Rahul Gandhi is no more a Member of Parliament. He has been disqualified because a Surat Court sentenced him to two years imprisonment. This brings to the fore the issue of criminal defamation law.
This sentencing is because Rahul Gandhi, during the 2019 election campaign, sarcastically asked, after naming Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi and PM Modi, “How come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?”
Was Rahul Gandhi’s statement so heinous a crime that he deserves a two-year imprisonment and an eight-year disqualification from contesting elections? Such a disproportionate punishment indicates it is time to fix the defamation law.
The critical question is, was the lawsuit even admissible in Court? According to the defamation law, only a specific ‘Modi’ can file a case to show how his character was defamed. But the lawsuit that got Rahul a jail term was filed by a BJP MLA from Surat, whose surname happens to be Modi and whose name Rahul Gandhi did not take. Context is important.
Rahul Gandhi only mentioned the names of fugitives Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi. He then brought up the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the context of the Rafael fighter jet purchase controversy, after which he made the snide remark, “How come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname.” So, if anyone had the right to file a defamation case, it was one of the three Modis Rahul mentioned and not every Modi in every corner of the planet.
The fact that a non-involved party, just by virtue of his surname being Modi, can file a case and that case is admitted in Court is unnerving.
What about actor Khushbu Sundar who made the same statement as Rahul did a year earlier in 2018? She tweeted, “Modi surname’s meaning should be equated to corruption.” She even wrote, “Nirav, Lalit, Namo = corruption.” But now that she is no longer a Congress Spokesperson but has joined the BJP, is it OK?
If one cannot handle a bit of humour, sarcasm and a heavy dose of criticism in a democracy, then why have freedom of speech as a fundamental right at all?
It’s time for archaic British laws like criminal defamation to be removed from our system. To give due credit, the BJP has indeed done its bit.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his 2014 election campaign, had said that he would repeal ten archaic laws for every law his Government makes. And on Aug. 11, 2014, two months after he was sworn-in, ‘The Repealing and Amending Bill, 2014’ was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the then Minister of Law and Justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad.
The Congress leaders must acknowledge the fact that in the last 60 years, just 1,301 laws were declared obsolete, while in just the last seven years, more than 1,200 Acts have been repealed. Next, another 1,824 such laws are being scrutinised. Let us hope sedition and criminal defamation laws are among them.
But most political parties seldom change laws that they can ‘misuse.’
In 2021 the Supreme Court heard a plea challenging the Constitutionality of the Sedition Law (IPC Section 124A).
While hearing the plea, the then Chief Justice of India, Justice N.V. Ramana, asked Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, “It is a colonial law and was used by the British to suppress freedoms…is this law still needed after 75 years of Independence?”
Senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar then wrote, “The Narendra Modi cohort has invoked this charge 96 times in 2019 alone!” But he conveniently forgot that in 2012, the Congress Government booked 9,000 sedition cases in one incident alone!
On the same issue, former Congress leader Kapil Sibal wanted the Sedition Law scrapped because, as he put it, “Those in power are manipulating it, and there is no need for a Sedition Law in today’s times…” But what was he doing when he was the Law Minister and the time his Government ruled India for ten long years?
Politicians always see laws as instruments of politics, and criminal defamation is one such law. Sometimes deployed to silence the press, other times to trouble the Opposition leaders or occasionally to promote themselves.
Rahul Gandhi is indeed using it for self-promotion. It’s a strategy for sympathy, and BJP is falling for it.
The Supreme Court of India, in a 2013 judgement, stated that any MP, MLA or MLC convicted of a crime and given a minimum of two years imprisonment would lose membership in Parliament with immediate effect. Senior Congress leaders, of whom many are legal luminaries, knew this but did not state in the Surat Court that they disputed its ruling!
Then despite being aware of the Court ruling, Rahul Gandhi attended the Lok Sabha on Friday, knowing he would be disqualified. He did this knowing fully well that it would force the Lok Sabha Secretary-General to issue the notification of disqualification in accordance with the Representation of the People Act.
Suddenly the BJP realises the two years’ imprisonment and disqualification are too extreme a punishment and is worried about Rahul getting a sympathy wave as his grandmother did.
Many may recall how the Janata Party government arrested Indira Gandhi in October 1977 on charges of corruption and misuse of authority. The Janata government’s action boomeranged, swaying public sympathy in her favour.
Her arrest brought her back into public life and focus. Indira Gandhi termed her arrest on October 3, 1977, as a ‘political one’ and added, “we can’t be silent spectators when we see suffering and injustice.” A year after her arrest, which lasted 16 hours, Indira Gandhi won the LS bypoll from Chikkamagalur and went on to become the PM again in 1980.
Rahul is now saying, “I’m fighting for the voice of India. I am ready to pay any price.” We think he is fighting for his survival and resurrection and is willing to pay any price for it.
Rahul may very well choose to go to jail for a brief period and then come out just in time for the 2024 election and hope a sympathy wave will resurrect his career, the kind of sympathy that resurrected his grandmother’s.
For now, the law for defamation in India, especially criminal defamation, rather than protecting the reputation of a citizen, is an instrument of politics. Criminal defamation is a flawed law that allows ridiculously disproportionate punishment and needs to go.
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