On 25 April, a Jodhpur court will reportedly deliver its judgment in the trial against the self-proclaimed godman Asumal Harpalani, better known as Asaram, who allegedly raped a 16-year-old girl at his ashram in 2013. Asaram is also accused of sexual harassment, wrongful confinement and criminal intimidation, and faces additional charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. In addition, he stands accused of rape in another case, filed in Ahmedabad.
In the cover story of The Caravan‘s April 2017 issue, Priyanka Dubey reported on the nightmarish struggle to bring Asaram to justice. On piecing together the details that became public after the Jodhpur case was filed, what emerges, Dubey writes, “is a story of a man who, by accumulating vast wealth and a mix of religious and political influence, acquired untrammelled power.” In the following extract from the story, Dubey reports on the details of the Jodhpur case and recounts her conversation with the father of the 16-year-old girl who filed the complaint. He told Dubey, Asaram “cheated us in the name of god while he was actually a monster in the garb of a saint.”
On a grey and drizzly afternoon in August 2013, I reached the town of Shahjahanpur, in central Uttar Pradesh. I was there to meet the father of the 16-year-old girl who had filed the case that is now being tried in the Jodhpur court. It had only been a week since the complaint was filed, and there had been an explosion of media attention on the family. The anxious father had stopped meeting journalists. After reaching the family’s house, I managed to persuade him to speak to me by sending in a handwritten request through a neighbour and friend of theirs.
I was led into the house through a rear entrance and introduced to a tall, well-built man wearing a cream-coloured kurta-pyjama. He was still visibly in shock over what had happened to his daughter, and, in the conversation that followed, he recounted his family’s ordeal, crying throughout into a crumpled handkerchief.
The family’s members had been committed Asaram devotees, and had donated money to help him set up an ashram in Shahjahanpur. “We worshipped him like our own god,” the father told me. Since Asaram often preached that children educated in his ashrams would grow up with desirable values, he and his wife sent two of their three children to an ashram school in the district of Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh.
On 7 August 2013, they received a phone call from the ashram about the girl. Her hostel warden, Shilpi, now a co-accused in the case, “told us that she is ill and that we should reach the Chhindwara ashram immediately,” the father said. The worried parents reached Chhindwara the next day and went to the girls’ hostel to meet their daughter. They learnt that she had had a fainting spell the previous day. “The warden told us that some evil powers had captured my daughter, and could be removed only by Asaram,” the father recounted. “She told us to meet him as soon as we could.”
The warden told them, however, that Asaram was not in the Chhindwara ashram, but in Delhi. The girl and her parents travelled to Delhi to meet him, only to learn that he had travelled on to his Jodhpur ashram. On 14 August, they reached the ashram in Jodhpur, and finally met Asaram. The victim’s father recounted that the godman assured them that he would perform a puja to rid their daughter of the evil powers that had entered her.
The next night, Asaram summoned the parents and the girl to his hut in the ashram. After chanting some mantras, he instructed the parents to leave. “He took my daughter inside the hut with him for the puja,” the father said. “We trusted him completely, so we left our daughter with him and started chanting bhajans outside.”
When the girl came out after approximately an hour, her father said, “she was crying and looked disturbed.” The parents asked her what was wrong, but she only asked them to take her back home to Shahjahanpur, which they did the next morning. Only once they got home did the girl give her mother an account of what had happened to her inside the hut. She, in turn, told her husband. “He made her drink a glass of milk and then started sexually assaulting her,” the father said. “He tried to force himself on my daughter but she resisted.” The charge sheet in the case contains more disturbing details of what Asaram allegedly did. It states that the godman took off his clothes and forced the child to perform oral sex on him, and kissed her body and hugged her even as she cried and resisted. It also states that he intimidated the girl by threatening to kill her parents and family members if she dared to speak to anyone of what he had done to her.
The parents were enraged. “We wanted to confront Asaram immediately,” the father said. “So we went to Delhi, where he was holding a satsang. But he refused to meet us.” After this, the family went to the Kamla Nagar police station, the nearest one to them at the time, and filed a complaint.
As he recounted these events to me in 2013, the victim’s father sounded angry. “I feel that I trusted Asaram so much I wouldn’t have believed my own daughter if I had not seen her myself that night,” he said. “I regret that she did not immediately tell us what happened to her, otherwise I would have picked up the stones that were lying outside his hut, and would have hit him right then.”
He was much more subdued when I visited him again, in December 2016. I entered a small office in front of the family’s two-storey house to see a man at a table sorting papers and signing courier dispatches. It took me several seconds to realise that this was the victim’s father. He seemed to have aged a decade in the three years since I had met him last; he had grown slighter, and had lost most of his hair.
Though he had once run a successful transport business and owned more than ten trucks, he had sold most of them to fund the legal battle against Asaram. His family members’ routine lives had been disrupted, since they had to travel often to Jodhpur to attend the trial. “The trial period is so difficult and painful I can’t tell you,” the father said. “What kind of life is this? We have to travel so often to a state that is not ours. That city is not our city, but we land up there every few days with bag and baggage. And the court gets over at five in the evening. What to do with the rest of the long days and long nights in that unknown city? We just lie there in a small hotel room thinking about what happened to us.”
He said that he hoped that the court would reach a verdict in 2017. Asaram “cheated us in the name of god while he was actually a monster in the garb of a saint,” he said. “Now all I want is a verdict and maximum punishment against him. All the prosecution witnesses have been cross-examined. Now only defence witnesses are left. I hope that the verdict comes in the next few months.”
The family was terrified for its safety because of a rash of attacks and killings of witnesses that had occurred after the girl’s complaint was filed. Among those killed was Kripal Singh, a close friend of the family and one of the witnesses in the case. The victim’s father appeared to mistrust his family’s own security guards, who had been assigned by the Uttar Pradesh government. Though I had been shown in by a trusted acquaintance, the father complained that the guards should have checked with him first before letting me through. “I can’t trust anyone in this situation, as you know,” he said.
The family’s members had begun to severely restrict their movements. The men—the victim’s father and two brothers—went out only when it was unavoidable, while the women remained confined to their home. His daughter had “been living like a prisoner for the past three and a half years,” the father said. “She cannot move out of the house. She is a young child and this is the time when she should have been investing herself in studying and in making a place for herself in the world. But she cannot move out of the house because of the innumerable threats that we face on a daily basis.” His sons, too, have suffered, and have been unable to pursue regular educations or take up regular work.
But though he was evidently exhausted by the fight, the victim’s father was determined to see the process through. “We will fight this battle to the end,” he said. “If they kill me, then my children will fight. We will fight till the last person is alive, but we will not leave this man. We will not back down until we get justice and he is sent behind bars forever.”
Priyanka Dubey is a staff writer at The Caravan.