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Rahul Gandhi Case: Did Sessions Court Miss an Opportunity to Right a Wrong?

"There is a price for speaking the truth these days!" Rahul Gandhi said as he vacated his Tughlaq Lane bungalow.

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"There is a price for speaking the truth these days! Whatever the cost, I will pay it," Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said on Saturday, 22 April, as he vacated the bungalow that had been his home since 2005.

A disqualified Member of Parliament cannot continue to reside in government premises. A day prior to him handing over the keys to his house, a Sessions Court had dismissed his plea challenging his conviction in a defamation case that had resulted in his disqualification.

"There is a price for speaking the truth these days!" Rahul Gandhi said as he vacated his Tughlaq Lane bungalow.

As per Section 8(3) of the the Representation of the People Act,  an MP convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years, other than offences mentioned in 8(1) and 8(2) (in which case different conditions apply), shall be disqualified.

"The punishment is undoubtedly harsh because of the consequences it has," former Supreme Court Justice Madan Lokur had told The Quint in the aftermath of Gandhi's conviction, without going into the merits of the case.

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Commenting on the Sessions Court's dismissal of Gandhi's appeal, Advocate Harshit Anand said:

"Rahul Gandhi is an elected representative and shouldn’t be debarred from serving his constituency for a speech offence. Considering that this was appellate jurisdiction, the appellate court should have this taken into account as it had the opportunity to compare competing interests and strike a balance."

The sessions judge had held that Gandhi “has failed in demonstrating that by not staying the conviction and denying an opportunity to contest the election on account of disqualification…an irreversible and irrevocable damage is likely to be caused” to him.

This Anand noted is a "flawed argument."

BUT FIRST THINGS FIRST:

Why was Rahul Gandhi's conviction concerning to begin with?

“Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification is the consequence of application of a law to an inapplicable case," Supreme Court Advocate Shadan Farasat had told The Quint for a previous piece.

"There is a price for speaking the truth these days!" Rahul Gandhi said as he vacated his Tughlaq Lane bungalow.

Note: if the court had sentenced Gandhi to 1 year 11 months and 29 days in jail, his disqualification could not have come into effect.

SO WAS THERE AN OPPORTUNITY TO UNDO A CONCERNING ORDER?

Simply, yes.

There were enough grounds for the sessions court to at least suspend the conviction. And it isn't as if this hasn't been done before.

In 2007, the Supreme Court suspended the conviction and sentence of Navjot Singh Sidhu in a road rage so that he could contest the Amritsar Lok Sabha by-poll

In January, this year, the Kerala High Court suspended the conviction and sentence of Lakshadweep MP Mohammed Faizal in an attempt to murder case.

The Lok Sabha secretariat restored Faizal's membership last month.

HOWEVER, IN GANDHI'S CASE...

The sessions judge instead chose to uphold the lower court's order, noting:

"There is a price for speaking the truth these days!" Rahul Gandhi said as he vacated his Tughlaq Lane bungalow.
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The sessions judge also placed reliance on the apex court judgment in Naranbhai Bhikhabhai Kachchadia vs State of Gujarat, pronounced by a bench of Justices Lokur and NV Ramana.

In this case, the apex court quashed the proceedings against Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Kachhadia, but as per Purnesh Modi’s counsel: “while allowing appeal (the SC) had not disturbed or quashed the finding of Hon'ble Gujarat High Court (on the magnitude of the damage caused by such conviction).”

The sessions judge, thus, said: “I hold, based on the above discussion, that removal or disqualification as Member of Parliament cannot be termed as irreversible or irreparable loss or damage to the Appellant, as envisaged by Hon'ble Gujarat High Court in Naranbhai Bhikhabhai Kachhadia's case.”

However, as pointed out by V Venkatesan, in an article for The Wire: 

“Curiously…both the Judge as well as the counsel of the complainant ignored the reasoning in the Supreme Court’s order.”

In their order, the Supreme Court bench had noted that the impact of the conviction would be “virtually irreparable.”

Additionally, Venkatesan pointed out that Judge Mogera’s order also got the case number wrong.

In any case, Kachhadia's conviction was under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and the allegation was that he along with four others had assaulted a doctor while he was on duty.

If even then, the apex court found it pertinent to grant him relief, considering (among other things):  “somewhat exceptional consequence of the disqualification of the appellant from representing his constituents in Parliament for six years and no special reason was given (by the trial court) for awarding the maximum punishment to the appellant;” how is it that Rahul Gandhi’s offence is so grave and so unforgivable that he ends up losing his home, his seat and his opportunity to contest the next round of polls?

THE NEED OF THE HOUR

Perhaps, the need of the hour is to look beyond who Rahul Gandhi is and at what his offence really was. You know, the same standards that are applied when convicting and sentencing most other people.

But also pertinently, because ours is a democracy where free speech is a fundamental right, and Gandhi's alleged offence pertains singularly to something he said.

In Ramesh vs Union of India, the apex court had held: "(An) alleged criminal speech should be judged from the standards of reasonable, strong-minded, firm and courageous men, and not those of weak and vacillating minds, nor of those who scent danger in every hostile point of view.”

The next Lok Sabha elections are slated to be held in 2024. Gandhi's former seat would have anyway gone up for polls then. Should the people of this country, his constituents, then not have instead been granted an opportunity to assess Gandhi's 'crime' and decide whether they would want him back in the parliament or not? What was the point in sentencing him in a manner that essentially bars him from taking his seat again?

Additional point of note: In 2020 (Thiru N Ram, Editor-In-Chief, "The Hindu" vs Union of India), the Madras High Court said:

"There is a price for speaking the truth these days!" Rahul Gandhi said as he vacated his Tughlaq Lane bungalow.

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