Asumal Sirumalani Harpalani — known as Asaram Bapu or just Bapuji by his followers — has received life in prison for raping a teenage girl in his ashram five years ago. Special judge Madhusudan Sharmas verdict was read out in the Jodhpur Central Jail where 77-year-old Asaram has been kept for over four years.
The self-styled godman will remain in jail 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. The godman’s lawyers said they would appeal against the verdict.
In his 453-page judgement, the judge lamented 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”.
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.
Asaram has also courted controversy in recent years with his views on issues such as Valentines 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.
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.
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.
Asaram was mentioned in a list of fake sadhus released by Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, the apex organisation of Hindu Sants (saints) and Sadhus (ascetics) in India.
Asaram was born on 17 April 1941, in the Berani village of the Nawabshah District in British India (Present-day Berani Town is located in Jam Nawaz Ali Tehsil of District Sanghar Sindh Pakistan), to Menhgiba and Thaumal Sirumalani. His birthname was Asumal Thaumal Harpalani or Asumal Sirumalani.
Following the partition of India in 1947, he and his family moved to Ahmedabad, then part of the former Bombay State in India, now Gujarat, leaving behind their immovable assets in Sindh. The family moved to Ahmedabad, where Asaram’s father founded a coal and wood selling business. Asaram ran this business for a short time after his father’s death.
According to Sant Asaram Bapuji ki Jeevan Jhanki, an auto-biography published by his ashram, Asaram received his formal education at Jai Hind High School, up-till class III, when his father died. He had a series of escapades to ashrams which started with running away to an ashram in Bharuch at the age of 15, eight days before his scheduled wedding to Laxmi Devi, which though finally happened. The book also mentions Lilashah as the spiritual guru, who accepted him as her disciple and named him Asaram on 7 October 1964, in one of his escapades.
Sources have described him to be involved in a variety of professions ranging from selling liquors and tea to repairing cycles, prior to his establishment as a religious leader.
Asaram and Laxmi Devi have two children, son Narayan Sai and daughter Bharti Devi. Their son Narayan Sai works with Asaram and is also mentioned in the Akhada’s List of fake religious leaders. Sai is also imprisoned in the same prison awaiting trial.
According to Sant Asaram Bapuji ki Jeevan Jhanki, Asaram returned to Ahmedabad on 8 July 1971. On 29 January 1972, he built a hut at Motera, then a village on the banks of the Sabarmati. Although his official biography doesn’t mention it, Asaram also lived in Motera’s Sadashiv Ashram for two years, before setting up his own hut adjacent to it.
He converted his hutment into an ashram in 1973, starting with 5–10 followers. In 1981 and 1992, the Indian National Congress-led state government allotted the ashram 14,515 m2 land. In 1997 and 1999, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government allotted it 25,000 m2 for expansion. Asaram had few followers in the beginning, but the numbers increased as local politicians became his devotees. By 2013, Asaram had 400 major and minor ashrams in India and abroad, with numerous followers.
Asaram had organized spiritual discourses all over India, whence his disciples are accorded diksha (initiation by a guru) by him. Around 20,000 students visited his satsang in Ahmedabad in December 2001.
It was Leelashahji Maharaj who accepted Asumal as his disciple, showing him the path of spirituality. On October 7, 1964, he named him Sant Shri Asaramji Maharaj. However, he began propagating his own brand of Hinduism only after Leelashahji threw him out of his ashram.
He built his first ashram, with about five to ten followers in 1972, in a town called Motera in Gujarat. Eventually, he found more followers in the tribals when he went to Surat. He subsequently went on to open ashrams throughout the state and the country, ran as many as 40 gurukuls (schools), a printing press, and opened businesses for products such as soap, shampoo, medicines, etc. By 2008, his empire was worth Rs 5,000 crore, a chargesheet filed by the police had claimed. Large droves of followers attracted politicians, and the Congress, as well as BJP governments, granted him land for his projects.
Asaram’s brand of Hinduism is an amalgamation between a simplified reading of Hindu scriptures along with Tantric practices, which appears to have included some elements of black magic as well. Reportedly, Asaram’s spritual projected was cut out to suit the needs of the disempowered sections of the Indian population. His popularity was particularly strong among the tribals and the Hindi-speaking population of north India.
The rape cases are not the first time Asaram had gotten into trouble with the law. In 2008, mutilated bodies of two children were recovered from the banks of the Sabarmati river, close to his ashram in Motera. It was found that some vital organs from the bodies were missing. The Gujarat police had booked seven of his followers in 2009 for the murders of the two children. In August 2013, a case was registered by the Delhi Police stating that Asaram had allegedly raped a 16-year-old girl at his ashram in Jodhpur. He was taken into custody on August 31, 2013.