Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Thursday pleaded not guilty before a court in Surat, Gujarat in a defamation case against him. The case was filed for him asking why all thieves share the Modi surname during a Lok Sabha election rally in Karnataka in April.

Gandhi also filed an application for permanent exemption for his personal appearance in the case, according to ANI. The court said it would reply to his application on December 10. Under the application for permanent exemption, an accused may be exempted from appearing in criminal proceedings, provided certain conditions are fulfilled.

Gandhi had made the remark at a campaign rally in Kolar, Karnataka. “Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi... how come they all have Modi as common surname? How come all thieves have Modi as common surname?” he had said.

Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Surat Purnesh Modi had filed a complaint against the Congress leader for defaming the entire Modi community. Gandhi was booked under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, which deal with criminal defamation. At the last hearing in July, Gandhi was granted exemption from personal appearance from that proceeding.

Earlier in the day, senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel had said that the law must be allowed to take its own course with reference to the case. “We will see when the court takes a decision. Whatever the judge says will be done,” he said, according to ANI.

President of Congress’ Gujarat unit Amit Chavda held a meeting with local leaders of the party on Gandhi’s visit. Earlier this week, he had said the former Congress president would be given a “grand welcome”, according to PTI.

Three defamation cases currently exist against Gandhi, including the one on the Modi remark being heard in Surat. One of the cases against him was registered for calling Home Minister Amit Shah a “murder accused” and another for alleging that the Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank, of which Shah is the director, was involved in a scam during demonetisation. He is likely to appear before a court in Ahmedabad on Friday in the third case.

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