Conviction of Rahul Gandhi puts spotlight on criminal defamation and free speech

‘How come all of these thieves have Modi in their names’, a taunt that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had made in 2019 during electioneering, has been found by a Court in Surat to be defamatory. The court has awarded a two-year imprisonment, which is harshest punishment and maximum that can be given under Section 500 of the IPC, leading to his disqualification from Lok Sabha.  

Significantly, Section 499 of the IPC refers to the expression ‘collection of persons’, who can be identified to initiate criminal proceedings for defamation. The question is: can all those with the ‘Modi’ surname and not merely the three individuals who were blamed by the Congress leader, be aggrieved?

Indeed, it was unbecoming of senior opposition leader Rahul Gandhi to indulge in name-calling but the haste shown in awarding punishment and the quantum seems disproportionate to his offence and raises questions.  The statutes prescribe jail terms only in proportion to the gravity of the crime. Was a general remark grave enough to warrant the maximum sentence.

Criminal defamation is a colonial legacy and should have no place in modern democracy because it acts as a tool to suppress criticism and free voice.  The Opposition has been mounting pressure for a JPC on the Adani issue while the ruling party had been insisting that Rahul Gandhi should apologize for what he had said in London. To add to the acrimony, the Congress has moved a notice of breach of privilege against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Rajya Sabha.

The Opposition is building a narrative that action against convicted Congress Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi was taken in undue haste, first disqualifying him right away though the two-year sentence had been suspended by the same trial court for 30 days, and then serving him a notice to vacate the government bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi by April 22. However, the Election Commission showed restraint when it said there was no hurry to declare by-election to the Wayanad Lok Sabha seat as the trial court has given Rahul Gandhi one month to file an appeal.

Will the prosecution make Rahul Gandhi a bigger leader because history is replete with examples that whenever a leader is persecuted, he or she gets people’s sympathy. Already, 18 opposition parties, including the Aam Aadmi Party and the Trinamool Congress which had been strongly critical of Congress, have come together. The decision to ask the Congress, the largest Opposition party, to take the initiative for coordinating the fight  to “save democracy” is the acknowledgement of the reality that the Congress cannot be excluded from any effort at total opposition unity.

The ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ during which Rahul walked 4,080-plus kilometres in 136 days, made people take Gandhi scion seriously and now the opposition parties are coming together after his conviction. However, he has to avoid controversies like “My name is not Savarkar. I am Gandhi. I won’t apologise,” which can undermine the efforts for opposition unity.