Shahjahanpur: The day she came back home from the ashram in Jodhpur, her mother noticed the teenager had stopped rolling her prayer beads or chanting the mantras given by the man they called bapu. She didn’t eat much and spoke little.

On 18 August 2013, three days after they came back from self-styled godman Asaram’s ashram, her mother asked her: “Why aren’t you sitting for the prayers? Why aren’t you chanting the name of bapu?"

The girl said: “How can I? He is a fraud. He is a badmaash. You don’t know what he did to me."

And she burst into tears.

In the adjacent room, her 51-year-old father was performing the aarti of bapu, his god for 11 years.

“What happened then is like a blur to me. For my family, life was not the same after that moment," says the father, in their home in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh.

The identity of the girl, a 21-year-old now, and her parents, cannot be revealed because Indian law prohibits naming of rape victims

The father decided that very day to drive up to Delhi to confront Asaram—it didn’t strike him once, as he drove with his wife and daughter, that they were about to take on a man who sat atop a Rs10,000 crore “spiritual" empire spread over 400 ashrams across the country and the world. Just one thing played on his mind: why hadn’t he been able to see through the man?

Asaram was winding up a satsang in Delhi’s vast Ramlila grounds when they arrived. All the followers, as always, looked as if they were under a spell.

The 16-year-old stopped her father and said, “You think at a time when all these followers have gathered to just get a glimpse of him, you can just walk in and accuse him? Let’s go to the police station."

Securitymen deployed outside the Shahjahanpur house of the girl who was raped by Asaram. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Securitymen deployed outside the Shahjahanpur house of the girl who was raped by Asaram. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Finding the closest police station, she walked in, flanked by her parents, and asked for a female police officer to file an FIR.

“You mean this Asaram?" the police officer said incredulously, pointing towards the Ramlila grounds. The police hesitated a little, the father claims. First they refused to believe a “godman" could be a rapist. Then they asked why they should file a case in Delhi for a rape that had been committed in Jodhpur.

In a country where the police are poorly organized and barely sensitized to deal with serious crimes against women, giving up often seems like the easier option. Mint reported on 24 April that an estimated 99.1% of sexual violence cases are not reported.

But this teenager was firm and her father equally determined.

Four-and-a-half years later, on 25 April, 77-year-old Asaram was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Jodhpur court which found him guilty of rape.

“Because of the immense courage by the girl and the incredible support from her family, she won this battle. Women are not given the space to speak up, in such cases they are made to feel guilty and the family prefers hushing up for fear of being slandered. This case has sent a strong message to all women," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research in Delhi.

Navigating the unknown

This was the first time the girl or her father had ever entered a police station. It wasn’t easy. He was powerful, and they had no idea how the system worked. There was a further dilemma: the father wanted to punish this “guru" but didn’t want his daughter slandered. Who would marry her, he thought. For nearly 10 days after filing the FIR, he didn’t speak to reporters. But his worst fears were coming true: Asaram’s followers started holding gatherings naming and shaming the father and daughter and also publishing stories in self-owned magazines that character-assassinated the girl. He decided they had to speak up and around late August put out their version of the story. When Asaram was arrested on 31 August the pressure only mounted.

As the case went through the courts, three witnesses were killed: the girl’s teacher, her school principal, the police officers involved and the father all received threats. Narendra Yadav, a journalist based in Shahjahanpur who pursued the case doggedly, was stabbed outside his office by two unknown assailants on 17 September 2014. He survived. Fake cases of kidnapping and murder were filed by Asaram’s followers against the father.

Relatives started avoiding the family, friends began disappearing. The fight, the family realized, had to be fought alone. There were times when the father broke down, and the teenager hugged him, telling him she was sure they would win. Then there were days when she sobbed silently in her room, and her parents cheered her up.

Mending broken dreams

She is now doing her BA through distance education. But her dream, before the incident, was to become a chartered accountant because that is how she thought she would help her family, already involved in business. That remains unfulfilled. Because of constant threats from Asaram and his followers, the only times she has been able to step out of her house in these years was during college exams, or when she had to appear in court.

Inside the house, her father has devised ways of keeping her busy. She plays badminton with her younger brother and has several kittens. There is TV to watch, some cooking.

“People tell me, see Asaram is in jail. I tell them, we are in a jail. My daughter is in a prison for five years now," says her father.

The young woman, once chirpy, has become serious, speaking only when required. Having lost two years to the case, she is now trying to get back a semblance of normalcy in her life.

The father, who once had a successful transport business, has used up most of his savings in the legal battle.

When the verdict came, she was taking her exams. She came back, hugged her mother and cried. For the family, the threat to their lives still looms. But after all these years, the ruling has managed to bring some happiness into a home that has forgotten what a normal life feels like.