Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who is facing more than 10 defamation cases in various parts of the country, got convicted in one, resulting in losing his Lok Sabha seat. But he appears unrelenting, despite the Supreme Court (SC) directing him to refrain from making allegations against his political opponents, more so against the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Instead of tendering an apology, Rahul alleged in the SC that the defamation law was being misused to gag political opponents. What does the defamation law say? The Code of Civil Procedure defines defamation as any statement that harms a person’s reputation or lowers it in the eyes of others.
The burden of proof in civil cases is on the plaintiff to prove that the statements were made with malice and caused harm to the reputation or livelihood. A man’s reputation is treated as his property and such damage is punishable by law. The defamation could be written or verbal. And the history of defamation can be traced to Roman and German laws. Abusive chants were capitally punishable in Roman laws. In early English and German laws, insults were punished by cutting out the tongue. In the late 18th century, only imputation of crime or social disease or casting aspersions on professional competence constituted slander in England.
The enactment of the Slander of Women Act added imputation of unchastity as illegal. French defamation laws were very severe. Conspicuous retraction of libellous matter in the newspaper was severely punishable and ‘only truth is allowed’ as a defence when the publication related to public persons.
In Italy, defamation is criminally punishable and truth seldom excuses defamation.
Article 19 of our Constitution grants various freedoms to citizens. However, Article 19(2) has imposed reasonable exemption to freedom of speech and expression granted under Article 19(1) (a). Contempt of court, defamation, and incitement to an offence are some exceptions.
Against that backdrop, defamation is an offence under both civil and criminal law. In civil law, defamation under the Law of Torts is punishable in the form of damages to be awarded to the claimant. Under criminal law, defamation is a bailable, non-cognizable offence and compoundable offence. Hence, a policeman may arrest a person only with a warrant issued by a magistrate. The Indian Penal Code punishes the offence with simple imprisonment of up to two years, or fine, or both.
Here are some brief details about the cases against the Congress leader: 2023: In the latest case, Rahul was convicted and sentenced to two-year jail by a court in Surat, Gujarat – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state – for asking whether people with the surname “Modi” are “thieves”. He can appeal in higher courts within 30 days. This criminal defamation case against the Congress leader was filed by BJP MLA Purnesh Modi.
2019: Rahul was granted bail by a Patna court in another defamation case filed by a BJP leader for his comment asking if people with the surname “Modi” were “thieves.”
2019: The Congress leader was granted bail by an Ahmedabad court in a defamation case filed by Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank after he alleged the bank was involved in a scam of swapping currency notes following demonetization in November 2016.
2019: Rahul was granted bail by a Mumbai court in a defamation case filed by an RSS worker for his alleged comment linking the murder of Bengaluru investigative journalist Gauri Lankesh with “BJP-RSS ideology”.
2016: A Guwahati court granted bail to Rahul in a defamation case filed by the RSS following his allegation that he was stopped by the RSS from entering Barpeta Satra in Assam in December 2015.
2016: A court in Maharashtra’s Bhiwandi granted bail to Rahul in a case filed by an RSS worker. Rahul had allegedly said the RSS killed Mahatma Gandhi. The SC ruled that Rahul would have to face trial to prove his point in court.
2015: Rahul is out on bail in the National Herald newspaper case. Along with his mother Sonia Gandhi, he was granted bail in December in the case pursued by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy. The case involves Young Indian’s takeover of Associated Journals Limited, the company that runs the newspaper, and the dealings thereafter.
For a court system with a backlog of 40 million cases, there was one lawsuit that recently appeared to move through India’s courtrooms unusually fast.
And, in the case of Rahul, the Gujarat Magisterial Court delivered the verdict over the reported speech of the Congress leader, who had compared his political rival, Narendra Modi, with two criminals who also bore the same surname. “Why do all these thieves have Modi as a surname?” Rahul asked the crowds in Karnataka.
But, many in the Opposition, especially the Congress allies as well as the Lutyens media, wonder how a person called Purnesh Modi, residing hundreds of miles away in Gujarat, move the court against Rahul, the then president of the Congress? As a law-abiding citizen of this country, I wish to counter, whether they are living in Lala’s land. Is Gujarat not part of India? Can’t an Indian citizen wherever he or she may be residing, question the person who made such objectionable remarks?
Purnesh Modi is the BJP’s elected representative, and he decided to take the comment personally. Why not? That was the fundamental right he enjoys as per the Constitution and hence he filed a legal case against Rahul. In his petition, he alleged that the Congress leader indeed defamed the “entire Modi community”. Hence, attracts the defamation law and deserves punishment. According to him, roughly an estimated 130 million people are called Modi in India. Many feel sad as Rahul is unwilling to learn from his mistakes and his decision to challenge the defamation law is nothing short of the dynast’s arrogance and deserves the harshest punishment to ensure better sense prevails upon him. And every citizen will be keenly waiting the apex court’s verdict, whenever Rahul opts to knock its doors.