International

Indian guru arrested on rape charge

The 72-year-old spiritual leader allegedly raped a 16-year-old girl at a spiritual retreat

Indian spiritual guru Asaram Bapu, center, is escorted by police after he was arrested Sunday.
Strdel/AFP/Getty Images

Controversial Indian spiritual guru Asaram Bapu was arrested early Sunday on a rape charge filed by a teenage girl in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, police said. The allegation follows a series of high-profile rape cases in India that have fueled public protests and raised questions about how police handle accusations of rape and treat alleged victims.

Asaram, one of many self-styled Hindu "godmen" who attract large numbers of followers, was arrested at a spiritual retreat in the central Indian town of Indore. The 72-year-old guru was then flown to the city of Jodhpur, where he is wanted for allegedly raping a 16-year-old schoolgirl, said police officer Ajay Singh Lamba. Asaram denies the charge.

The girl filed a complaint two weeks ago accusing the preacher of raping her when she visited his retreat in Jodhpur with her mother. The girl's family says they have been followers of Asaram for more than a decade. 

For many Indians, "godmen" play an integral role in daily life, offering a pathway to enlightenment in return for spiritual devotion and donations to their ashrams, temples and charity projects.

The alleged attack took place on Aug. 15, police said, as Asaram was holding a retreat for followers, including the victim and her parents. He told the parents he needed to meet their daughter alone after being told of concerns she was possessed by evil spirits. Once alone in his room, the guru allegedly assaulted the girl, who told her parents two days later. 

The family then traveled to New Delhi to confront him. The guru refused to meet them, prompting them to go to the police, local reports and a police official said. 

The guru had earlier failed to report to a police station voluntarily, despite being given a deadline that ended last Friday. Asaram was questioned for nearly three hours before he was arrested, police said.

Asaram, who uses only one name, with Bapu meaning "father," told officials Friday that "he is not physically fit and he wants more time to appear before Jodhpur police," Lamba said, adding that "his request was turned down."

Asaram sparked a backlash in January this year when he said a 23-year-old student could have averted a fatal gang-rape on a moving bus in New Delhi last December by begging for mercy from her attackers. He told his devotees that blame for the assault should not just rest with her attackers, one of whom was sentenced to three years in a juvenile center Saturday. It was the first verdict to be handed down in the case so far. Asaram's remarks drew a chorus of condemnation from public figures. 

The spiritual leader hosts some 350 ashrams or religious retreats in India and overseas, where he teaches yoga, meditation and offers lessons on leading a spiritual and peaceful existence, according to his website.

Wire services

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