Supreme Court imposes interim stay on Rahul Gandhi’s conviction in defamation case

Observing that the trial court did not give sufficient reasons for imposing the maximum possible punishment of two years for the offence of defamation, leading to his disqualification from the Lok Sabha, the Supreme Court has imposed a stay on Gandhi’s conviction till the Gujarat High Court disposes of his appeal.

THE Supreme Court today issued an interim stay on the conviction of the Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a criminal defamation case.

The stay on his conviction will continue to operate “during the pendency of the present appeal” before the Supreme Court, the Order reads.

The court, however, clarified that the petition before it “would not come in the way of the appellate court in proceeding further with the appeal.”

An appeal against the trial court’s order convicting Gandhi under Section 500 (punishment for defamation) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 remains pending before the Sessions court in Surat, Gujarat.

The appeal would be decided on its own merits, in accordance with law,” the Order reads further.

While ordering the stay, a three-judge Bench comprising Justices B.R. Gavai, P.S. Narasimha and Sanjay Kumar refrained from observing anything about the merits of the matter “as it may affect the rights of either of the parties in the appeal pending before the learned appellate court.”

However, the Bench raised certain doubts about the trial court imposing the maximum possible punishment of two years on Gandhi.

While dictating the Order, Justice Gavai said, “It is only on account of the imposition of the maximum sentence of two years that the provisions of Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act have come into play.”

As per Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951,  a person convicted for an offence and sentenced to suffer imprisonment for “not less than two years” stands disqualified from the Parliament or the state legislature, as the case may be, from the date of conviction for a period of six years.

Had it been a day lesser, it would not have attracted [Section 8(3)],” the Bench observed, adding that the ramifications of Section 8(3) are wide.

They not only affect the right of the petitioner to continue in public life, but also affect the right of the electorate who have elected him to represent their constituency,” the Bench averred.

The Bench further observed that “particularly when the offence [of defamation] is bailable, compoundable and non-cognisable,” the trial court was expected to give reasons as to why it found it necessary to impose the maximum sentence.

On this point, the court was asked to take note of the fact that, before the present defamation case, Gandhi had not been convicted in any criminal case, and was therefore a first-time offender not deserving of the maximum prescribed punishment.

Except relying on the “admonition by this court” of Gandhi in a contempt case relating to his attribution of a personal remark to the Supreme Court, the trial court provided “no other reason” to impose the maximum punishment, the court observed.

Gandhi had subsequently expressed regret over his remarks, leading the Supreme Court to drop the contempt proceedings against him.

Interestingly, in refusing a stay on the conviction, the Gujarat High Court had rejected the above contention observing that, Being a public personality [Rahul Gandhi] is vested with the duty to exercise this vast power [of attracting the public] at his disposal with caution” and to ensure that “dignity and reputation of a large number of persons or any identifiable class is not jeopardised due to his political activities or utterances.

Defamation case background

During a 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign in Kolar, Karnataka, Gandhi remarked: “How are the names of all these thieves Modi, Modi, Modi— Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi? And if you search a little, more Modis will spill out.”

Based on a defamation complaint filed by former member of the Gujarat legislative assembly, Purnesh Isharbhai Modi, Gandhi was convicted by H.H. Verma, chief judicial magistrate, Surat, on March 23, 2023 for defamation.

Gandhi incurred disqualification from his Lok Sabha seat of Wayanad soon after his conviction in the case. The Election Commission of India (ECI) is yet to announce dates for bye-elections to the seat.

The Representation of the People Act, 1951 mandates the ECI to fill casual vacancies in the Houses of Parliament and state legislatures through bye-elections within six months from the date of occurrence of the vacancy.

Gandhi was granted interim bail on April 3 and his sentence was suspended until the final disposal of the appeal after he filed an appeal before a sessions court in Surat.

On July 7, a single judge of the Gujarat High Court, Justice Hemant Prachchhak, refused to stay the conviction and suspension of sentence of Gandhi, after having reserved his Order for an atypically long period of sixty-six days.

While ordering the stay on conviction today, the Supreme Court observed that it has “no doubt” that utterances by Gandhi were “not in a good taste. A person in a public life is expected to exercise a degree of caution while making public speeches.

Click here to read the order.