Life sentence for Asaram Bapu the latest chapter in India's godmen saga

Last Updated: Thu, Apr 26, 2018 13:31 hrs
Asaram Bapu

Self-styled godman, with an empire said to be worth Rs 10,000 crores, Asaram Bapu was found guilty on Wednesday by a Jodhpur court of raping a minor in 2013. He was sentenced to life in prison. He was charged with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl at his ashram near Jodhpur in 2013. He was sent to Jodhpur central jail thereafter.

The 77-year-old was booked under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The survivor initially went to the ashram to cure herself of evil spirits. There she claims she was asked to perform sexual acts and was touched inappropriately by him. Soon after, to avoid arrest, he kept himself inside one of his ashrams in Indore. After clashes broke out between his followers and police, he was arrested on September 1, 2013.

His real name is Asumal Sirumalani; his followers and disciples refer to him as Asaram Bapu. A religious leader, he has been preaching since the early 1970s. He has gone on to establish hundreds of ashrams across the country and the world. He has amassed thousands of followers who vehemently defended him even when the allegations were leveled against him, claiming he has been jailed on false charges.

Asumal was born in 1941 in Berani village of Sindh province in Pakistan. Post partition, he moved to Ahmedabad with his parents. The death of his father forced him to leave his school at the age of 10. He claims to have embarked on a spiritual journey to the Himalayas where he met his guru Lilashah Bapu, who took him under his wing. With a rich base of followers, once he was able to expand his reach, he claimed to have more than two crore followers in India and abroad. 

India's fascination with godmen is not new. Followers and disciples of such cult leaders usually defend them no matter what, and may go to extraordinary lengths to do so. Dipankar Gupta, Director, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, in a column for the Hindu, writes on India's godman syndrome --

"It is hardly surprising that Hindu godmen should behave like magicians and their followers like clients. Within the walls of any "dera", hermitage, or guru's lair, devotees are hugely outnumbered by pay-as-you-go clients".

Initially starting out in Moksha Kutir, a small hut on the banks of the Sabarmati river, Asaram's popularity soared and this helped him to build a massive empire. He appears in the school text books in Rajasthan where he is hailed. He is married to Laxmi Devi and has two children. His trust ran many schools, a printing press and a pharmacy that specialized in Ayurvedic medicine.

"People everywhere are prone to mystics, but what makes our godmen seem so powerful is that our politicians use them as baits to catch votes. It never really quite works that way because the godmen's followers are thinking cures, bank balance and success, not democracy".

Asaram is someone who has political connections and patrons from both major national parties. Several high profile BJP leaders such as Nitin Gadkari, LK Advani and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee have been seen with the godman as well as Congress leaders such as Digvijay Singh and Kamal Nath. During Modi’s time in Gujarat, he has shared the stage with Asaram, but shortly after the allegations surfaced, the then Chief Minister Modi warned BJP ministers to not defend Asaram.

His tryst with controversy began in 2008 following the death of two people - Dipesh and Abhishek Vaghela - who were residents of the ashram in Motera. Their bodies were found on the riverbed near the ashram. The parents of the victims claim their death was due to them practising black magic.

The arrest on allegations of rape of a minor girl was the beginning of his downfall. What followed was six bail pleas rejected even after he was represented by high-profile political figures and lawyers - Subramanian Swamy and Ram Jethmalani. During a court hearing in 2013, Jethmalani argued that the allegations against his client were fabricated and made the ludicrous claim that the 16-year-old girl was suffering from a disease "which draws a woman to a man".

The current case, for which Asaram was sentenced to life, comes days after the government passed an ordinance allowing death penalty for child rapists. Sanya Dhingra, in a column for The Print, writes on the timing of the verdict --

"The power of Asaram over the victim was even greater than that of the 'ordinary' rapist, being a person of spiritual authority towards whom she felt devoted. While the law may have given justice to the victim for now, a big cloud continues to loom, over her and others, in the form of the impunity given by society to powerful assaulters -- godmen, husbands, uncles and bosses -- held guilty by courts as well".

The survivor's family has spoken out before of receiving threats from Asaram's followers to drop the charges. The judge presiding over the case was also on the receiving end of threats. In 2015, a witness was stabbed by an aide of the ashram outside the court after giving his statement. This is not uncommon with respect to Asaram and the ashram. A report in Open Magazine in 2013 detailed violence against the media once they began reporting on the death of the Vaghela boys --

"The media, including several women reporters, were targeted and mercilessly beaten up. Kuldeep Singh Kalair, a reporter with Divya Bhaskar, was locked up in a room in the ashram and beaten by sadhaks. He had to be rescued by the police".

His followers stand steadfast beside him, making it easy to conclude that nothing will shake their faith in their Bapu. The absence of any mechanism to separate religion from politics, resulting in the distortion of democracy and secularism means people like Asaram Bapu will continue to thrive.