India braced for riots after ‘Godman’ guru Asaram Bapu jailed for raping 16-year-old girl
A 77-year-old Indian spiritual Guru who claims to have millions of followers worldwide has been sentenced to life in prison of raping a teenage girl in 2013, in a trial held amid fears of major rioting.
A court in the western Indian city of Jodhpur on Wednesday ruled that Asaram Bapu had raped a 16-year old girl in the city at one of his 400-odd ashrams, where he instructed his disciples in meditation and yoga.
Heavy security was in place for the verdict after nine prosecution witnesses were attacked and three died during protests over the course of his trial. Twenty-three died during disorder following the sentencing of another guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, for rape last year.
Bapu, a self-styled ‘Godman’ who has a flowing white beard and wears white robes, was found guilty on Wednesday, with a judge later handing him a life sentence. His lawyers, however, said they would appeal against the verdict in a higher court.
“We have got justice” said the victim’s father, who remains unnamed.
The verdict and sentencing was delivered inside the Jodhpur jail amidst tight security, as the authorities feared that taking the guru to the courthouse in the city centre could trigger violence from his followers.
Police in the nearby states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat, where Bapu has a large following, were placed on high alert in anticipation of trouble, officials said.
Bapu was arrested in 2013 after two of his followers alleged that he had raped their teenage daughter under the pretext of exorcising her, as they waited outside his special chambers intoning prayers for their child’s wellbeing.
The victim told her parents of the rape the following day and when they tried to confront Bapu they were barred from entering any of his ashrams.
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During the trial, in which the victim testified that Bapu had threatened to kill her if she talked of the rape, nine prosecution witnesses were attacked, three of whom died.
The victims’ families alleged that the guru was behind these attacks, but he denied these claims.
Mysterious attackers also similarly assaulted several local journalists who reported on the trial.
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Meanwhile Bapu, along with his son, is also on trial in western Gujarat state for raping two sisters in 2003 and 2004 in Surat, the diamond town 290 miles north of Mumbai.
Born in modern day Pakistan, Bapu migrated to Gujarat after Indian independence and became an understudy to various gurus preaching spiritualism.
In 1972 he founded his own ashram and amassed a large following thereafter across the country and over years acquired vast and hugely expensive properties.
Bapu’s website claims he has 40 million followers around the world that included senior Indian politicians who regularly attended his sermons.
Many such ‘Godmen’ are popular across India, boasting large followings, especially of government officials and other public figures.
Last year, a spiritual leader dubbed the "guru in bling" – Gurmeet Ram Rahim – was jailed for 20 years for rape. His devotees went on a rampage that lasted days and left 38 dead.
In 2014 the guru Rampal Maharaj barricaded himself in his ashram guarded by devotees armed with stones, petrol bombs and other weapons after a court issued a warrant for his arrest. Six people died during the siege.
Asaram is just the latest high-profile guru jailed for sex crimes, and his conviction comes as India reverberates with anger over a series of child rapes in recent weeks.