The court in Gujarat's Surat city which on Thursday sentenced Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to a two-year jail term in a criminal defamation case noted that the seriousness of his crime increased because a speech delivered by a Member of Parliament has a "very wide impact on the public."
Convicting Gandhi under sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code (defamation), chief judicial magistrate H H Varma observed that if the accused was given a lesser punishment it would send the wrong message to the public, and the purpose of defamation law would not be fulfilled.
Gandhi could have limited his speech to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya, Mehul Choksi, and Anil Ambani, but he "intentionally" made a statement that hurt individuals carrying the Modi surname, and thereby committed criminal defamation, the court said in the judgment.
The accused knew the impact his remark would have on the public as the speech was delivered during an election campaign, the court said, adding that the Congress leader knew how he would gain from his controversial remark.
The case had been registered against Gandhi for his "how come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?” remark on a complaint lodged by BJP MLA and former Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi.
The MP from Wayanad made the remark at a rally at Kolar in Karnataka on April 13, 2019, during the Lok Sabha election campaign.
"The accused himself is a member of Parliament, and the address made by a person in his capacity as an MP has a very wide impact on the public, because of which the seriousness of the crime increases," the court said.
"If the accused is given lesser punishment, it will send a wrong message to the public and the purpose of defamation (law) is not fulfilled and slandering will become easy," it further said.
The court also mentioned the criminal contempt proceedings initiated against Gandhi by the Supreme Court in 2018 over his "chowkidaar chor hai" remark, and noted that the apex court had then asked him to remain "alert" in the future after he tendered unconditional apology.
"Even though the accused was advised by the Supreme Court to remain alert, there does not seem to be any change in his conduct," the magistrate's court observed.
Gandhi had tendered an unconditional apology in the Supreme Court for wrongfully attributing to the apex court the "chowkidar chor hai" remark in its Rafale verdict.
In the argument over quantum of sentence in the present criminal defamation case, Gandhi said that he had delivered the speech as per his duty in the interest of the people, and he does not discriminate against anybody but loves and cherishes all the people of the country.
The defence lawyer also submitted that Gandhi did not intend to insult anybody intentionally.
The complainant had not suffered any kind of pain or loss (because of the remarks), and the accused had never been found guilty of any crime before, his lawyer said while seeking a lighter punishment.
But the prosecution argued that it was important for the court to consider the "conduct" of the accused who had in the past apologised to the Supreme Court.
The accused being an MP, any lesser punishment will send the wrong message to society, the prosecutor said.
The court also rejected the defence's argument that the electronic evidence produced by the complainant in the form of CDs and a pen drive containing the controversial speech might have been tampered with. A mere allegation without any evidence cannot be accepted, the court said.
In his complaint, Purnesh Modi had said that Gandhi's remark during the April 13, 2019, rally at Kolar in Karnataka has caused "irreparable loss to his personal and social reputation due to the fact that he is an MLA and social worker."
During his cross-examination, Modi admitted that Gandhi's speech was not directed against him personally.
The court also turned down the submission of Gandhi's lawyer that the proceedings were not followed properly from the start and it did not follow section 202 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure and an order was not passed after an inquiry before issuing summons against him.
The court also rejected the defence's argument that Gandhi made a "fair comment" as part of his responsibility as a leader of an opposition party to highlight the government's failure to work for the poor and in fighting corruption.