A Jodhpur court on Wednesday handed life imprisonment until death to self-styled godman Asaram for raping a teenage female devotee at his ashram near the Rajasthan city in 2013.
The special court also sentenced two others to 20 years each in jail amid stringent security, letting off two other accused.
Asaram broke down after hearing the sentence that was delivered in a courtroom in Jodhpur Central Jail, where the self-styled godman has been lodged for 56 months since his arrest. He was charged with raping a 16-year-old girl from Uttar Pradesh’s Shahajahanpur and arrested in September 2013. Asaram has denied the rape and can appeal his conviction in a higher court.
“I am happy to get justice…We had complete faith in the judiciary and are happy that we got justice,” said the father of the rape survivor after the guilty verdict. The Uttar Pradesh administration deployed policemen for his family’s security ahead of the ruling.
Authorities put in place heavy security in and around the Jodhpur jail in view of a Union home ministry advisory that asked three states — Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana —to be on alert. These steps were taken to prevent a repeat of the large-scale violence that singed Haryana and Punjab after the conviction of another self-styled godman, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, in a rape case last August.
Authorities also imposed prohibitory orders in sensitive areas in the city, anticipating trouble by legions of followers of the influential 79-year-old who runs about 400 ashrams across the country.
On Wednesday morning, judge Madhusudan Sharma reached the special court around 8am. And an hour later, he and his staff shifted to the courtroom on the jail premises, before convicting Asaram and two others around 10:40am. The court took a break after the guilty verdict and announced the quantum of punishment around 2:35pm.
The special court on April 7 had reserved its judgment for April 25 after the final arguments that stretched for over five months. The state had appealed in the high court that the verdict be pronounced on the jail premises to prevent any breach of peace.
“This is a historic verdict for criminal jurisprudence. The truth has won. It shows that if the law works impartially, even persons from the weakest sections of the society can take on the most influential ones and get justice,” said Ajay Pal Lamba, the IPS officer who supervised the investigation into the case.
Asaram Bapu, as he is known to his followers, has a large support base in Rajasthan, Haryana and Gujarat, where he has been booked in a similar case.
Two Surat-based sisters, who stayed at Asaram’s ashram in Gujarat between 1997 and 2006, lodged separate cases against Asaram and his son, Narayan Sai, accusing them of repeated rape and illegal confinement, among other charges.
As trials in these cases progressed, three key witnesses died and other witnesses and families of victims were attacked or received death threats.