Violence Anticipated In India After Guru Asaram Bapu Sentenced To Life For Rape

Police across India have braced for riots as a court sentenced Asaram Bapu, an Indian spiritual guru or “godman,” to life in prison on April 25 for the rape of a 16-year-old girl that occurred in 2013. The 77-year-old guru’s lawyers told The Telegraph that they plan to appeal the verdict in a higher court.

Two of Bapu’s aides were also convicted of helping him commit the sexual assault, and The Telegraph reports that they both have been given 20-year sentences. In addition to Bapu’s recent sentencing, a different and ongoing trial against Bapu for rape charges in the Gujarat state has yet to conclude.

According to the BBC, the victim’s parents brought her to Bapu for an exorcism. The victim was left alone with Bapu while the parents waited outside praying. Though she was threatened, the victim told her parents about the rape. After being barred from re-entering the ashram, the victim’s family pressed charges and Bapu was arrested in 2013.

Bapu has been gaining followers since 1972, when he opened his first ashram. He now claims to have millions of followers worldwide and a reach that extends to 19 countries. Though his website boasts over 400 ashrams, Al Jazeera states that the number is closer to 230.

Bapu is not the first Guru to be accused and convicted of sexual assault in Indian courts. In August last year, Gurmeet Ran Rahim Singh was convicted of the rape of two women and received a sentence of 20 years in prison. Thirty-eight people died in riots that erupted after Singh’s conviction, according to the Washington Post. Though police ramped up their forces as Bapu’s verdict was read, no riots have been reported by major news outlets.

Spiritual gurus have been gaining excessive amounts of followers over the last few decades. Hinduism is the dominant religion in India and does not explicitly reject the concept of spiritual leaders imbued with god-like powers. Modern “self-styled” gurus have also become more appealing than their predecessors. Many gurus use their wealth to provide services for communities that follow them, often aiding poorer people of lower caste systems that feel the government and wealthy members of society have left them behind, Reuters reports.

While some gurus are believed to have healing powers, others are simply charismatic speakers who preach equality and fund important institutions like hospitals and schools. As a result, their followings rapidly grow. Ram Rahim Singh, for example, controlled a compound of more than 700 acres and sold his own brand of food in local stores as reported by Reuters.

Gurus wield significant political influence because of their sheer number of followers. When speaking about the influence of gurus in 2017, political scientist Ronki Ram told Reuters, “Politicians come to seek votes, people come to find answers to their social and psychological problems. Then more people come because they think if the politician is coming, he (the guru) must be important.” The influence is somewhat of a cycle. The current Indian Prime Minister has attended a sermon given by Bapu, the BBC reports.

Legislators have been under pressure to reform laws regarding sexual assault in India. Bapu’s sentencing comes just a week after India’s cabinet issued an executive order allowing the death penalty in rape cases in which the victim is under 12, CNN reports. The legislation also raises the minimum sentence in a rape case to 10 years in prison and provides rape kits to police stations. The Indian Parliament has six months to ratify the law. Human Rights Watch has condemned the part of the order that approves the death penalty.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet issued the order in response to violent protests that erupted mid-April over the brutal gang rape and murder of an 8-year-old Muslim girl. According to CNN, eight men have been arrested in connection with the crime. This crime is one of the latest in a string of sexual assaults that have built tension throughout the country. The National Crime Records Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ most recent report for 2016 saw a 12 percent increase in alleged attacks from the previous year, for a total of about 40,000.