Self-styled godman Asaram Bapu was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday by a Jodhpur court which found him guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl in one of his ashrams five years ago.
The ruling left his followers in tears and the 77-year-old, according to a person present in the makeshift court room at the Jodhpur central jail where Asaram has been for more than four years, looked “shocked and disappointed and it showed on his face” as the enormity of the sentence dawned on him.
Special Judge (SC/ST Cases) Madhu Sudan Sharma handed 20 years in jail to each of Asaram’s two aides, Sanchita alias Shilpi and Sharad Chandra alias Sharat Chandra, for helping him in the crime. Sanchita wept as the sentence was read out, the person present in the court room said.
Two others, Prakash and Shiva alias Sava Ram Hethvadiya, were acquitted.
In the order, the judge noted: “Asaram, the accused, separated the victim from her parents on pretext of helping her meditate and… raped her after calling her into his room… the accused not only broke the trust of the complainant, also damaged the image of saints in the eyes of the general public.”
Asaram’s spokesperson Neelam Dubey later said they will speak to lawyers on the next steps.
Fearing a repeat of the violence that followed the sentencing last August of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, also on the charge of rape, security had been stepped up around Asaram’s ashrams across states. At the Jodhpur jail, the heavy police bandobast saw a drone taking to the skies to keep watch on the activity below.
Rajendra Singh Charan, counsel for the victim’s family, said: “The court has convicted Asaram. He has been sentenced to imprisonment till death. His two aides, Sanchita and Sharad, have been given a sentence of 20 years each while two other accused, Prakash and Shiva, have been acquitted.” He said they would be appealing the acquittals.
Sushma Dhara, counsel for Shiva, said: “My client Shiva was acquitted because no evidence was found regarding his involvement in the crime. We had argued that even from the call detail records, which incriminated the other accused, it was seen that Shiva had nothing to do with the alleged conspiracy to send the girl to Asaram.”
Public prosecutor Pokar Ram Bishnoi told The Indian Express: “Our main argument on the quantum of sentence was that being the trustee of a religious and educational institution, the way the accused sexually assaulted the victim as part of a conspiracy, there is need to give the strictest possible punishment in the case.”
Asaram and the other accused were booked in August 2013 under various sections of the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, the Juvenile Justice Act and the Indian Penal Code.
According to the prosecution, the 16-year-old girl, whose parents were followers of Asaram, took ill at an ashram in Chhindwara where she studied. Her parents were told that evil spirits had possessed her and they should meet Asaram for a remedy.
The parents took the girl to Asaram’s ashram in Manai, Jodhpur on August 14, 2013 — he was staying there then. On the night of August 15-16, Asaram told her parents to go away and leave the girl with him. According to the prosecution, it was then that the crime was committed. He was also said to have threatened the girl not to disclose what had happened.
After she narrated her ordeal to her parents, her father went to Delhi to confront Asaram but could not meet him. Following that, an FIR was lodged against Asaram and his aides — it was later transferred to Jodhpur, where the crime had been committed.
“Even today, my clients live in fear for their lives. In the last few years, their quest for justice has been marked with immense struggle and danger,” Charan said.
Asaram was arrested in September 2013 and lodged in Jodhpur jail. His bail applications were rejected by different courts. Till date, he had filed six applications in the trial court, three in the Rajasthan High Court and three in the Supreme Court. During the trial, the prosecution examined 44 witnesses while the defence gave the court a list of 58 witnesses.