The godman's accomplices Sharad and Shilpi were sentenced to 20 years in jail by the court.
A Jodhpur court on Wednesday sentenced self-styled godman Asaram to life in prison after finding him guilty of raping a teenage girl in his ashram five years ago, the second case of a powerful spiritual leader being convicted of a sexual offence in less than a year.
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.
Asaram will be in prison till his natural death, the court pronounced, convicting him under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code and the Juvenile Justice Act. It also imposed of fine of Rs 1 lakh on him.
Special judge Sharma further lamented, in his 453-page judgment, that by his heinous act the godman has ‘not merely shattered the faith of his devotees in him but has also harmed the reputation of saints among common people’.
‘Accused Asaram is called a saint. He has lakhs of devotees not merely in India but abroad too. He has over 400 ashrams running after his name,’ said the judge adding that ‘as per my modest opinion, the accused, by committing the despicable and heinous crime, has not merely shattered the faith of his devotees in him but has also harmed the reputation of saints among the common people’.
Referring to the faith of the victim's father and her family in Asaram, Additional Sessions Judge Sharma noted that the father was a ‘disciple of Asaram’ and played a crucial role in building an ashram at his home town Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh.
‘He (the victim's farther) had so much respect for Asaram that he had sent both his son and daughter for studies at Asaram's ‘gurukul' at Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh,’ noted ASJ Sharma in his judgment.
‘Yet the accused raped the victim after calling her to his ashram on the pretext of holding a ‘jap' (an elaborate worship with recital of holy mantras) to cure her of the influence of evil spirits,’ the judge noted.
Elsewhere, in his judgment convicting the godman and his two other accomplices, the judge noted that Asaram ‘raped the girl ignoring her sobs and appeals to him that he was committing the sin despite her faith in him as a god’.
While discarding appeals of leniency by Asaram's counsel and awarding the godman maximum possible sentence, that of life-long jail term under the latest amended definition of the offence of rape and the punishments for the same, the judge said, ‘Any unnecessary sympathy for the convict would harm the criminal justice administration system as it would weaken the faith of common people in it.’
‘If the judiciary fails to protect the victim, he/she himself/herself will proceed on the path of retribution, harming the criminal justice system. Accordingly, it's the duty of the courts to punish the offender as per the gravity of the crime,’ the judge said.
The godman's lawyers, who pleaded that he was not guilty, said they would appeal against the verdict.
Police had stepped up security around Asaram's ashrams to prevent the kind of violence that was unleashed by followers when another so-called godman, Dera Sacha Sauda head Gurmeet Ram Rahim, was convicted of rape last August.
Apart from Asaram, two other accused were convicted by the special court hearing cases of crime against children. It acquitted two others.
"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 soon after the judgment.
"We argued that Asaram is not a saint and he, under a conspiracy, called the victim from the hostel and raped her," he said.
"Sharad and Shilpi were also the part of the conspiracy,” he added.
Arguments for the quantum of sentencing were held inside the heavily fortified jail premises, where the trial court delivered its verdict in accordance with the directions of the Rajasthan high court.
In Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh, the victim's father expressed relief.
"Even if I die now, I will have no regret as we have got justice for our daughter," he told reporters.
"My daughter is very courageous and it is because of her courage that we have managed to ensure that the 'dhongi baba' (fake godman) got punishment for his wrongdoings," he said.
Born in Sindh province, now in Pakistan, Asaram's family migrated to Ahmedabad after Partition.
Starting from a hut on the banks of the Sabarmati, Asaram created a Rs 10,000-crore empire with 400 ashrams in India and other parts of the world in four decades.
During these years, he made friends with the powerful and has been seen with politicians from Bharatiya Janata Party as well as Congress, including Narendra Modi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Digvijay Singh.
Bhopal has two places named after Asaram -- a road crossing and a bus stand -- both located near the godman's ashram near the Raja Bhoj Airport on the city outskirts.
The board carrying his name was removed from the bus station soon after the verdict.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said the places named after the controversial godman would be rechristened.
Nobody is above the law, Chouhan said and promised 'appropriate action' on an activist's demand that the places in Bhopal named after 77-year-old Asaram be renamed.
"No one is above the Constitution, the law, and the public sentiments. It is a country where the name of Aurangzeb Road has also been changed. Soon, we will take appropriate action on this matter too," Chouhan said.
Asaram has also courted controversy in recent years with his views on issues such as Valentine's Day and the rape and murder of Nirbhaya in Delhi.
In 2013, he had told a gathering in Rajasthan that Nirbhaya could have avoided being assaulted by the men in the bus she boarded with a friend.
'She should have taken God's name and could have held the hand of one of the men and said, I consider you my brother and should have said to the other two, brother, I am helpless, you are my brother, my religious brother,' the media had quoted him as saying.
Apprehending a threat to law and order, the Centre had asked Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana governments to tighten security ahead of the verdict as the three states have a large number of Asaram followers.
The charge sheet against Asaram and the four other co-accused was filed by the police on November 6, 2013.
The teenager had said 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.
He was arrested in Indore and brought to Jodhpur on September 1, 2013. He was under judicial custody since September 2, 2013.
The 16-year-old girl from Shahjahanpur was studying at Asaram's ashram in Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh.
Final arguments in the Asaram case were completed on April 7 and the court had kept the order reserved for Wednesday.
Asaram is also facing a rape case in Surat in Gujarat.
He 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.