Defamation dilemma – 25 Mar 2023

Surnames are not a protected class, and there is no such thing as a ‘Modi community’

Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was on the receiving end of a guilty verdict in a defamation trial that has exposed how weaponised the Indian court system has become during Narendra Modi’s premiership. It should be unsurprising that the judgement came in Gujarat, where Modi’s rise to power began. Gandhi’s controversial comment was, “Why do all these thieves have Modi as their surname? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi.” Nirav Modi is a diamond tycoon who fled the country after being accused of a multibillion-dollar bank fraud, while Lalit Modi is a billionaire businessman who founded and ran the Indian Premier League before fleeing the country to avoid corruption and embezzlement charges. Neither is related to the prime minister, but both have been accused of paying off BJP leaders before and after they absconded.

Gandhi was accused of defaming “the entire Modi community” by BJP leader and former Gujarat minister Purnesh Modi. Indian legal experts said the case is interesting because, among other things, surnames are not a protected class, and there is no such thing as a “Modi community”. While the law appears to have been applied vindictively in this case, the incident offers food for thought regarding Pakistan, where politicians throw around all sorts of accusations without having to worry about any consequences. Imran Khan, Maryam Nawaz, Bilawal Bhutto and several other prominent and lesser-known political figures have made, and been on the receiving end of vile, even ludicrous comments. Some of these comments have been patently false, but the victims have been unable to push back in Pakistani courts because of weak enforcement.

Imagine if prominent leaders actually had to think twice before accusing their opponents of murder, treason, and several kinds of ‘moral failings’. For a start, they would have to speak on policy strengths and weaknesses, rather than scandal and slander, to court votes, which in itself would be a massive win for voters.

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