Self-styled godman Asaram Bapu was today sentenced to life-long jail term by a special SC/ST court here for raping a minor nearly five years ago. This  is the second case of a powerful spiritual leader being convicted of a sexual offence in less than a year after Gurmeet Ram Rahim last August.

The godman’s two other accomplices, Sharad and Shilpi, were sentenced to 20 years each in jail in the case while remaining two co-accused Shiva and Prakash were acquitted.

Additional Sessions Judge Madhusudan Sharma, heading the special SC/ST court sentenced the trio after convicting them of various offences under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act (POCSO), in a proceeding held in a specially-convened court inside Jodhpur Central Jail premises.

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. The verdict was delivered by Special Judge Sharma in a especially-convened courtroom inside the Jodhpur Central Jail premises as per the directions of the Rajasthan High Court in view of the possible threat to law and order by Asaram’s supporters following his conviction and sentencing.

“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 here, soon after the court pronounced its judgement on quantum of sentences 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.

We argued that Asaram is not a saint, but a sinner. He called the victim from the hostel under a conspiracy and raped her. Accordingly, we demanded maximum punishment for him. Sharad and Shilpi too were part of the conspiracy, he said.

Asaram, who started from a hut on the banks of the Sabarmati and created a Rs 10,000 crore empire with 400 ashrams in India and other parts of the world in four decades, faces a minimum sentence of 10 years.

The chargesheet against Asaram and the four other co-accused was filed by the police on November 6, 2013 under various sections of the POSCO (Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences) Act, the Juvenile Justice Act and the Indian Penal Code.

Asaram had been arrested on a complaint of sexual exploitation by a teenage girl from Shahajahanpur of Uttar Pradesh, who had joined the godman’s ashram at Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh for her studies. The victim had alleged 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 godman was subsequently arrested from Indore and brought to Jodhpur on 1 September 2013, since when he has been lodged in judicial custody in Jodhpur jail. Following through probe into the case, the Jodhpur police had chargesheeted Asaram and 4 other co-accused, Shiva, Shilpi, Sharad and Prakash on November 6, 2013. “We had complete faith in the judiciary and are happy that we got justice,” her father told journalists after the verdict came in. The family, he said, had been living in constant terror and their business was hit.

The special court had finished hearing the final arguments in the case on on April 7 itself and had slated April 25 to pronounce its order on the quantum of sentences to the convicts. Asaram was arrested in Indore and brought to Jodhpur on September 1, 2013. He has under judicial custody since September 2, 2013.

The trial in the case was initially started in the Jodhpur District and Session court on March 19, 2017, but was subsequently shifted to the special court for SC/ST Cases on December 16, 2016. During the trial, Asaram had tried his best to obtain bail and moved various courts twelve times, but all his efforts proved futile with the trial courts rejecting his bail pleas six times, the Rajasthan High Court thrice and the Supreme Court too thrice.

Tight security

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 Punjab and Haryana that followed the conviction of Gurmeet Ram Rahim in August last year, when 13 people were killed. He was convicted in a 2002 rape case and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Besides making elaborate security arrangements, prohibitory orders under section 144 of the CrPC too were clamped in the city to thwart any possible ganging up and gathering of Asaram’s supporters to vitiate the peace in the city.

Apprehending trouble by his supporters, the police had deployed additional forces including its riot control units, special task force, mounted policemen and kept a tight vigil on various hotels and inns of the city.

Surat rape case

Asaram is also facing a rape case in Surat in Gujarat in which the Supreme Court earlier this month gave five weeks time to the prosecution to complete the trial.

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.