MUMBAI (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - A self-proclaimed "godman" may have trafficked and enslaved dozens of women including minors at several retreats in New Delhi and across the country, officials said Tuesday (Dec 26), in the latest case of an Indian spiritual leader accused of sexual abuse.
Women and young girls were found in locked rooms at several ashrams, or spiritual communities, across Delhi, said Ajay Verma, a lawyer appointed by the Delhi High Court to prepare a preliminary report.
"Of the more than 100 women we found, we perceived several to be minors," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Rooms at these premises were locked from the outside, and we had to break the locks to gain access," he said.
Calls to the main ashram seeking comment were not returned.
Members from the state-run Child Welfare Committee and the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) freed scores of minors and women last week from several ashrams in Delhi run by Virendra Dev Dikshit, who is missing, Mr Verma said.
Inspections of Mr Dikshit's other properties are underway, he said.
The case is the latest in a series involving self-styled spiritual leaders in India who have been accused of sexually abusing followers.
Earlier this year, another self-proclaimed godman claiming more than one million followers was convicted of raping two women followers under rape laws that were recently tightened.
The high-profile case highlighted the fascination for spiritual gurus who enjoy immense influence for their ability to mobilise millions of followers and their close connections with politicians.
In the current case, women and girls appear to have been lured under the pretext of spiritual guidance, said DCW chief Swati Maliwal.
They were found in a poor state in "prison-like" conditions, with no records of who they are or for how long they have been there, she said.
"It appears that he was running a sex trafficking racket," Ms Maliwal said.
"There should be an immediate crackdown on all his ashrams, and a thorough investigation. He must be found and arrested, and the women and girls rescued and rehabilitated," she said.
A hearing in Delhi is scheduled for Jan 4, Mr Verma said.