India opposition leader loses his Parliament seat after being convicted of defamation
NEW DELHI — Key Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has lost his parliamentary seat after a court found him guilty of defamation over his remarks about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's surname and he was disqualified from the lawmaking body, a parliamentary statement said on Friday.
Gandhi, who represented a constituency in southern Kerala state as a member of the Congress party, was disqualified from his membership in the lower house of Parliament from March 23, the date of his conviction, the statement said.
Indian parliamentary rules say that a member loses his or her seat if convicted of a crime and sentenced to two or more years in prison.
A court in the western city of Surat sentenced Gandhi to two years in prison on Thursday in the defamation case. But he won't go to jail immediately because the court granted him bail for 30 days to file an appeal against the verdict. If an appeals court sets aside Gandhi's conviction, he can get his seat back.
Gandhi briefly visited the Parliament on Friday morning.
Several opposition leaders blocked proceedings in Parliament on Friday and later tried to march to the president's palace in support of Gandhi, holding a sign that read: "Democracy in danger."
'"We fought British, we will fight RSS/Modi,'' read other placards they carried. The RSS, or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is the ideological mentor of Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
"The country is witnessing a rule of autocracy," said A. Raja, an opposition lawmaker.
Police blocked the demonstrators with barricades outside Parliament and whisked them away in buses to a nearby police station. They are expected to be freed later Friday.
The case against Gandhi dates back to an election rally in 2019 when he said: "Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?" In the speech, he went on to name fugitive Indian diamond tycoon Nirav Modi, banned Indian Premier League boss Lalit Modi and Narendra Modi.
Narendra Modi is not related to either of the other two.
The defamation case was filed by a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in western Gujarat state. The complainant, Purnesh Modi, said Gandhi's comments had "defamed the entire Modi community."
Modi is a common last name in western Gujarat state.
Mallikarjun Kharge, president of the Congress party, said Gandhi would appeal the verdict in a higher court and called Modi's government "cowardly and dictatorial."
After the verdict, Gandhi wrote on Twitter: "My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God, and non-violence the means to get it."
Gandhi is one of India's main opposition leaders and he will most likely go up against Modi when the prime minister seeks a third term in 2024.
Also Friday, 14 political parties filed a petition in India's top court alleging that Modi's government was misusing government investigation agencies against opposition leaders for alleged financial crimes.
Abhishek Manu Singhvi claimed that 95% of probes by government agencies are against opposition leaders.
The Supreme Court said it will take up the petition on April 5.