Over the past decade, despite the impediments, a number of victories have been won in the war to achieve justice for women sexually exploited by India’s spiritual leaders.
In 2017, Gurmeet Ram Rahim was sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping two of his disciples. Like Asaram, he has millions of followers, with communities known as “deras” spread throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle East. He also wielded significant political influence and would reputedly issue orders to his disciples to vote for one party or another.
His downfall began in 2002 after a female disciple made public an anonymous letter alleging that Rahim had raped her. Explaining that the world viewed them as “celibate disciples,” she described how Rahim ordered her to his room one night and proceeded to rape her. “There is no doubt that I am God,” he told her in response to her objections. Furthermore, he cited his political clout as the reason he could get away with the crime. According to the victim, he told her, “I have considerable influence in the governments. The chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana, and central Ministers touch my feet. Politicians seek my support and take money from me. They cannot take any action against me.”
Rahim’s pride went before his fall. The victim claimed, “If a probe is conducted by the press or some government agency, 40 to 45 girls — living in utmost fear at the Dera — if they are convinced, are willing to tell the truth.” Years later, she was proven correct and Rahim was imprisoned. Yet, as in the case of Asaram, the pursuit of justice for victims of sexual violence led to even more bloodshed. Immediately after Rahim’s conviction, his followers staged riots across large sections of northern Indian. Dozens died.
What is more, Rahim’s conviction didn’t destroy his reputation. Even politicians continued backing him. For instance, BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj (who incidentally represents the Unnao constituency which neighbors that of accused rapist MP Kuldeep Singh Sengar) termed Rahim a “noble soul” — after his conviction — and declared, “One person alleges sexual exploitation but crores [tens of millions] stand with him today. Who is correct? One crore people who are supporting Baba or that girl who was raped?”
A slew of other swamis have also been charged, arrested, or even convicted. In 2017, Swami Ichchadhari Bheemanand was arrested for running a prostitution ring. In 2008, Swami Amrita Chaitanya was arrested for rape, paedophilia, and producing pornographic films of underage girls. In 1997, Swami Premananda was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for rape, including of underage girls, oftentimes on the pretext that having sex with him constituted “service to God.”
However, not only do accusations of sexual exploitation often do little to even dent the reputations of the accused, but those accused frequently continue to be treated as heroes, authorities, or even deities. Sometimes they are even memorialized in statuary. There is no more prominent example of this than Mohandas Gandhi — nicknamed “Mahatma” or “Great Soul.”
Gandhi is the epitome of how the confluence of political and religious power can provide impunity for those who sexually exploit women in India. Known as the “Father of India” because of his role in India’s independence movement, he is also considered the world’s premiere apostle of nonviolence. Yet, unlike the bishop, no one ever protested on behalf of his victims; unlike the swamis, he was never taken to court.
“It’s uncanny how similar he is to Gandhi,” remarked author Rita Banerji. “I’m talking about Asaram, the Indian spiritual leader.” Examining the similarities, she says, “Both Gandhi and Asaram commanded followers in the millions, who regarded them as saints, spiritual ‘guides,’ and called them ‘Bapu’ or Father.” She explains that both spiritual leaders “regarded sex as and sexual desire as ‘sins’” and that “both preached abstinence to their followers and the control of sexual desire as a form of self-‘purification.’” Moreover, she concludes, “Both Gandhi and Asaram, in hypocritical violations of their own preaching, indulged in sexual gratification of one kind or another, even when it resulted in the sexual abuse of girls and women in their flock.”
Gandhi famously took a vow of celibacy in 1906. By 1944, after the death of his wife, he began conducting what he called “experiments” to “test” his celibacy. Most infamously, the 75-year-old Gandhi slept naked with his 18-year-old grandniece, Manu, who came under his guardianship at the age of 12, as well as with 18-year-old Abha, the wife of Gandhi’s grandnephew.
Ramachandra Guha has spent the past 20 years writing a three-volume biography of Gandhi. He calls the spiritual leader “the greatest modern Indian.” Yet, reacting to Gandhi’s “experiments,” Guha says, “It was very strange.” Seeking to explain why the old man called his young female relatives to share his bed — naked — Guha says, “He was alone, lonely, without a guide.”
Gandhi himself offered a different explanation. He didn’t deny the abuse. Instead, he portrayed it as his moral obligation and cast himself (in the tradition of sexual exploiters everywhere) as a martyr. “Manu Gandhi, my grand-daughter as we consider blood relations, shares the bed with me,” stated Gandhi. “Sleeping with Manu is for me an inseparable part of the yajna (sacrifice).”
Elaborating on the sacrifice he was making, he wrote, “Manu’s sleeping with me is a matter of dharma (duty), and I am resolved to drive home the lesson that a person cannot give up what is a matter of dharma to him for the love of those who are dear to him or out of fear of anybody. If, in a situation like this, I give up what I believe to be my dharma through false regard for friends or fear or love, my yajna would remain incomplete.”
Justifying the experiment to Manu, he told her, “[We] must put our purity to the ultimate test, so that we know that we are offering the purest of sacrifices, and we should now both start sleeping naked.” His test, however, was apparently a failure. According to biographer Joseph Lelyveld, Gandhi confided in another woman that, while sleeping with Manu, “Despite my best efforts, the organ remained aroused. It was an altogether strange and shameful experience.”
Even if Gandhi’s test had produced the supposedly desired results, Banerji likely would have remained unconvinced. As it is, she says, “I saw Gandhi as a classic example of a sexual predator — a man who uses his position of power to manipulate and sexually exploit the people he directly controls.” She holds Gandhi’s followers culpable for the abuse and thinks Gandhi should serve, not as an example, but as a warning to the world. “Men in leadership positions can sexually prey on vulnerable girls and women because the people who honor their leadership also create the space and give them the power to do so,” declares Banerji. As a final word, she argues, “We are each responsible for the injustices of the men we place on pedestals.”
Gandhi was never held liable for his actions. More modern Indian spiritual leaders are being called to accountability, however. Ram Rahim was. So was Asaram. Perhaps Sanji Ram and Kuldeep Singh Singer will also face accountability. In a glimmer of hope, Bishop Franco Mulakkal is now being weighed in the scales of justice.
On September 20, the Vatican finally removed Mulakkal from his position. On September 21, the police finally arrested him. His arrest came nearly three months after charges were first filed on June 28, but it came nonetheless.
If other cases over the years are any evidence, however, the nuns who sat protesting in Kochi since September 8 may need to alter their demands. The arrest came, but Mulakkal has not been defrocked. And even if he is stripped of priesthood, prison may yet be a long way off.
The case of the bishop and the nun should, if nothing else, remind the world of the words of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar. An attorney and intellectual who is particularly renowned as a champion of civil rights for India’s downtrodden communities, Ambedkar noted, “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”
In the modern Indian context, that’s a hopeful thought. From West to East, countless spiritual leaders are abusing their flocks. Prominent politicians boast of bowing and prostrating before these abusers. Yet, one after another, their victims are stepping forward to challenge the most powerful men in the world, proclaiming, “This will stop. We are not victims. We are survivors.”
These survivors are the dignified ones. The true heroes. The real Mahatmas whose stories — if not their names — should go down in history.