AHMEDABAD, India: A court in western India found opposition leader Rahul Gandhi guilty of defamation on Thursday (Mar 23) for a speech he made in 2019 in which he referred to thieves as having the surname Modi, and sentenced him to two years in prison.
Gandhi was present at the court in Surat, a city in Gujarat, which is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state. He was given bail and the sentence was suspended for thirty days.
Gandhi would appeal against the verdict in a higher court, the president of his Congress party said on Twitter, calling Modi's government "cowardly and dictatorial".
"The Modi government is a victim of political bankruptcy", Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said.
The criminal defamation case was filed against Gandhi by a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), after a speech during the 2019 general election in which he referred to the surname Modi and asked how all thieves had the surname.
His comments were seen as a slur against the prime minister, who went on to win the election in a landslide.
Members of the government also said the remark was a smear against all those sharing the Modi surname, which is associated with the lower rungs of India's traditional caste hierarchy.
"If you are going to insult the entire Modi surname, this is completely defamatory," Ravi Shankar Prasad, a lawmaker for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told reporters.
"The court has found Rahul Gandhi’s comment to be defamatory. He has been sentenced to two years in jail," Ketan Reshamwala, advocate for complainant Purnesh Modi, said.
Gandhi is one of the main opposition leaders in the country who will go up against Modi when he seeks his third term as prime minister in 2024.
Gandhi's once-dominant Congress controls less than 10 per cent of the elected seats in parliament's lower house and has lost badly to the BJP in two successive general elections, most recently in 2019.
Modi remains India's most popular politician by a substantial margin and is widely expected to win a third victory at the next general election in 2024.
Gandhi's lawyer B M Mangukiya said his client had not meant to insult anyone.
"When the magistrate asked Gandhi what he had to say in his defence, the Congress leader said that he was fighting to expose corruption in the country," Mangukiya told reporters outside the court.
"His comments were not meant to hurt or insult any community."
Gandhi is the son, grandson and great-grandson of a dynasty of former Indian prime ministers, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.
But the scion of India's most famous political dynasty has struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Modi and its nationalist appeals to the country's Hindu majority.
Gandhi faces at least two other defamation cases elsewhere in the country and a money laundering case that has been snaking its way through India's glacial legal system for more than a decade.