The Gujarat High Court order declining to stay the conviction of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case is quite unreasonable and borders on the fanciful. Justice Hemant M. Prachchhak becomes the third judicial authority in Gujarat to rule that Mr. Gandhi, in using the words “Why do all these thieves have Modi as a surname?” in an election campaign speech in 2019, had committed defamation against a large number of people and that it was a “serious offence”. The purported seriousness of the offence has been cited to justify the award of a two-year jail term, the maximum punishment for defamation. While the remark is unlikely to have troubled or caused any reputational harm to any reasonable person, the trial magistrate, a civil court hearing an appeal against conviction, and now, the High Court, have unanimously concluded that the offence is grave, amounting to moral turpitude. The High Court has agreed with the first appellate court that Mr. Gandhi does not deserve the benefit of stay of conviction, an order that would help overcome his disqualification from the Lok Sabha. It has enthusiastically endorsed the conclusion that the offence is grave because it was committed by a Member of Parliament and leader of a party that had ruled the country for decades and that it was a speech that contained a false statement made with intent to affect the outcome of an election.
The court has controversially ruled that the statement has defamed a determinable group of people, referring to those with the surname ‘Modi’. It has thus rejected the key argument that 13 crore people with the surname could not have been aggrieved by that sentence. How the court concluded that a large number of people were aggrieved is not clear when no one except the complainant has claimed harm to reputation. It is disconcerting that court after court has endorsed a punishment tailored specifically to disqualify a Member of Parliament. The High Court has also ignored the argument that a legislator cannot be pushed out of the House and barred from electoral contest for an offence that was neither serious nor involved moral turpitude. Instead, it has made a fanciful claim that the law’s object is to maintain purity in politics and cited the pendency of other cases against Mr. Gandhi to decline to stay the conviction. It has even referred to a complaint by V.D. Savarkar’s grandson against Mr. Gandhi, as though a political remark could add another layer of gravity to the offence. The extent to which a judicial order can go to make a defamation case sound like a horrific crime against society at large is quite astounding.