As the defendants in the case involving the gang-rape (and subsequent death) of a young Indian woman in Delhi prepare for court – in what will surely be one of the most watched trials in recent Indian history – a Hindu religious leader has sparked outrage by claiming that the victim was just as responsible for the sexual assault as her attackers.
On Monday, The Hindu newspaper reported, spiritual leader and guru Asaram Bapu said the young woman who was raped, recently identified by British media as Jyoti Singh Pandey, could have prevented the rape by taking “guru diksha” (a kind of spiritual initiation between guru and disciple) and chanting the ‘Saraswati Mantra’ (a mantra directed at the goddess Saraswati for the purpose of acquiring knowledge, wisdom and good fortune).
India’s Cable News Network-Indian Broadcasting Network (CNN-IBN) quoted Asaram as telling a gathering of followers: “Those who were at fault [of the gang-rape] were drunk. Had she taken guru diksha and chanted the Saraswati Mantra, she would not have boarded any random bus after watching a movie with her boyfriend. Even if she did, she should have taken God’s name and asked for mercy.”
Asaram reportedly added: “She should have called them [her rapists] brothers, fallen at their feet and pleaded for mercy. Had she said, ‘I am a weak woman, you are my brothers,’ such brutality would not have happened.”
The Asian News International news agency also quoted Asaram as allegedly stating: "Only 5-6 people are not the culprits. The victim is as guilty as her rapists.”
To further inflame an already raw and sensitive topic, Asaram said he opposed harsher sentences against rapists because he feared such legislation would be misused.
"We have often seen such laws are made to be misutilized. ... Dowry harassment law is the biggest example," he said, according to ANI.
The rape victim died in a hospital in Singapore on Dec. 28, almost two weeks after the brutal attack on a private bus in Delhi on Dec. 16. The incident has prompted an unprecedented wave of protests and demonstrations against not only the rapists, but also against India’s traditionally patriarchal and chauvinistic attitudes toward women (i.e., the views of men like Asaram).
Five men are now facing the death penalty in connection with the case. A sixth defendant, a minor, will be tried separately in a juvenile court.
Meanwhile, reaction to Asaram’s remarks have come fast and furious from Indians of all stripes and ideologies, with women's rights activists at the forefront.
“It is people like Asaram who want to keep women subjugated. Instead of talking about aggressive masculinity, he is simply blaming the victim,” said Kavita Srivastava of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, according to The Hindu newspaper.
Nishat Hussain of the National Muslim Women’s Welfare Society, blasted the holy man: “[Asaram] has crossed all limits. Of all the statements made on this issue, these are the most shameful and dangerous. And this when he has a mass female following.”
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also condemned Asaram’s comments.
"His statement is regrettable, deeply disturbing and painful," said BJP spokesperson Ravishankar Prasad, according to Press Trust of India.
"For him to make the statement in relation to a crime which has shocked the conscience of the country is not only unfortunate but deeply regrettable.”
Prasad also declared: “Women occupy a pride of place in Indian culture. Similarly [the] Indian Constitution has given equal opportunity to women. … The BJP asks him to withdraw his statement.”
Rashid Alvi, a senior official of the ruling Congress Party, also criticized Asaram.
"Political leaders including religious leaders must give serious thought before they speak out," he said, according to IBN-Live.
In response, an assistant to Asaram has sought to soothe the controversy that has erupted.
"If she (the victim) would have taken God's name or recited a mantra God … might have suggested her to how to avoid such crimes," Neelam Dubey said, PTI reported.
"[Asaram] was giving that idea to his devotees. He was citing the gang-rape incident to say one should use common sense to avoid such incidents.”
Asaram, who operates more than 350 ashrams across India, has courted controversy before and faced serious trouble before the law himself.
Asaram was suspected of involvement in the mysterious drowning deaths of two boys studying at one of his ashrams in the city of Ahmedabad in July 2008. However, police investigators absolved him of any responsibility after their probe concluded in April 2010.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.