Indian opposition leader imprisoned after defamation conviction: U-M experts can discuss

March 24, 2023
Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has been sentenced to two years in prison and lost his parliamentary seat after a court found him guilty of defamation over his remarks about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surname in 2019.

University of Michigan experts can discuss the situation in India.

Joyojeet Pal, associate professor of information, studies the role of technology in democracy and labor. He specializes in politicians’ use of social media and misinformation, particularly in India.

“The sentence passed on Rahul Gandhi was for comments made during an election speech in which he called out the names of a few people with the last name Modi, calling them thieves and, by extension, associating thievery to those with that name,” Pal said. “What was obviously a political gimmick aimed at insulting the prime minister, not a particularly clever one, was not prosecuted in 2019 but was prosecuted in the year before the general elections.

“The sentencing process had a hearing of 15 minutes, and Gandhi was given the maximum possible punishment, which is highly unusual for a first-time offender. This is important because the two-year threshold is exactly the minimum punishment scale for which a parliament member can be disqualified.

“In several cases, people from the BJP engage in hate speech. Not only do cases of hate speech coming from party leaders not get prosecuted, they often even fail to get registered as complaints because police stations are uneasy with taking complaints against the government. Both low-level politicians and parliamentarians in India are known to engage in extreme speech on social media and in their public meetings; a conviction of this scale, with the consequence of removing the primary challenger to Modi, is practically unheard of.”

Contact: 734-764-1555,

Mrinalini Sinha, the Alice Freeman Palmer professor of history, is a historian of modern South Asia and the British Empire. She has written on various aspects of the political history of colonial India, with a focus on anti-colonialism, gender and transnational approaches.

“There will be a legal challenge to his conviction, it seems. And that will take its own course,” Sinha said. “The more interesting thing to watch out for will be the political response. What will the Congress Party and the other opposition parties do next? This could be an important moment of reckoning for the opposition parties on whether this becomes a crisis or an opportunity.”

Contact: 734-615-3451,

John Ciorciari is a professor and associate dean for research and policy engagement at the Ford School of Public Policy and director of the Ford School’s International Policy Center and Weiser Diplomacy Center. His research focuses on international law and politics in the Global South. 

“The use of courts to repress political dissent has been a common feature of democratic backsliding around the world. This type of lawfare is dangerously corrosive,” Ciorciari said. “When courts serve as instruments of power rather than constraints on it, politics amount to little more than might makes right. India’s citizens and its democratic partners abroad will be watching Gandhi’s appeal process very closely.”  

Contact: 734-615-6947,