communities and sub-communities, which usually have no commonality or uniformity at all. The Modi surname belonged to various castes.
The complainant, Gujarat BJP MLA Purnesh Ishwarbhai Modi who simply has a ‘Modi’ surname, did not prove that he was prejudiced or damaged in any specific or personal sense, the plea filed in the apex court added.
Gandhi’s plea said, “Unprecedentedly, in a case of criminal defamation, a maximum sentence of two years has been imposed. This itself is a rarest of rare occurrence.”
The High Court on July 7 affirmed the decision of a Gujarat Sessions court, which had refused to put on hold a magisterial court order on March 23 convicting Gandhi and handing out the maximum punishment provided for criminal defamation under the Indian Penal Code.
Rejecting Gandhi’s plea, the High Court has said that he has been seeking a stay on his conviction on “absolutely non-existent grounds” and a stay on conviction is not a rule but an exception.
In March, the magisterial court convicted Gandhi for his remarks ahead of the 2019 national polls about the ‘Modi’ surname.
After the magisterial court convicted Gandhi, he approached the Sessions court, which rejected his plea for a stay on his conviction on April 20. Thereafter, he approached the High Court.
Congress leader was sentenced to two years in jail on March 23 under sections 499 and 500 (defamation) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in a case filed by Purnesh Modi.
At a rally in Karnataka's Kolar in April 2019, Rahul Gandhi, in a dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said, "How come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?" (ANI)