"The metamorphosis of BJP's vindictive politics into autocracy is happening at an alarming pace," one Indian state's chief minister said in response to the parliamentary expulsion and criminal sentencing of Rahul Gandhi.
Democracy defenders sounded the alarm Friday after senior Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was ousted from his parliamentary seat a day after being sentenced to two years in prison in a dubious defamation case involving an insult against the surname of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India's lower house of Parliament announced Friday that Gandhi—a former president of the Indian National Congress party (called Congress for short) who until Thursday represented the constituency of Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala—was disqualified to serve in office due to his conviction for defaming the Modi name.
The case involved Gandhi allegedly asking during a 2019 campaign rally in Kolar, Karnataka, "How come all the thieves have Modi as the common surname?"
The Times of Indiareports Surat Chief Judicial Magistrate H. H. Varma convicted Gandhi for defamation under the Indian Penal Code. Varma granted Gandhi bail on a bond of ₹15,000 (approx. $180) and suspended the sentence for 30 days so he may appeal.
While convicting Gandhi, Varma said that the defendant could have limited his insult to the prime minister, but by disparaging all people with the name, the defendant "intentionally" defamed them.
The Modi surname comes from the Modh Ghanchi or Teli Ghanchi community primarily inhabiting western states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajashtan, and traditionally employed in the oil pressing and trading business. Although officially designated an Other Backward Caste, Gujaratis do not view the widely successful group as such.
tweeted Friday that he is "fighting for the voice of India" and is "ready to pay any cost."
Congress called Gandhi's conviction an "infirm, erroneous, and unsustainable" judgment.
Party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said the government's "efforts to create a chilling effect, a throttling effect, strangulating effect on open, fearless speech relating to public interest, will not stop either Rahul Gandhi or the Congress party."
"There are some disturbing aspects of this judgment which of course will be subject to challenge immediately, but firstly, the heart of the law of criminal defamation is that persons who are complainants should be those who must be able to demonstrate how they personally have been defamed, or prejudiced," Singhvi continued.
"Now," he added, "the admitted position is that no one who is the subject matter of the statement which is found to be offending has filed a criminal complaint."
M.K. Stalin, the leftist chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, tweeted that "the metamorphosis of BJP's vindictive politics into autocracy is happening at an alarming pace," a reference to Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The prime minister is also a member of the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary group.
"The disqualification of Rahul Gandhi is an onslaught on all the progressive-democratic forces of our country," Stalin said in a statement Friday. "All the political parties in India shall realize this and we should oppose unitedly."
In the United States, Democratic California Congressman Ro Khanna—whose parents immigrated from Punjab state— called Gandhi's ouster a "deep betrayal of Gandhian philosophy and India's deepest values."
"This is not what my grandfather sacrificed years in jail for," Khanna added, referring to former Congress parliamentarian and independence movement figure Amarnath Vidyalankar. "Narendra Modi, you have the power to reverse this decision for the sake of Indian democracy."
Arundhati Roy, the renowned Indian writer, said during a Wednesday lecture at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm that "India's democracy is being systematically disassembled. Only the rituals remain."
Mentioning the persecution of religious minorities—especially Muslims—the brutal military occupation of Kashmir, and the imprisonment of journalists, Roy added that "India for all practical purposes has become a corporate, theocratic Hindu state, a highly policed state, a fearsome state [seething] with Hindu supremacist fervor."