AN INDIAN guru with millions of followers was sentenced to life in prison last Wednesday (25) 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 and controversial spiritual leaders, was given the maximum sentence at a closed jailhouse hearing in Rajasthan, where hundreds of police were on high alert for any backlash from his disciples.
“Asaram has been sentenced to life until death,” defence lawyer Rajendra Singh said outside the court in Jodhpur city.
Asaram, 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.
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.
He still commands a devoted following, even though his star power appears to be 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 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.
His 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.
Asaram’s 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 that had been donated by successive state governments.