India’s top opposition figure Rahul Gandhi was expelled from Parliament after receiving a two-year jail sentence for defamation on Thursday, in what his supporters said was an attempt by the ruling party to silence its critics.
In a statement released Friday, (pdf) the Lok Sabha Secretariat said that Gandhi, who represented the Wayanad parliamentary constituency of Kerala, stood disqualified from the membership due to his recent conviction.
The conviction resulted from a case related to Gandhi’s 2019 speech in which he mentioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi and two fugitive businessmen with the surname Modi while speaking of corruption.
“Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?” Gandhi said at what was an election campaign in Karnataka while referring to diamond tycoon Nirav Modi, cricket executive Lalit Modi, and the prime minister.
The case was filed by Purnesh Modi, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) lawmaker in western Gujarat state, who alleged that Gandhi had defamed the entire Modi community with his comments. Gandhi had pleaded not guilty.
Under Indian law, a criminal conviction and prison sentence of two years or more is grounds for expulsion from parliament, but Gandhi is out on bail for 30 days and plans to appeal.
“I am fighting for the voice of this country. I am ready to pay any price,” the 52-year-old politician wrote on Twitter on Friday.
His lawyer, Kirit Panwala, said that Gandhi had not intended to defame anyone in the community but rather to expose the “misdeeds” of the prime minister, The Hindu Times reported.
“Gandhi said to the court that as a leader from the opposition, it was his duty to highlight the misdeeds of the prime minister and that indeed he did by mentioning his surname, but as far as any other Modi was concerned, he never had any intention of defaming his or her,” he said.
Plot to Remove Opposition
The actions against Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, were widely condemned by Modi opponents as the latest assault against democracy and free speech by a ruling government seeking to crush dissent.
Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi and national convener of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), stated that the ruling party is plotting to eliminate non-BJP leaders and parties through prosecution.
“What is going on in the country today is very dangerous. By eliminating the opposition, these people want to create an environment of one-nation, one-party; this is called dictatorship,” Kejriwal said on Twitter, urging people to come together for India’s democracy.
Modi’s critics say India’s democracy—the world’s largest with nearly 1.4 billion people—has been in retreat since he first came to power in 2014. They accuse his populist government of preoccupying itself with pursuing a Hindu nationalist agenda, a charge his administration has denied.
“They want to silence those who speak the truth. Countrymen will not tolerate this dictatorship. We will even go to jail to protect democracy,” Indian National Congress party president Mallikarjun Kharge said in a Twitter video.
Removing Gandhi from politics delivered a major blow to his Indian National Congress party ahead of next year’s national elections.
Gandhi’s family, starting with his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, produced three prime ministers. Two of them—his grandmother Indira Gandhi and father, Rajiv Gandhi—were assassinated in office.
Gandhi has projected himself as the main challenger to the Modi government, but his Indian National Congress party has fared poorly during the last two general elections. He has been trying to woo voters in recent months by raising issues of corruption and accusing the Modi government of tarnishing India’s reputation for democracy.
Late last year, Gandhi led a popular “unity march” across wide swaths of India, rallying crowds against the Modi government and the Hindu nationalism that has surged under his leadership.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.