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PNS|New Delhi

The Supreme Court on Friday stayed the conviction of Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi in the criminal defamation case against him over his ‘Modi surname’ remark, while maintaining that his remarks are not in good taste, especially for a person in public life.

The trial judge has awarded the maximum sentence of two years in the case, the top court observed, pointing out that it would not have attracted disqualification if the sentence was a day lesser.

Rahul Gandhi had also in April told a sessions court in Surat his conviction by a magistrate’s court in the 2019 defamation case was erroneous, patently perverse, and he was sentenced in a manner so as to attract disqualification as a Member of Parliament. He had said he was treated harshly by the trial court, which was “overwhelmingly influenced” by his status as an MP.

No doubt that the utterances by the petitioner were not in good taste, the Supreme Court said today, “and the petitioner ought to have been more careful in making speeches”.
“The ramifications of disqualification not just affect the right of the individual but also the electorate,” it said.

This is Rahul Gandhi’s last chance before acquittal, and will allow him to attend the Parliament and contest elections, his lawyer earlier argued in the court, adding that the High Court had reserved its judgement for 66 days, and due to conviction in the case, Mr Gandhi has already lost two Parliament sessions.

A Supreme Court bench comprising Justices BR Gavai, PS Narasimha, and Sanjay Kumar was hearing Rahul Gandhi’s plea for stay on his conviction. The Gujarat High Court had earlier refused to stay his conviction in the criminal defamation case.

Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, representing Rahul Gandhi, said the trial has been completed, and Mr Gandhi has even been convicted, yet there is no evidence so far.

Mr Singhvi said this is the first time 30 crore people have held to be an identifiable class. “They are amorphous, non-homogenous…communities, castes, and groups with appellation ‘Modi’ are totally different,” he said.

Justice Gavai had at the beginning of the hearing said Mr Gandhi will have to make out an exceptional case for a stay on conviction, to which Mr Singhvi said he was not arguing conviction today.

Mr Singhvi argued the complainant Purnesh Modi’s original surname is not Modi, and he had changed it.

“The complainant Purnesh Modi himself said that his original surname was not Modi. He belongs to Modh Vanika Samaj,” he argued, and claimed not a single of the persons Mr Gandhi had named during his speech have sued him.

“Interestingly, everybody who is aggrieved in this very ‘small’ community of 13 crores, the only people suing are BJP office-holders. Very strange,” Mr Singhvi said.

The Supreme Court then pointed out that the trial court has also spoken about Mr Gandhi’s criminal antecedents.

“They have cited 13 cases but no conviction in any of those cases. How are these cited for criminal antecedents? I am not a hardened criminal…No conviction despite…look at the chart. Full of cases filed by BJP karyakartas, but never any conviction,” Mr Singhvi responded.

Advocate Sanghvi then pointed out that the High Court treats this as a serious offence involving a moral turpitude.

“Not a single material of moral turpitude. Not a single judgement. This is non-cognisable, bailable, and compoundable. Not against society, not kidnapping, rape, murder…maximum sentence of 2 yrs…How can this become an offence involving moral turpitude?” he said.

There’s no other case where two years sentence has been given, he added.

Mr Gandhi while maintaining that he was not guilty, on Wednesday requested the top court to stay his two-year conviction, enabling him to participate in the ongoing sittings of the Lok Sabha and sessions thereafter.

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?”.

In an affidavit before the top court, the former Wayanad MP said that he has always maintained that he is not guilty of the offence and that the “conviction is unsustainable” and if he had to apologise and compound the offence, “he would have done it much earlier”.

Rahul Gandhi has challenged the trial court order in the Surat Sessions court, where the appeal is pending.

Will protect the idea of India, come what may: Rahul Gandhi after SC relief

After the Supreme Court stayed his conviction in the defamation case, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Friday said his duty of protecting the idea of India remains the same and he would continue to do so. “Come what may, my duty remains the same. Protect the idea of India,” he said on Twitter soon after the apex court granted him relief by staying his conviction by a lower court in Gujarat. The Gujarat High Court had earlier upheld his conviction, which was stayed by the Supreme Court on Friday. Gandhi was also accorded a grand welcome by Congress workers at the All India Congress Committee headquarters. The former Congress chief visited the party office along with his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Ecstatic party workers at the AICC headquarters danced to the beats of drums, distributed sweets and unfurled the Congress flag to welcome Gandhi.

Chronology of events

April 13, 2019: At an election rally at Kolar in Karnataka, Rahul Gandhi says, “Why do all the thieves, be it Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi or Narendra Modi, have Modi as the common surname?”
April 15, 2019: BJP MLA from Surat Purnesh Modi files criminal defamation suit against Rahul Gandhi for the remark.
July 7, 2019: Rahul Gandhi’s first appearance before Surat metropolitan court in the case
March 23, 2023: Surat metropolitan court sentences Rahul Gandhi to two years in jail after holding him guilty for defamation.
March 24, 2023: Rahul Gandhi disqualified as a Member of Parliament as a result of being convicted and awarded two-year jail term.
April 2, 2023: Rahul Gandhi challenges the metropolitan court’s order in a sessions court in Surat, which is still pending, along with an application seeking a stay to the conviction.
April 20, 2023: Surat sessions court grants him bail but refuses to stay conviction.
April 25, 2023: Rahul Gandhi files revision appeal before High Court against lower court order.
July 7, 2023: Gujarat HC dismisses Rahul Gandhi’s plea seeking a stay on his conviction
July 15, 2023: Rahul Gandhi moves SC challenging Gujarat HC’s order, says if not stayed the verdict would throttle free speech.
July 21, 2023: SC issues notice to Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi and the state government on Rahul Gandhi’s appeal challenging the high court verdict that declined to put on hold his conviction
Aug 4, 2023: SC stays Rahul Gandhi’s conviction, paving the way for the revival of his Lok Sabha membership.

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