An Indian court on Thursday convicted and sentenced to jail top opposition leader Rahul Gandhi in a criminal defamation case against him for denigrating the surname “Modi” while attacking his main rival, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Gandhi, from the Indian National Congress, was found guilty by a court in western Gujarat state over his speech during an election rally in 2019 in which he said "how come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?"— a reference to Mr Modi’s alleged links to the country's corporate leaders.
His remarks created a furore and a criminal defamation case against him was filed by a legislator from Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in his home state of Gujarat.
The complainant, Purnesh Modi, said that the remarks defamed the entire Modi community, a common surname in the western state.
The court in Surat city found Gandhi guilty and sentenced him to two-years imprisonment. The hearing of the final arguments of both sides concluded last week.
Gandhi, who was reportedly in the court, later got bail for a month. He has three months to appeal to a higher court against the judgment.
“My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, non-violence the means to get it,” Gandhi, also a parliamentarian, tweeted after the verdict.
Leaders from Congress staged a protest against the verdict that could lead to his disqualification from the parliament.
Opposition figures and parties including Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader have called the verdict a conspiracy against opposition parties.
“We have differences with the Congress, but it is not right to implicate Rahul Gandhi in a defamation case like this. It is the job of the public and the opposition to ask questions. We respect the court but disagree with the decision,” Mr Kejriwal said.
The opposition leader considered by many as the main rival to Mr Modi has been a vocal critic of the Prime Minister and his policies, while accusing him of helping certain corporate groups that are believed to be close to the ruling Hindu nationalist party.
Gandhi has been under fire from the ruling party over his recent remarks at the British parliament where he said Mr Modi stifled the opposition in parliament while claiming that Indian democracy was under attack.
The ruling party accused Gandhi of maligning India abroad and demanded an apology while many leaders threatened to file criminal cases against him.
Congress has accused the government of spinning his statement and diverting attention from the Adani controversy that has rocked the parliament for days now.
He has not been allowed to speak in parliament.
The government has been fiercely protecting Mr Modi’s image and any criticism of the Prime Minister is discouraged.
More than three dozen cases were filed and six people were arrested in New Delhi on Wednesday after thousands of protesters across the city chanted the slogan: “Remove Modi, save the country.”