A Jodhpur court on Wednesday sentenced self-styled godman Asaram to life in prison after finding him guilty of raping a teenage girl in his ashram five years ago, the second case of a powerful spiritual leader being convicted of a sexual offence in less than a year.
Special judge Madhusudan Sharma’s verdict, which comes as the debate over sexual violence, particularly the rape of minors, intensifies across the country, was read out in the Jodhpur Central Jail where 77-year-old Asaram has been kept for over four years.
Police had stepped up security around Asaram’s ashrams to prevent the kind of violence that was unleashed by followers when another so-called godman, Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim, was convicted of rape last August.
Apart from Asaram, two other accused were convicted by the special court for SC/ST cases. It acquitted two others.
“Asaram was given life-long jail term, while his accomplices Sharad and Shilpi were sentenced to 20 years in jail by the court,” public prosecutor Pokar Ram Bishnoi told reporters, soon after the court pronounced its judgment on the quantum of sentence to the three convicts.
Asaram would be in prison till his natural death, said Bishnoi, adding the court also imposed a fine of Rs 1 lakh on him.
He said the prosecution demanded the maximum sentence.
“We argued that Asaram is not a saint and he, under a conspiracy, called the victim from the hostel and raped her,” he said.
“Sharad and Shilpi were also the part of the conspiracy,” he added.
Arguments for the quantum of sentencing were held inside the heavily fortified jail premises, where the trial court delivered its verdict in accordance with the directions of the Rajasthan High Court.
Asaram, who started from a hut on the banks of the Sabarmati, created a Rs 10,000-crore empire with 400 ashrams in India and other parts of the world in four decades.
The charge sheet against Asaram and the four other co-accused was filed by the police on November 6, 2013 under various sections of the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, the Juvenile Justice Act and the Indian Penal Code.
The teenager had said in her complaint that Asaram had called her to his ashram in Manai area near Jodhpur and raped her on the night of August 15, 2013.
The 16-year-old girl from Shahjahanpur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was studying at Asaram’s ashram in Chhindwara in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
“We had complete faith in the judiciary and are happy that we got justice,” her father told journalists after the verdict.
The family, he said, was living in constant terror and their business was hit.
Ahead of the verdict, security was stepped up in Jodhpur where prohibitory orders were imposed.
Apprehending a threat to law and order, the Centre had asked Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana governments to tighten security and deploy additional forces as the three states have a large number of Asaram followers.
The Union Home Ministry had sent an advisory fearing a repeat of the violence in the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana that followed the conviction of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in August last year, when several people were killed.
He was convicted in a 2002 rape case and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Final arguments in the Asaram case were completed on April 7 and the court had kept the order reserved for April 25.
Asaram was arrested in Indore and brought to Jodhpur on September 1, 2013. He was under judicial custody since September 2, 2013.
Asaram is also facing a rape case in Surat in Gujarat.
Asaram unsuccessfully moved 12 bail applications, of which six were rejected by the trial court, three by the Rajasthan High Court and three by the Supreme Court.
(With inputs from PTI)