A court in India found opposition leader Rahul Gandhi guilty of defamation on Thursday 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, a senior leader of the Congress party and the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, will appeal against the order in a higher court, his party said. The judgment was passed by a court in the city of Surat, located in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
“The court has found Rahul Gandhi’s comment to be defamatory,” said Ketan Reshamwala, an advocate for complainant Purnesh Modi, a Gujarat lawmaker from the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “He has been sentenced to two years in jail.”
Gandhi was present at the Surat court, which gave him bail immediately and suspended the sentence for a month.
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In the speech ahead of the last general election in 2019, Gandhi referred to the prime minister and two fugitive Indian businessmen, all with the Modi surname, while talking about alleged high-level corruption in the country.
Every Indian must watch this and ask if Rahul Gandhi is wrong in what he said in his speech?
Questioning corruption is wrong?
Conviction for saying the truth?
Watch the video and Ask. pic.twitter.com/8kRukZZFcN
— Srivatsa (@srivatsayb) March 23, 2023
On Thursday, Gandhi told the court that his comment was not against 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, one of Modi’s main rivals ahead of the 2024 general election, 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.”
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The BJP said no one was above the law.
“The law of India has it that if an individual or an organisation has been defamed with scurrilous statements, scandalous comments, abuses or any defamatory remarks, then he or she has a right to seek redress,” BJP lawmaker Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters.
“But the Congress party has an objection with this; it wants complete freedom for Rahul Gandhi to utter abuses.”
Gandhi’s once-dominant Congress controls less than 10% of the elected seats in parliament’s lower house and lost badly to the BJP in the last two general elections.
Modi remains India’s most popular politician by a substantial margin and is widely expected to win a third victory at the next general election in 2024.