Self-Styled Godman Asaram Awarded Life Until Death

Coming straight to the core issue, a Jodhpur court on April 25 convicted self-styled godman Asaram of raping a teenager in August 2013 and sentenced him to life in prison until death. It is the maximum punishment prescribed by the law for the offence. Judge Madhusudan Sharma also convicted two other accused, Shilpi and Sharatchandra, and sentenced them to 20 years in jail. Two other accused – Prakash and Shiva, alias Sawaram Hethwadia, were acquitted. Asaram was given 10 years rigorous imprisonment for trafficking of minor (section 370(4) of IPC), one year for wrongful confinement (section 342 IPC), life imprisonment until death for rape (section 376(2)(f) of IPC) and six months of simple imprisonment (section 23 of Juvenile Justice Act). In addition to the prison terms, the court ordered a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to be paid to the victim.
                                          To be sure, the prosecution produced 44 witnesses and 160 documents to prove its case against Asaram, who was charged with offences including trafficking, wrongful confinement, sexual harassment and rape of a minor, under the Indian Penal Code, and Section 23 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act. Asaram’s counsel Sajjanraj Surana said that, “We will study the judgment and file an appeal in the Rajasthan high court”. The landmark verdict was pronounced amid heavy security enforced in Jodhpur to prevent the kind of violence that followed the August 2017 conviction of Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in a rape case in which at least 11 people had died in Panchkula in violence that followed the order.  
                                              To put things in perspective, Asaram aged 79 years who runs ashrams in India and overseas in many countries was arrested in Indore and brought to Jodhpur on September 1, 2013 to face trial in the case in which he was accused of raping a teenaged girl who was then 16 at his ashram in a village near the Rajasthani city. She accused him of raping her at a religious event. Another female follower also later accused him of rape. He has been in jail since 2013 on charges of rape and criminal intimidation. Here we take a quick look at the entire sequence of events since Asram’s arrest:
August 15-16: Asaram rapes the minor at his ashram in Jodhpur. The girl came to his ashram after she fainted at school and her hostel warden told her parents she was possessed by an “evil spirit”.
August 19: The survivor tells her parents about the incident and they lodge a complaint at a police station in New Delhi.
August 20: The police register a ‘Zero FIR’, or first information report, at 2.45 am after a medical exam and the statement of the victim is recorded. A ‘Zero FIR’ can be registered at any police station and can later be shifted to the police station that has jurisdiction over a case.
August 21: On the basis of the ‘Zero FIR’, the case is transferred to Jodhpur. Police register an FIR against Asaram under Section 8 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and other Sections of the Indian Penal Code and Juvenile Justice Act.
August 31: Jodhpur police arrest Asaram and take him to Central Jail. The police arrest him after his supporters clashed with television news crews.
October 6: Another rape  case is filed against Asaram and his son Narayan Sai on the complaint of two sisters from Surat. They allege they were raped during their stay in an ashram in the mid-2000s.
November 6: The police file a charge-sheet in the Jodhpur case. The charges include those of sexual assault and illegally confining a minor. The police also charge four others accused – Sharad Chandra, Shipli Gupta, Shiva and Prakash.
November 29: A trial court takes cognizance of the charges against four accused, including Asaram.
February 13: The trial court frames charges against Asaram and three other accused.
March 19: Trial begins in the case with testimony of prosecution witnesses.
July 10: A witness in the case dies because of serious from being shot in Rajkot on May 23. An Ayurveda expert, he was a key Asaram aide for 15 years, but later parted ways.
February 13: A witness named Rahul K Sachan is attacked with a knife by one of Asaram’s followers at a court complex in Jodhpur and stabbed.
May 13: An aide to Asaram and his son, Narayan Sai, is attacked in Panipat. He is a second witness in the second rape case. He told a court that there was a network that would “supply girls” to Asaram.
July 10: A witness in the first case is shot at in Uttar Pradesh’s Shahjahanpur.  
August 6: The prosecution finishes recording statements of 44 witnesses and exhibits 160 documents.
October 11: The defence records statements of 31 witnesses and exhibits 225 documents
April 7: The final arguments in the case are completed and the special Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes court in Jodhpur reserves its judgment for April 25.
                                         Needless to say, this landmark and high profile case clearly speaks for itself as to why the witness protection must be there so that witnesses are not attacked or killed with impunity by those who have goon power in their hands! Even the Law Commission of India in its 198th report has categorically laid emphasis on witness identity protection and enunciated various programmes to implement it. The law panel had submitted a report to the government in August 2006 recommending both witness protection and identity protection. Last year even the Supreme Court had asked the home ministry to draft a witness protection scheme. It is high time and now Centre must implement it as many years have lapsed since this landmark recommendation was made by the Law Commission of India. In addition, Supreme Court which is the top court had also asked the home ministry to do the needful in this regard as mentioned above!   
