NEW DELHI — An Indian court on Wednesday sentenced an influential guru to life in prison for the rape of a teenage girl, putting to rest a long legal battle that has been marred by the murder of at least two witnesses connected to the case.
The conviction of the white-bearded guru, Asaram Bapu, in the 2013 rape of a 16-year-old follower who was studying at one of his ashrams comes during a time of national reckoning on sexual assault in India.
Over the past few weeks, the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl belonging to a nomadic community in northern India has dominated the news, spurring heated discussions about how rape should be handled in the country’s courts.
The verdict was read out Wednesday inside the prison where Mr. Bapu is being held in the city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan State. The court said Mr. Bapu had “dented the image of saints among the common masses.” Mr. Bapu’s followers said his legal team would appeal the verdict. The court also sentenced two of Mr. Bapu’s aides to 20 years in prison and dropped charges against two others.
The father of the teenage girl who was raped, who cannot be identified by Indian law, said he was relieved. “We got justice,” he told reporters. “You all know how painful it was for us.”
Over several decades, Mr. Bapu, 77, had become a celebrity in India, operating hundreds of ashrams, attracting hundreds of thousands of followers and holding giant outdoor gatherings. He has also courted controversy. After the 2012 rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi ignited an international outcry, Mr. Bapu told a group of his followers that the victim was to blame.
“She should have taken God’s name and held their hands and feet,” he said. “Then the misconduct wouldn’t have happened. Can one hand clap? I don’t think so.”
Before Mr. Bapu’s conviction was announced, Mahendra Chawla, a former aide who testified against the guru, implored the court to provide additional security for those who stepped forward to testify.
In 2014, Amrut Prajapati, a critical witness in the case against Mr. Bapu, was shot and killed. In 2015, Akhil Gupta, a cook at one of Mr. Bapu’s ashrams, was also murdered. That same year, Mr. Chawla was attacked by two unidentified men who broke into his home and shot him twice in the back.
“Rapists should be hanged,” Mr. Chawla told the court on Wednesday.
Last year, when Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, another well-known guru, was convicted of raping two women more than a decade ago, thousands of his followers flooded the streets of the states of Haryana and Punjab in northern India, hurling rocks at security forces and burning cars. Dozens of people were killed.
In India, some gurus are enormously popular, cultivating a sense of belonging among followers and often providing public services like food and housing that politicians fail to secure for their constituents. Before the verdict was announced, followers of Mr. Bapu prayed for a positive ruling at several of his ashrams and wept when the court convicted him.
Around Jodhpur, the police mobilized extra security forces to secure the area, hoping to avoid a repeat of the clashes that broke out after Mr. Singh’s conviction. Inside the prison, the mood was largely buoyant as Mr. Bapu was escorted back to his cell. He has already served five years in prison.
Utsav Singh Bains, who helped the family of the victim file a case against Mr. Bapu, said the conviction sent a powerful — if long overdue — message to well-connected Indians.
“Asaram was not only rich and powerful, but he was very close to some of the top politicians in the country,” he said. “The judgment will definitely create fear in the minds of those who think that they can get away with something like this because they have power and money.”