Politics

As Witnesses Vanish, ‘Sick’ Asaram Gets One More Chance to Make Bail

Asaram Bapu is accused of raping a minor girl who was staying at his ashram. Credit: PTI

Asaram Bapu is accused of raping a minor girl who was staying at his ashram. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The Supreme Court may have refused interim bail to self-styled godman Asaram Bapu – currently lodged in a Jodhpur jail  for rape of a minor girl –  on medical grounds on Thursday but its request that the All India Institute of Medical Sciences evaluate his medical condition and submit a report within 10 days has kept up the suspense over the issue.

While reviewing the matter on Thursday, the SC bench also asked the AIIMS to form a three-member medical board to evaluate Asaram’s medical condition for the purposes of determining regular bail. Justices Madan B. Lokur and R.K. Agarwal, who comprise the SC bench presiding over the case, have given AIIMS ten days to submit its report. 

The Wire had carried a chilling primer on the case against Asaram in August 2015. 

The case has seen several twists and turns since then. Notably, an important witness, Rahul Sachan, Asaram’s former personal assistant and resident of Uttar Pradesh, has been missing since November 25, 2015. Sachan was also stabbed while inside a Jodhpur court in February last year. A petition demanding a CBI probe into his disappearance is pending before the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court.

Three key witnesses in the case have been killed and another was critically wounded last year.  Therefore, Asaram’s plea for bail on medical grounds is viewed with apprehension and concern by judges presiding over the case.

Asaram was examined only recently by the Dr. Amilal Bhat, principal of S.N. Medical College in Jodhpur, on the direction of the Rajasthan high court. The court rejected his bail application on July 18 on the grounds that no surgical intervention was required and nothing serious was highlighted in the medical report.

Justice Nirmaljit Kaur, part of Rajasthan’s high court bench, observed in her detailed order on August 9, that Asaram has been receiving treatment on a regular basis and granted him access to further tests and medical investigation. The Medical Board of Associated Group of Hospitals, Jodhpur will recommend further treatment and tests for Asaram. 

On August 11, the accused’s counsel sought the Supreme Court’s indulgence to release Asaram on interim bail for a period of one to two months to allow Asaram to travel to Kerala for Panchkarma Ayurveda treatment. Raju Ramachandran, his counsel, reportedly contended that the Rajasthan high court bench court did not account for Asaram’s ailments before dismissing his bail application.

Ironically, the August 9 order from Justice Kaur records what the SC observed in 2014, while rejecting a similar request from Asaram. The SC order repeated by Justice Kaur is as follows: 

It is evident from that above that the petitioner does not require any surgical intervention at this stage and that the diseases which he is found to be suffering from like Trigeminal Neuralgia, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, Hypothyroidism and Benign Hyperplasia of Prostate can be handled in the OPD [Out Patient Department]. We have no reason to doubt or reject the opinion given by the experts from the premier medical institute of the country. Mr.Vikas Singh, learned senior counsel, all the same argued that some of the diseases namely, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with Hypothyroidism and Benign Hyperplasia of Prostate were developed by the petitioner during incarceration. There is nothing before us to support even that submission of learned counsel.  Be that as it may since the Board has suggested only medical management on [an] OPD basis, there is no compelling reason for us to enlarge the petitioner on bail at this stage when the petitioner is facing serious charges some of which are punishable by imprisonment for life.

It is significant that Asaram’s counsel sought the Supreme Court’s intervention on Thursday to grant him interim bail to get treatment in Kerala for the same diseases.

This was the third time that Asaram had a plea for bail on medical grounds rejected. Asaram’s counsel also claimed that the previously expressed concern of Asaram tampering with and influencing the prosecution’s witnesses is no longer valid since all the witnesses have been examined, but the high court rejected this statement. 

Additionally, Asaram’s counsel argued that even if his illness does not warrant hospitalisation, the 75-year-old baba’s sick and infirm health due to old age, entitles him to a concession of bail.   

 The high court pointed out that age alone could not be made a ground for release on bail, specially given the gravity of the offence. It also noted that material witnesses had not reported anything which would entitle Asaram to bail.

“The prosecutrix (the rape victim) has stood by her statement.  The petitioner-accused has not been able to break her testimony in any manner”, the high court observed in its order.

The high court trial 

In fact, the August 9 order shows that Asaram himself was to be blamed for the delay in the trial.  “The petitioner-accused was trying his level best to delay the trial for obvious reasons”, according to the judgment. 

More importantly, the high court has pointed out that the trial may be further delayed because Asaram’s defence has applied to recall eight witnesses, including the victims and her parents,  under Section 311 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (Cr.P.C.). The trial court dismissed this application on October 17, 2015 but Asaram appealed the decision in the high court.  In response to this request for recalling witnesses, a high court judge observes, “In case, the same is allowed, the said witnesses will have to be recalled”. 

“The trial will be further delayed in case, the petitioner-accused is released on bail”, recorded the high court in its August 9 order.

Asaram is facing trial for several offences under the Indian Penal Code, Section 23 of Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000 and sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.

“The charges framed against the petitioner-accused in this case attract the maximum sentence of life imprisonment and invite more serious repercussions, if it is committed by a person whose public image is of a god man, a saint, who is worshipped by the victim’s own family and committed the same under the garb of giving ‘treatment’, ” the court said. 

A teenage girl accused Asaram of sexual assault at his ashram in Manai village near Jodhpur. The girl, who was a student at the ashram, is from Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh.

The high court has also taken note of the fact that the previous bail application was dismissed because Asaram’s followers, who eventually had complaints filed against them, tried to stop the police from performing its duty and created law and order problems.

Referring to the large and potentially disruptive presence of Asaram’s followers, the Rajasthan government has applied to hold Asaram’s trial within the premises of the jail to bar his follower’s from attending. The state has claimed that this endangers the life and security of the public, besides requiring a huge number of police personnel for maintaining law and order.

The high court continued to list reason for the delay in the trial, noting that the defence examined Chanchal Mishra, an investigating officer, for almost a year over the course of 89 appearances in court, which took up more of the court’s time.

Another division bench of Rajasthan’s high court blamed Asaram of wilfully attempting to delay the trial court’s proceedings and disregarding the high court’s directives to expedite the trial. 

The trial court has examined 43 witnesses in the case so far, with only one left to question. “Now, to complete the defence evidence as expeditiously as possible is in the hands of the petitioner-accused; hence, no ground is made out to release the petitioner on bail”, the high court held in its order on August 9.

According to reports, on August 11 Asaram told the SC that he needed bail to get treatment for incontinence.

The high court order of August 9 is silent on this, and it is remains unclear if Asaram raised the issue for the first time before the Supreme Court on August 11.

All eyes are on the Supreme Court’s next date, when the newly commissioned medical report from AIIMS will help decide if Asaram will be granted bail or not.