Life term for Indian 'godman' rapist hailed as landmark

Asaram Bapu's unexpectedly harsh sentence should encourage more victims to seek justice through the courts
Life term for Indian 'godman' rapist hailed as landmark

In this file photo taken on July 18, 2008, Indian spiritual guru Asaram Bapu addresses supporters at an ashram on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. (Photo by Sam Panthaky/AFP)

An Indian court has jailed a popular Hindu "godman" for life for raping a minor girl in a case that rights activists say could help revive people's faith in the judiciary.

A special court in the desert city of Jodhpur sentenced 77-year-old Asaram Bapu on April 25, nearly five years after he was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl inside his ashram (spiritual center) at Manai village, near Jhodhpur, in Rajasthan state.

The judgment was announced inside Jodhpur Central Jail where he is kept amid tight security. Authorities beefed up security in the nearby states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh to ward off violent protests from his many followers.

"The verdict is a real encouragement to many girls and their parents who are afraid to report incidents like rape to police fearing social stigma and other concerns," said lawyer and rights activist Sister Carole Geeta, a member of the Mission Sisters of Ajmer, based in Rajasthan.

Asaram's victim had been taken by her parents to the ashram to attend a religious ceremony aimed at ridding her of evil spirits.

The guru was charged with raping a minor girl, wrongful confinement, criminal intimidation, criminal conspiracy and sexual harassment. He denied all allegations and sought dismissal of the case.

Asaram rose to prominence in the 1970s when he began to build a vast religious empire that includes 400 ashrams across India and numerous global outreach programs. He claims to have millions of followers in India and abroad.

His followers include top-level political leaders, chief ministers, ministers, bureaucrats in several states and businessmen.

"The order has come as a fresh wind of hope to the ordinary people of this country that they can still get justice, however mighty their oppressor," said Carmelite Bishop Jose Chittooparambil of Rajkot Diocese in Gujarat.

It was quite unexpected that a spiritual guru like Asaram would be put behind bars as it comes amid questions over the credibility of some Supreme Court judges, he said.

"Justice and truth still prevail in our courts. And it is heartening to see," the bishop said.

Last week seven opposition parties led by Congress moved a motion to impeach Chief Justice Dipak Misra, accusing him of misbehavior and abuse of authority with a likely intent to influence the outcome of trials.

Social activist Sandhya Shaily said the verdict signals a very important message that if the judiciary works honestly without succumbing to political pressure, it can still ensure justice at a time when influential people escape the law.

"It is true we have seen in the past that godmen associated with pro-Hindu outfits were acquitted of heinous crimes. However, this sentence has given a lot of encouragement to rape survivors," she said.

The verdict came three days after India promulgated an ordinance stipulating the death penalty for those convicted of raping girls under the age of 12 following public outrage over the gang rape and murder of an 8-year-old Muslim girl by Hindu men in an alleged hate crime.

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Asaram's victim was 16 when she was raped and he received the maximum punishment under the new ordinance — life imprisonment.

Published data show that nearly 8,000 children below the age of 12 were raped in 2016 in India among the 38,947 rape cases registered. At least 520 were children under the age of 6, while 1,596 were aged 6-12 and 6,091 were aged 12-16.

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