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.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state is Surat, a city in Gujarat. He was given bail and the sentence was suspended for thirty days.
The President of his Congress party said on Twitter that Gandhi would appeal the verdict in a higher court. He said Modi's government was a victim of political bankruptcy Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge.
After a speech during the 2019 general election, a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party BJP referred to the surname Modi and asked how all thieves had the surname, a criminal defamation case was filed against Gandhi.
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 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.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, a lawmaker for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party BJP, said if you insulted the entire Modi surname, this is completely defamatory.
The court found Rahul Gandhi's comment to be defamatory. Ketan Reshamwala, advocate for complainant Purnesh Modi, said he was sentenced to two years in jail.
Gandhi is one of the biggest 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 percent 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 is expected to win a third election in 2024 and is India's most popular politician by a large margin.
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 he was fighting to expose corruption in the country, Mangukiya told reporters outside the court.
He did not mean 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.
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 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.