India opposition leader Rahul Gandhi handed two-year prison sentence in ‘Modi surname’ defamation case

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Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was found guilty of defamation on Thursday and sentenced to two years in prison by a district court for his remarks about prime minister Narendra Modi's surname.

The member of parliament from the Congress party was present at the court in Surat in Mr Modi's home state of Gujarat.

The case was filed by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker Purnesh Modi, who claimed that Mr Gandhi defamed the entire Modi community during a speech made at an election rally in 2019.

"Why all the thieves, be it Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi or Narendra Modi, have Modi in their names,” Mr Gandhi allegedly said during the rally in the southern Karnataka state. He was referring to fugitive business tycoon Nirav Modi and former Indian Premier League (IPL) chief Lalit Modi.

Shortly after his conviction, Mr Gandhi was granted bail for 30 days and allowed to file an appeal against the order.

The court of chief judicial magistrate HH Varma also imposed a fine of Rs 15,000 (£148).

The Congress party said Mr Gandhi will file an appeal.

The colonial-era criminal defamation law carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison and a fine.

Mr Gandhi previously argued that the remarks were made to highlight corruption and not targetted at any community.

“I belong to Modhwanik Ghanchi community which bears the Modi surname. The defamatory statements of Rahul Gandhi had hurt our sentiments…," said the plaintiff.

"Today, we are satisfied with the order passed by the court."

Defence lawyer Kirit Pawala said the verdict passed by the court wasn’t satisfactory as some of “our arguments were not taken into consideration”.

"The issues we raised were, there is no community by the name of Modi and even the complainant is not a Modi as his earlier surname was Bhootwala and later changed to Modi,” he was quoted by the Indian Express as saying.

Mr Gandhi, who recently concluded his 136-day-long march across the country, responded to the conviction by sharing a quote by Mahatma Gandhi in Hindi on Twitter. “My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my god, non-violence is the means to get it,” he tweeted.

The Congress MP is one of the main opposition leaders in India who is expected to go up against Mr Modi next year when he seeks his third term in office.

Mr Gandhi’s conviction just a year prior to the general elections is concerning for the opposition given that he is at risk of being disqualified from the lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha).

The Congress party controls less than 10 per cent of the elected seats in the Lok Sabha after suffering embarrassing defeats in the last two general elections.

“The Modi government is a victim of political bankruptcy”, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said on Twitter.

Congress MP Jairam Ramesh said Mr Gandhi was being "punished for speaking the truth and raising his voice against the dictator".

"The law of the country gives an opportunity to appeal to Rahul Gandhi, he will exercise this right. We are not afraid," he added.

The verdict was criticised by members of the opposition parties and civil society members who found the order confusing.

"Defamation law 101 is that references to a generic class of persons are not actionable unless an individual can show a direct reference to themselves," said author and legal scholar Gautam Bhatia in a tweet.

"If a man says 'all lawyers are thieves', I - a random lawyer - can’t file a case against him for defamation unless I can show it’s an imputation aimed at me," he added.

Delhi chief minister and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Arvind Kejriwal said there is an ongoing “conspiracy” to “eliminate” non-BJP leaders and parties by prosecuting them.

Although AAP has differences with the Congress, Mr Kejriwal said, it was “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.”

Priyanka Chaturvedi, a member of the upper house of parliament (Rajya Sabha) from Shiv Sena party, said the conviction will have far-reaching consequences.

“This non-stop targeting of opposition leaders is condemnable and it won’t silence the voices who speak for the people,” she said.

Mr Gandhi earlier this month faced criticism from the BJP and was repeatedly called upon to offer an apology for saying that Indian democracy was under attack.