Rahul Gandhi appeals to India’s supreme court over defamation conviction

Top Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi appealed to the country’s highest court on Saturday over his conviction for defamation, one of his lawyers said, days after a lower court refused to intervene.

Gandhi was sentenced to two years’ jail for comments he made in 2019 which a court ruled were insulting to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and those sharing his last name.

That made him ineligible to remain a member of parliament, or to stand in next year’s election.

Modi’s government has been widely accused of using the defamation law to silence critics.

Gandhi filed an appeal asking the Supreme Court to stay his conviction, one of his lawyers told AFP, a week after the Gujarat High Court refused to do so.

His conviction stemmed from a remark made during the 2019 election campaign when he asked why “all thieves have Modi as (their) common surname.”

In his 731-page submission to the Supreme Court, Gandhi said his speech was made “in the course of democratic political activity” but “has been held to be an act of moral turpitude inviting the harshest punishment.”

That was “gravely detrimental to democratic free speech,” added the document, which his party provided to AFP.

The petition said there were 130 million Indians surnamed Modi, but it was “ironic” that the only people who were “allegedly defamed” were “office bearers or senior personnel of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.”

The case — one of several lodged against Gandhi in recent years — has so far only been heard by courts in Gujarat, Modi’s home state.

Gandhi is the scion of India’s premier political dynasty and the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

He is the leading face of the Congress party, once the dominant force in Indian politics but now a shadow of its former self.

Members of Modi’s government said the remark was a slur against all Indians with the surname Modi, which is associated with the lower rungs of India’s traditional caste hierarchy.

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