Over the past week, numerous articles have appeared about the acquittal of the ‘Siddha Baba’ in a rape case filed against him in Sunsari. The verdict has been controversial for numerous reasons, including dismissal of the victim’s evidence and archaic notions of rape and the victim’s reactions.
Who is the Siddha Baba and why is this case so controversial? The Record explains.
Who is this ‘Siddha Baba’?
Krishna Bahadur Giri is a self-styled godman with an ashram in Sunsari district’s Chatara. Like many other godmen in Nepal and India, Giri has cultivated a cult of personality around himself and has managed to attract the support of high-profile individuals including politicians, government officials, and even diplomats.
According to Republica daily, a yoga camp organised by Giri in 2006 had Nepal Communist Party chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal and former Indian ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Rae in attendance. The article further lists former House Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara, who has also been accused of rape; Province 1 chief minister Sherdhan Rai, and Arzoo Rana Deuba, wife of Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba, as among his adherents. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, President Bidya Devi Bhandari, former ministers Krishna Prasad Sitaula, Bijaya Gachhadar and Chitralekha Yadav, and Lalbabu Pandit have all attended events organised by Giri, reports Republica.
Over the years, Giri has made numerous outlandish claims, including professing the ability to levitate. He claims to be a brahmachari, a Hindu ascetic who does not indulge in sexual activity, drinking or consumption of anything that could excite the senses.
Why is he in the news?
A little past midnight on October 20, 2019, at around 12:30am, Krishna Bahadur Giri, a godman popularly known as ‘Siddha Baba’, sent a text message to a 29-year-old married Kathmandu woman who had just arrived in Sunsari from Pathivara in Taplejung. “Hello! maile mauka dieko bela chup kina?” the text message read, according to court documents. “Why are you so quiet when I’m giving you an opportunity?”
The 29-year-old woman, identified only as ‘Parisar 26’ in the police report and the court documents, had been meeting with Giri as her guru for more than a year-and-a-half. She assumed that the text message was an invitation to receive blessings and went to meet Giri at his ashram in Sunsari’s Chatara. According to court documents, upon meeting the woman, Giri forcibly hugged her, laid her on a sofa, removed her kurta suruwal, and raped her. Then, he threatened to kill her if she told anyone.
According to the woman’s testimony, she attempted to file a rape case the next day but was threatened by Giri and dissuaded by police. She was sent back to Kathmandu, where she filed a case with the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB), a special investigative wing of the Nepal Police in Kathmandu, nearly a month after the incident. After preliminary investigations, the CIB forwarded the case to the Sunsari police office. The case began to make headlines and the police were now forced to pursue an investigation.
The investigation took over a year, during which time Giri attempted to flee the country. The final verdict was given on December 7, 2020, which acquitted Giri of all wrongdoing. In a full verdict released on February 12, judge Arjun Prasad Koirala of the Sunsari District Court wrote that Giri “had not raped anyone” and instead that the woman had “given her body” to him.
What was the rationale behind this decision?
In his full verdict, judge Koirala said that the court could not establish that the woman was raped on the day of the incident but based on the messages and phone records between the two, asserted that consensual sexual intercourse had taken place. The judge pointed to the “obsessive and persuasive” messages that the woman had sent to Giri as emblematic of her attraction towards him. There was also no physical evidence or proof of mental anguish, according to the court. In the decision, the judge has said that the woman did not cry for help or tell anyone about the rape on the night it happened and that she “did not cry”.
The verdict further said that it appeared that the rape case had only been filed after conversations between the woman and Giri were discovered by the woman’s husband.
The verdict is currently being appealed at the Biratnagar High Court.
Why is this verdict controversial?
Giri has denied any rape, saying instead that he was a brahmachari and never touched ‘fire’ or ‘women’. He has said that he never even met the woman in question and said that he didn’t own a cell phone or operate an account on social media. However, on audio records from phone calls he had made to the woman, Giri can be heard apologising to the woman and vowing to “chop off his penis” if ever repeated the same mistake in the future. While Giri has claimed that the voice on the recording is not his, the CIB has ascertained a 67.37 percent probability that the voice is his. Judge Koirala, in his verdict, stated that while the voice was Giri’s, it could have been referring to a consensual sexual episode.
Government lawyers have also argued that the Sunsari court did not adequately account for their evidence, including the victim’s own testimony, and instead chose to listen to a one-sided argument from the defendant’s team. The Sunsari District Attorney has alleged that the judge concluded the hearing and issued the verdict without letting them argue their case.
From the very beginning, the case against Giri has been mired in controversy. The woman has alleged that there has been constant pressure on her to first not file the case and once the case was filed, to withdraw it. The Sunsari police had refused to register her complaint at first and only responded once the CIB and the media got involved. They took Giri into custody for investigation but Giri retreated to the hospital claiming illness. The Sunsari District Court had ordered him released on Rs 300,000 bail but the Biratnagar High Court reversed the decision, remanding him to judicial custody.
Giri attempted to flee to India in late January using the excuse of a medical visit but eventually surrendered himself to the court. Both Giri and the district attorney had moved the Supreme Court but it upheld the high court’s no-bail order. According to legal provisions, those accused of rape cases are not eligible for bail.
Ten days after the Supreme Court’s verdict, a single bench of Sunsari District Court Judge Arjun Prasad Koirala, on December 7 last year, acquitted Giri.
In his verdict, judge Koirala had ordered the police to release Giri and return the bail amount posted earlier. But Koirala himself has been involved in controversy. The Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority, in 2018, had recommended action against Koirala for his involvement in illegally transferring public land into private names. Koirala was instead transferred to Sunsari from Kathmandu. There is currently a case pending against him at the Judicial Council.
What does Giri’s acquittal mean?
Giri is not the first godman to be accused of rape. South Asia is replete with charlatan godmen preying on the gullible. In India, numerous religious gurus have been accused of rape and sexual misconduct. Perhaps the most infamous among them is Asaram Bapu, accused of raping a teenage girl. In Nepal, serious allegations of rape and sexual and physical assault have been levelled against Ram Bahadur Bomjam, once known as the ‘Buddha Boy’.
These cases, however, rarely progress in a satisfactory manner. Godmen like Giri and Bomjam command the loyalty of thousands of religious devotees and are able to amass millions in funds, both of which are eminently useful to political interests come election time. It is thus no wonder that many high-profile politicians tend to appear alongside these figures.
The outsize influence these men exercise also often translates into a culture of exploitation, especially of women. Giri’s case does not just lay bare the political trappings that godmen come with but also the callous manner in which the Nepali justice system still treats cases of rape. The police’s refusal to register a complaint displays how the first point-of-contact for women is often unfriendly and unwilling to help. Furthermore, the judge pointing out that the victim “did not cry” shows a very limited understanding of trauma and grief. In the aftermath of traumatic events like rape, victims can become catatonic and display no emotion in addition to a host of other physical, mental, and emotional effects.
Giri’s acquittal raises serious questions about the Nepali justice system, especially when it comes to dealing with cases of rape and sexual violence.