                                   As it turned out, the girl’s father said he was “satisfied” with the verdict given that “fighting the case almost changed our lives”. He further also revealed that, “I am satisfied with the judgment because it has done justice to my struggle of four years, seven months and 23 days. During this period, fighting the case almost changed our lives. There was a lot of pressure not to pursue the case. We were regularly harassed by associates of Asaram. I made several complaints to the police and lodged an FIR. My family, including my daughter, is satisfied with the judgment today. She is now in college.”
                                      It must be brought out here that Rajendra Singh Charan who is counsel for the victim’s family said that, “The court has convicted Asaram. He has been sentenced to imprisonment till death. His other two aides, Sanchita and Sharad, have been given a sentence of 20 years each while two other accused, Prakash and Shiva have been acquitted.” He said that they would be appealing the two acquittals. He also said that, “Even today, my clients live in fear for their lives. In the last few years, their quest for justice has been marked with immense struggles and danger.” A word of praise must also be deservedly given to Jodhpur lawyer PC Solanki and his team who doggedly pursued the case for nearly five years against Asaram!
                                       Truth be told, according to the prosecution, the 16 year old girl whose parents were followers of Asaram, took ill at an ashram in Chhindwara where she studied. Her parents were told that evil spirits had possessed her and they should meet Asaram for a remedy. The parents took the girl to Asaram’s ashram in Manai, Jodhpur on August 14, 2013 where he was staying then.
                                                Be it noted, on the night of August 15-16, Asaram, it was alleged, told her parents to go away and leave the girl with him in his hut. According to the prosecution, it was then that the crime was committed. He was also said to have threatened the girl not to disclose what had happened.  
                                     Going forward, after she narrated her ordeal to her parents, her father went to Delhi to confront Asaram but could not meet him. Following that, a zero FIR was lodged against Asaram and his aides which was later transferred to Jodhpur where the crime had been committed. Public Prosecutor Pokar Ram Bishnoi told journalists that, “Our main argument on the quantum of sentence was that being the trustee of a religious and educational institution, the way accused sexually assaulted the victim as part of a conspiracy, there is need to give the strictest possible punishment in the case.”
                                        It would be pertinent to mention here that during the course of the trial, the sessions court had rejected Asaram’s bail on six occasions. The same bail application was also rejected three times by a high court and three times by the Supreme Court. In other words, Asaram’s bail plea was rejected 12 times!
                                        It must be noted that several eminent advocates including Ram Jethmalani, Siddharth Luthra, KTS Tulsi, Salman Khurshid, KK Menon, Soli J Sorabjee and Subramanium Swamy represented Asaram at various stages to secure bail for him. But they all failed to do so! Asaram was cheerful when hearing began but broke down when judge gave verdict! The jail authorities allocated number 130 to Asaram which means he will be known as Qaidi (prisoner) No. 130.      
                                    It cannot be missed out that Yashwant Jain who is Chairman of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights while hailing the judgment exclaimed that, “This judgment is a lesson to people who think they can get away by committing sexual offences against children.” IPS officer Ajay Pal Lamba who supervised probe into this high profile rape case in 2013 said that, “The truth had won. The verdict shows that even persons from the weakest sections of society can take on the most influential ones. It is a historic verdict for criminal jurisprudence.”
                                   All said and done, the real justice yet remains to be done meaningfully. The case is yet to be decided finally by the High Court and the Supreme Court. The case must be expedited so that the victim gets  justice from the top court in the real sense and not just justice from the lower court alone! Three witnesses have already been killed and several others attacked and threatened. More worryingly, a witness who had been stabbed in court allegedly by an aide of Asaram still remains untraceable. This has to stop now if the case is to be carried forward to its logical conclusion in a free and fair manner! It must be ensured now that at least the remaining witnesses are given full protection and not just one constable with a lathi in his hand! If this is not ensured fully and firmly, who would want to risk his/her life only to be eliminated himself/herself with government caring two hoots about it? This must change now if real justice is to be delivered in the real sense! Only then can we ensure that the wheels of justice runs smoothly in our country adhering firmly and fully to the famous dictum: “Be you ever so high, the law is above you” and “No one can escape the long arms of the law”!     
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,
s/o Col BPS Sirohi,
A 82, Defence Enclave,
Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,
Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.