Congress MP Rahul Gandhi on Thursday pleaded not guilty before a Surat court in connection with a defamation case over his remark that “all thieves have Modi as a common surname”, at an election rally in Karnataka in April.

The Congress leader also filed an application for permanent exemption from future court proceedings in the case.

The court which set December 10 as the date for reply to his application said that Rahul Gandhi was not required to be present in court for that hearing.

Gandhi appeared before the court of Chief Judicial Magistrate BH Kapadia in Surat and pleaded not guilty when asked by the court whether he accepts the charges levelled against him by BJP legislator from Surat-West Purnesh Modi.

During the last hearing in July, the court had granted Gandhi exemption from personal appearance for that hearing and fixed October 10 as the next date of hearing.

In his complaint, the BJP legislator had alleged the Congress leader defamed the entire Modi community with his remarks, made during the Lok Sabha campaign this year.

The court, while admitting the suit, had held that there was a prima facie case of criminal defamation against the Lok Sabha member from Wayanad.

At a campaign rally at Kolar in Karnataka on April 13, Gandhi had said, “Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi, Narendra Modi… how come they all have Modi as a common surname? How come all thieves have Modi as a common surname?”

Ahead of the Thursday hearing, Rahul Gandhi had in a tweet claimed that the defamation case was filed against him by his “political opponents” in a “desperate” attempt to “silence him”.

Congress has come out in support of Gandhi and his remarks.

“In a democracy, party in power should tolerate criticism of opposition. Rahulji had said Lalit Modi and Nirav Modi are thieves and Narendra Modi is a failure. BJP connected his statement to Modi community and insulted them,” Shaktisinh Gohil, a Bihar Congress leader, was quoted by ANI.

A string of defamation cases have been filed against Gandhi in the recent past.

Rahul Gandhi will be appearing in an Ahmedabad court on Friday in a case filed by a local BJP corporator Brahmbatt for making a comment against BJP President Amit Shah.

The Congress leader had on April 23, attacked Amit Shah citing an old murder case in which the BJP leader was discharged five years ago. He also levelled corruption allegations against Shah’s son, Jay Shah.

Earlier in July, Gandhi pleaded “not guilty” before a Mumbai court hearing the defamation case filed against him for allegedly linking Gauri Lankesh’s murder with “BJP-RSS ideology”.