Police in the southern Indian state of Karnataka have arrested an influential Hindu religious leader for allegedly raping two minor schoolgirls.
Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru from the Lingayat community, a dominant Hindu sect in the state, is accused of assaulting the girls at his seminary.
He was arrested on Thursday night, six days after a complaint filed against him sparked protests in the state. Sharanaru has denied the allegations and called them a conspiracy.
He was produced in court at 02:45 India time on Friday and was remanded to 14-day judicial custody.
The 64-year-old seer has been charged under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The police have also invoked the Scheduled Caste Scheduled Tribe Atrocities Act against him after one of the survivors said she was a Dalit – formerly known as untouchables under India’s caste hierarchy.
Lingayatas, a middle caste, comprise 17% of Karnataka’s population. They are hugely influential and dominate politics in the state – most of the chief ministers have belonged to this community.
The state has some 2,000 powerful Lingayat community mutts, or monastic establishments, which also run professional colleges.
Sharanaru heads the Murugha Mutt in Chitradurga city. It runs more than 150 spiritual and educational institutions across the state.
A case was filed against him on 26 August after two girls, both of whom were students at the seminary – approached a non-profit in Mysore city and alleged that he had abused them for years. In the complaint, the girls said that Sharanaru would call them to his chambers and then sexually assault them.
The allegations sparked protests in Chitradurga and some other districts, as demonstrators called for the immediate arrest of the religious leader.
But several others have extended their support to the seer – former chief minister BS Yediyurappa said that Sharanaru was being “falsely implicated”.
“The investigation will reveal that he is innocent. The investigations will also reveal people involved in framing the seer,” he told reporters.