In what has become a big relief to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, the Supreme Court has on Friday - August 4 stayed the conviction awarded to him earlier this March in a criminal defamation case that accused him of defaming the Modi community. With the apex court's stay, the Congress leader will be back to the Lok Sabha as an MP.
The verdict is welcomed and celebrated by the Congress party and it has come at a high time when the opposition parties are protesting against the Modi regime in the Parliament over the Prime Minister's silence in the Manipur violence. Now, it is expected that as Rahul Gandhi will be reinstated as a Lok Sabha member, he will attend the ongoing session and his presence will boost the opposition's fight against the BJP government.
Rahul Gandhi's battle to defeat an unprecedented conviction for a defamation case has taken shocking turns before the Gujarat courts and led to a serious national debate. Rahul Gandhi's appeal against the conviction at the Supreme Court was heard by a bench of three judges - Justices BR Gavai, PS Narasimha, and Sanjay Kumar and the Congress leader had challenged the Gujarat High Court's refusal to stay his conviction that led to the revocation of his Lok Sabha membership.
On Friday, after the closely-watched hearing, the apex court's bench delivered the verdict staying Rahul Gandhi's conviction and said that the (Gujarat) trial court didn't give specific reasons for imposing the maximum punishment under the offence. In the order, the Supreme Court observed, "The sentence of an offence punishable under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code is maximum of two years of sentence or fine or both."
"The learned trial judge, in the order passed by him, has awarded the maximum sentence of two years. Except the admonition to the petitioner by this Court in a contempt proceeding, no other reason has been granted by the learned trial judge while imposing the maximum sentence of two years. It is to be noted that it is only on account of the maximum sentence of two years imposed by the learned trial judge that the provisions of Section 8(3) of the Representation of Peoples Act came into play. Had the sentence been a day lesser, then the provisions would not have been attracted", the court's order read.
The bench further observed, "Particularly when the offence was non-compoundable, bailable, and cognizable, the least which was expected from the learned trial judge was to give reasons for imposing the maximum punishment. Though the learned appellate court and the High Court have spent voluminous pages in rejecting the applications, these aspects are not seen considered."
According to LiveLaw, by pouring a relief to Rahul Gandhi, the apex court had also observed that the utterances of Rahul Gandhi were not in good taste and said that a person in public life ought to have been more careful while making public speeches. The top court has also noted that the conviction has affected not only the right of the petitioner but also the rights of the electorate which elected him in the (Wayanad) constituency in Kerala.
Opining that no reason has been assigned by the trial court to award the maximum sentence, the bench said that it is staying the conviction. During the hearing, the apex court bench had witnessed heated arguments with senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for Rahul Gandhi, saying that 'there is no prior conviction for Gandhi. There was one contempt case in Supreme Court in which he tendered apology. Other cases are pending complaints filed by BJP workers'. "He is not a hardened criminal. There is no conviction in any case", Singhvi argued.
Recap of Rahul Gandhi's case and what led to his conviction
While addressing a political rally in Karnataka's Kolar in 2019, Rahul Gandhi asked why all thieves share the Modi surname. He had apparently referred to the fugitives Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Though there was no direct reference to the entire community, BJP had irked by his remark after which a BJP MLA and former Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi filed a complaint under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code.
In his complaint, Purnesh Modi had accused Rahul Gandhi of defaming everyone with a Modi surname. Hearing the case, a local court in Surat district had found Rahul Gandhi guilty in the criminal defamation case and awarded him a two-year prison sentence earlier this March. The local court judge HH Varma had then suspended the prison sentence and granted him bail in the case to move an appeal within thirty days. However, his conviction wasn't suspended due to which Rahul Gandhi's Lok Sabha membership was revoked the very next day under the Representation of Peoples Act 1951.
Later, he was asked to vacate his bungalow in Delhi and his Lok Sabha constituency, Wayanad, was declared vacant. After his conviction and disqualification from the Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi moved an appeal in a city sessions court in Surat. However, the session court had dismissed Rahul Gandhi's plea after which the Congress leader appealed to the Gujarat High Court. He embraced a setback from the High Court that refused to grant him an interim relief. Eventually, he knocked the doors of the Supreme Court, which had now stayed his conviction and paved a way to enter Lok Sabha again at a high time when the opposition parties need his presence to take on the Modi regime.