An Indian guru with millions of followers was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday for raping a teenage devotee on the pretext of ridding her of evil spirits, his lawyer said.
Asaram Bapu, one of India’s most charismatic,spiritual and controversial “godmen”, was given the maximum sentence at a closed jailhouse hearing in Rajasthan state, where hundreds of police were on high alert for any backlash from his disciples.
“Asaram Bapu has been sentenced for life until death,” Rajendra Singh, a defence lawyer, told AFP outside the court in the western city of Jodhpur.
The white-bearded guru, 77, has always denied raping the then 16-year-old in 2013 during a spiritual retreat at his ashram in Jodhpur. His lawyer said they would appeal the sentence.
Asaram Bapu 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.
Two of the four other co-accused, including a woman, were also found guilty and sentenced to 20 years. Two others accused in the case were acquitted.
The hearing was closed to media and the prison surrounded by tight security, with thousands of police deployed across parts of India amid fears his devotees could riot.
The influential guru, who has been in custody since 2013, had called the trial a political conspiracy and refused to cooperate with a police investigation.
A perceived reluctance to bring the charismatic leader to account sparked public outrage.
He still commands a devoted following even though his star power is fading following the rape charges and other controversies.
Asaram’s followers have been accused of using violence against those who have spoken out against the guru.
Two close aides who turned key witnesses against him were murdered in 2014 and 2015.
Asaram Bapu is also accused of raping another devotee and suspected of involvement in the killing of two other people. His son is also on trial for rape.
But this conviction was the first for the Hindu televangelist and yoga guru, who once attracted seas of fans to hear his sermons.
“We argued that Asaram is not a saint,” public prosecutor Pokar Ram Bishnoi told reporters after the sentencing.
– Controversial ‘godman’ –
Asaram Bapu became restless in his teens and ran away from the family home in Gujarat state. He flitted between jobs, selling liquor and fixing bicycles, before landing in an ashram where he found his true calling.
He established his first spiritual retreat in Ahmedabad in the 1970s with just 10 members, extolling a simple life and urging his followers to control their lust.
A particular target was Valentine’s Day, which he decried as a corrupting force luring youth into “dirty acts”.
Dressed in a crisp white sarong and signature red turban, his daily sermons — later televised to millions — offered yoga instruction and tips on celibacy. He recommended cow’s milk for appendicitis and honey to treat cancer.
He attracted friends in high places and many of the ashrams which mushroomed in his heyday were on land donated by successive state governments.
Asaram’s movement grew from India’s rural heartland to an empire with 400 ashrams and Ayurveda health centres estimated to be worth more than half a billion dollars.
India is already outraged at the gang-rape and murder of an eight-year-old and a separate assault on a teenager by a ruling party politician.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who was criticised for a slow response to the crimes — last week approved the death penalty for child rapists, vowing to hang those “of demonic tendencies who misbehave with daughters”.
Officials from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party responded angrily Wednesday as the main opposition Congress party distributed photos of the prime minister alongside Asaram.
Asaram’s website boasts of many high-profile believers and admirers, including Modi and other past prime ministers.
Many of India’s numerous “godmen” have been embroiled in scandal.
Last year, when a spiritual leader was jailed for 20 years for rape, his devotees went on a rampage that left 38 dead.
In 2014 the guru Rampal Maharaj barricaded himself in his ashram surrounded by armed devotees after a court issued a warrant for his arrest. Six people died during the siege.