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Rahul Gandhi Returns to Lok Sabha: A Deeper Look at SC Verdict, Its Implications

The final verdict in the defamation case against the Congress leader still hangs in the balance in Gujarat.

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After his disqualification from Parliament, Rahul Gandhi’s second coming to it, in time for a motion of no-confidence against the government, will be a defining image of the seventeenth Lok Sabha.

The defamation saga including the conviction by Gujarat courts, imposition of a maximum possible sentence of two years and a resultant Parliamentary disqualification, have now been set at naught by the Supreme Court’s order staying the conviction itself.

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An Overview of The Complaint: How Justified Was It?

BJP MLA Purnesh Modi's complaint against Gandhi was based on the second explanation to section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which reads “It may amount to defamation to make an imputation concerning a company or an association or collection of persons as such.”

Pertinently, none of the three named Modis: Narendra, Lalit, or Nirav filed a criminal complaint or a civil suit for defamation on being called thieves.

Now, do all people with the Modi surname really qualify as a “collection of persons” as such?

There is a precedent in a 1965 case called Sahib Singh Mehra vs State Of Uttar Pradesh, where allegations of corruption were made against public prosecutors in the city of Aligarh.

The Supreme court held:

The final verdict in the defamation case against the Congress leader still hangs in the balance in Gujarat.

The top court added:

The final verdict in the defamation case against the Congress leader still hangs in the balance in Gujarat.

In a later decision in 2010 in Khushbu Sundar’s case, the court reviewed earlier case law including a 1972 case of G Narasimhan & Ors. Etc vs T V Chokkappa involving The Hindu newspaper, where it was said:

"…Undoubtedly, the explanation is wide but in order to demonstrate the offence of defamation, such a collection of persons must be an identifiable body so that it is possible to say with precision that a group of particular persons, as distinguished from the rest of the community stood defamed."

The court added:

The final verdict in the defamation case against the Congress leader still hangs in the balance in Gujarat.

In the Khushbu case, the apex court went on to suggest, “In fact, it is the reputation of an individual person which must be in question and only such a person can claim to have "a legal peg for a justifiable claim to hang on.”

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If the Logic of the Surat Court Were to Be Upheld

It is obvious that people with an identical surname do not form a "collection of persons" as is contemplated under the criminal law of defamation. Sir Homi Modi, Lala Gujar Mal Modi, Syed Modi, Zia Modi, and Purnendu Modi while being "a collection of persons" are only an indefinite agglomeration of people with a common surname.

They are not a homogeneous company or association of the type required under explanation 2 of section 499.

If the logic of the Surat court were to be upheld, then Manmohan Singh, Ranveer Singh, Rajnath Singh, Yuvraj Singh, Amritpal Singh, and Tavleen Singh would all be defamed by stories told about Santa Singh and Banta Singh.

The final verdict in the defamation case against the Congress leader still hangs in the balance in Gujarat.

To put it differently, to say every horse is a herbivore does not imply that every herbivore is a horse. Asking why every crook is named Smith is not to have asked why everyone named Smith is a crook.

How Did The Surat Court Decision Fall Short?

Though a maximum sentence of two years is provided, it is rarely given upon a first conviction for defamation. Offenders are often let off with an admonition or a fine. In such an insubstantial case, the magistrate in Surat imposing the maximum penalty of two years must be assumed to have intended the consequence of disqualification from Parliament as well.

Though the magistrate stayed the sentence of imprisonment, the guillotine of disqualification fell on Rahul Gandhi’s membership of Parliament, because the conviction was not stayed by the appellate courts in Gujarat. The sessions court declined to stay the conviction in April this year and Rahul's legal team moved the High Court of Gujarat in May 2023.

By a judgment on 7 July 2023, the High Court also declined a stay of conviction.

Meanwhile, the Lok Sabha secretariat immediately notified his disqualification and for good measure, got Rahul Gandhi to surrender his government accommodation.

This kind of overkill is to my mind a major factor that led to the Supreme Court order, to stay the conviction. The order in pertinent part reads “The learned trial judge, in the order passed by him, has awarded the maximum sentence of two years.
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This Could Have Been Sorted Out in the Lower Courts

Except for 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.

Particularly when the offence was non-cognizable, bailable, and compoundable, 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 (to be) considered".

A matter which should have been sorted out in the courts below was escalated all the way to the Supreme Court, which by staying the disqualification, gave Gandhi a respite.

The final verdict in the defamation case against the Congress leader still hangs in the balance in Gujarat.

Now, it is crucial to understand what this means for Rahul Gandhi and for the country. To the layperson, this might seem like a routine legal tussle, but its implications run deeper.

The verdict has the potential to redefine the boundaries of political discourse in India; it could either pave the way for unrestrained political rhetoric or push for more accountability amongst political leaders. The future course of action remains to be seen.

The final verdict in the defamation case against the Congress leader still hangs in the balance in Gujarat.
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How Will The SC Verdict Impact Political Discourse?

From a broader perspective, this case could significantly affect the nature of political discourse in the country.

The fact that a prominent political figure like Rahul Gandhi was taken to court over a defamatory statement indicates an increasing intolerance for unchecked political rhetoric.

However, the Supreme Court's decision to stay his disqualification might imply that the judiciary is careful not to stifle free speech. It is indeed a delicate balance between ensuring accountability and preserving freedom of speech.

The final verdict in the defamation case against the Congress leader still hangs in the balance in Gujarat.

The court, by granting the stay, has challenged politicians to tread this fine line responsibly. The implications of this decision could reverberate throughout the country, prompting politicians to exercise caution in their public statements and debates.

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The Final Verdict Still Hangs in The Balance

While the Supreme Court's stay has provided temporary relief for Rahul Gandhi, the final verdict in the defamation case still hangs in the balance in Gujarat. It is a situation laden with uncertainty, and one that could potentially reshape the political landscape of the country.

Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that this case will serve as a significant milestone in Indian politics, reminding leaders of their responsibilities and the implications of their words.

As spectators, we can only wait, watch, and hope that the final outcome reinforces the principles of justice, fairness, and responsibility in the political arena.

(Sanjay Hegde is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Rahul Gandhi    Supreme Court 

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