NEW DELHI (Reuters) - An Indian court jailed a self-styled religious preacher for life on Wednesday for raping a teenage girl, the latest sexual abuse case against a so-called “godman”.
The case highlights the Indian heartland’s fascination with spiritual gurus, who wield immense influence for their ability to mobilise millions of adherents, amass untaxed funds and find favour with politicians.
A judge delivered the guilty verdict at a jail in the city of Jodhpur, in the western state of Rajasthan, where Asumal Harpalani, commonly known as Asaram Bapu, has been held since September 2013.
The 77-year-old, who has more than 400 ashrams around the world according to his website, had been denied bail a dozen times.
Defence lawyer Sushma Dhara said she would challenge the verdict.
“The sentencing has come as a big relief,” said Kiran Jha Thakur, the founder of Kalpana, a non-government body that helped the victim’s family pursue the case.
“It goes on to show that even if you are a ‘godman’, if you commit a crime, our judiciary will get you,” Thakur said.
India’s Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act permits lifetime jail terms for sexual assault of children, and was recently amended to allow the death penalty for the rape of girls under 12.
Two of the preacher’s aides were also convicted and jailed for 20 years each, while two others were acquitted.
“This judgment is a lesson to people who think they can get away by committing sexual offences against children,” said Yashwant Jain, a member of National Commission For Protection of Child Rights.
The case dates from August 2013, when the 16-year-old girl accused the preacher of sexually assaulting her at his ashram in Jodhpur, about 335 km (210 miles) from the state capital of Jaipur.
The girl, who reportedly sought to be rid of evil spirits, said in her complaint that she was asked to perform oral sex and was touched inappropriately, media said.
Security forces in four states - Rajasthan and neighbouring western Gujarat, as well as northern Uttar Pradesh and Haryana - went on high alert, for fear of a backlash from supporters.
Last year, followers of another guru, Gurmeet Ram Rahim, ran amok after he was found guilty of rape, unleashing violence that killed more than 30.
Nationwide outrage after a series of child rapes over the last two weeks spurred Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet to approve the death penalty for the rape of girls younger than 12.
Reporting by Malini Menon; Editing by Nick Macfie