Police in northern and western India are on alert after the prominent self-styled “godman” Asaram Bapu was convicted of raping an underage girl and sentenced to life in prison.
Asaram, 77, has thousands of followers across India and the government fears his supporters might take to the streets to protest over the verdict, which is what happened when another charismatic guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, was convicted of rape last year.
Asaram’s arrest spurred aggressive and massive protests in 2013 with his supporters blocking trains and highways. There have also been several deadly attacks on witnesses linked to this case and another separate sexual assault claim that is yet to be heard.
The charismatic guru was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl who was living in one of his ashrams with other devotees in Chhindwara in the state of Madhya Pradesh. She said she was called by Asaram to his center in Manai village near Jodhpur, in the western state of Rajasthan, where he raped her on August 15, 2013.
The special trial court that delivered the verdict in Jodhpur Central Jail in Rajasthan, where Asaram has been held since 2013, revealed the guilty verdict early on Wednesday, then announced shortly after that he had been sentenced to life imprisonment, the maximum term under the law on sex crimes against children.
Two aides, known only as Shilpi and Sharad, were found guilty of abetting the crime and were sentenced to 20 years jail. The three accused were also fined Rs 1 lakh (about US$1,500) each.
Asaram was convicted under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The “godman”, who has always denied the charges, can appeal against his conviction to a higher court.
“We will discuss with our legal team and then decide our future course of action. We have confidence in our judiciary,” his spokesperson Neelam Dubey was quoted as telling ANI after the verdict.
The guru, who still has many followers, is also facing another rape case in Gujarat, where two sisters have complained about him and his son in a separate case, also from 2013.
Nine witnesses attacked, three of them killed
The girl who accused Asaram of rape told the Indian Express that her family was isolated after they lodged the complaint and she had also started receiving threats, which led her to being confined to home. Describing the assault, she said: “He told me he was god, and that I should offer myself to him and started touching me. I was told that my parents and I would not live if I made a scene. He said I was on the path to success and would be made a sevika (a servile devotee).”
The cases involving Asaram, who is said to have high-level political connections, have been marred by violence as well as protests. Over the last four years, nine important witnesses in both cases were attacked and three of them died. Notably, Amrut Prajapati, who was Asaram’s aide and a key witness in the case, was shot and killed in 2014.
So, the official concerns have a solid basis. Before the verdict today, Asaram’s former aide and a witness in the rape case Mahendra Chawla told ANI news agency: “Though I have security, I request the Center [national government] for additional security; my life, like other witnesses, is constantly under threat.” Chawla was attacked in 2015 by two unidentified men who entered his house, opened fire and also physically hit him.
The father of the victim of the case just decided said: “I also hope the witnesses who were murdered or kidnapped [also] get justice.”
Heavy security has been deployed in the northern states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana – places where Asaram has a large number of followers – and even the national capital Delhi, as the government fears the verdict and punishments announced today could spur more violence.
Asaram Bapu started his first ashram in Gujarat in the 1970s and now has many followers across India. A charge sheet filed by the police reportedly said that in 2008 the guru’s empire was worth as much as Rs 5,000 crore (about US$748 million).