Prajwal Revanna sexual assault case | Power play, politics, and perversion

Days before Hassan district went to the polls, videos and photos allegedly showing MP Prajwal Revanna sexually abusing women have circulated in Karnataka, sparking outrage. While political parties have been attacking one another over the issue, Prajwal, who is seeking re-election, has gone abroad. K.V. Aditya Bharadwaj and Sathish G.T. report on the incident that has left the State and the country shaken, and the investigation

Updated - May 11, 2024 01:16 pm IST

Published - May 11, 2024 01:38 am IST

JD(S) MLA H.D. Revanna being arrested and brought to the SIT office in Bengaluru.

JD(S) MLA H.D. Revanna being arrested and brought to the SIT office in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

Trigger warning: The following article contains references to rape and abuse. Please avoid reading if you are triggered by these themes.

On the morning of April 22, a resident of Hassan in south Karnataka was walking along the tracks of the district stadium, about 190 km from Bengaluru, when he noticed a pen drive placed on a pedestal. He ignored it at first, but then curiosity got the better of him. He picked up the pen drive and gave it to a friend, he said.

That was not the only pen drive in the stadium. Others said they noticed 8-10 pen drives in different areas of the same stadium. Walkers in Maharaja’s Park in the heart of Hassan said they had also spotted pen drives on the benches.

Watch | Prajwal Revanna sex scandal: all you need to know

As the day went by, it became clear that it was raining pen drives in Hassan. When people downloaded the content, they found sexually explicit video clips, photos, and screenshots of video calls. Soon, this went viral. The women in the photos and videos were clearly visible, but the man was not. However, he could be seen partially in the screenshots of the video calls he made to the women.

The man is allegedly Prajwal Revanna, the Janata Dal (Secular) [JD(S)] Member of Parliament from Hassan and the grandson of former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. He is the candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. The Hassan Lok Sabha constituency was scheduled to go to the polls in the second phase, four days later, on April 26.

There were at least two clips in which the women could be seen resisting the man’s advances and pleading with him even as he raped them while recording the act. One of them was later allegedly abducted by Prajwal’s father H.D. Revanna, who is a former Minister, and MLA of Holenarsipur, the home town of the Gowda clan.

Editorial | Sexual crimes and videos: On the Prajwal Revanna case in Karnataka 

The police estimate that there are close to 100 women in these videos. The women, both young and old, single and married, come from different backgrounds: they are house-helps, party workers, professionals, and government officials. Some of them were familiar to the people of Hassan as they had been actively involved in political events and as officials. Nobody had complained to the police until the videos went viral.

Two survivors lodged complaints with the police. Sources in the police say the MP sexually abused women who approached him for personal, professional, or constituency work. One of the victims said that he coerced her while threatening to harm her family members. He recorded videos of the sexual act and blackmailed her, she said. Police say he used the official residence of Deve Gowda, a Rajya Sabha MP, for these acts.

The episode sparked massive protests in Karnataka and led to mudslinging among the political parties. The agitators demanded a probe into the case and the immediate arrest of the accused.

Members of the National Students’ Union of India, the student wing of the Congress, hold a poster of JD(S) MP Prajwal Revanna during a protest in Bengaluru.

Members of the National Students’ Union of India, the student wing of the Congress, hold a poster of JD(S) MP Prajwal Revanna during a protest in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: PTI

A warning

By the evening of April 22, the people realised that these were the videos that a local BJP leader and lawyer, G. Devaraje Gowda, had often referred to during his press conferences. Devaraje, who had unsuccessfully contested from Holenarasipur against H.D. Revanna in 2023, is known for his scathing attacks against the Revanna family. He had said, “I have videos and photos related to Prajwal Revanna. The content expose the true character of the JD(S) leader. I am not in a position to release them to the media as Prajwal Revanna has got a stay order from the court restraining the media from broadcasting the videos and photos,” Devaraje told the media a couple of times earlier this year.

Soon, a letter written by Devaraje Gowda to the BJP State president in December 2023 surfaced. In it, Devaraje had claimed that he had a pen drive containing 2,976 explicit clips of Prajwal and advised the State president not to field him as the NDA candidate. He also said a copy of the pen drive had been sent to leaders of the Congress, the ruling party in Karnataka.

Though JD(S) workers have blamed the Congress, there has been a buzz in political circles that BJP workers played a major role in circulating the videos.

Devaraje has now alleged that the Congress circulated the content and claimed that Deputy Chief Minister D.K. Shivakumar spoke to him about the issue. However, Karthik Gowda, a former driver of Prajwal, who has released a video message from an undisclosed location, claimed that he downloaded the videos from Prajwal’s phone, transferred them to his own phone, and handed them over to Devaraje, who leaked them. Karthik Gowda has often said that he fell out with Prajwal’s family over a land issue. He claimed that Prajwal’s family forced him to sell his land to a businessman in Bengaluru.

Prajwal flees

Hassan went to the polls on April 26. Prajwal cast his vote in Paduvalahippe in Holenarsipur taluk. That was the last time he was seen in public. The next day, he flew to Germany from Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru, at 2 a.m. using his diplomatic passport. He was suspended by the JD(S)

Prajwal’s flight led to more anger. Following a letter by the Karnataka State Commission for Women seeking a probe into the alleged instances of sexual abuse, the State government formed a Special Investigation Team (SIT). Bijay Kumar Singh, a 1996 batch Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, who is Additional Director General of Police, Criminal Investigation Department, is heading the SIT. He successfully cracked the murders of rationalists Gauri Lankesh and M.M. Kalburgi. The team that is nearly all-women includes two women IPS officers, Suman D. Pennekar and Seema Latkar.

The SIT was referred a First Information Report (FIR) registered on April 28 at Holenarsipura. A former house help of the Revannas, who does not feature in the clips, alleged sexual harassment by Revanna and Prajwal. It then expanded the probe to include Revanna as well.

The SIT has since then registered three new FIRs: two booking Prajwal for rape, based on the complaints of two victims, and one booking Revanna for abducting one of the women in an alleged bid to prevent her from testifying against Prajwal. She was eventually rescued by the SIT.

“Though we have been able to identify many victims from the videos doing the rounds, the challenge has been to convince them to lodge complaints,” says a senior SIT official.

When the videos went viral, the women did not know what to do, according to their friends. Initially, a couple of them approached senior police officers, complaining that some unknown people had been circulating images morphed with their photographs. When the police insisted that they file a formal complaint, they did not.

A few of the survivors have either left town or remained incommunicado. “They just want to be far from everyone,” says a person who interacted with a couple of them.

Another friend of one of the survivors says, “It is the State government’s responsibility to provide them with counselling.”

The State government has announced that the survivors who come forward to complain will be given financial assistance and security cover. The SIT has roped in nearly 10 professional women counsellors who have provided the survivors support. “Most of the women are scared to complain. Moreover, in many cases their families may not know that their videos are being circulated. We need to counsel their families as well,” a senior official says.

A resident of Holenarasipur says, “The Revanna family is feudal and ran the ‘Republic of Hassan’ with great impunity. Now it has come out in the open that the women who approached them seeking help were abused.”

“The women were mostly from Hassan. This indicates the impunity Prajwal seemed to enjoy in Hassan,” a political worker says.

Tales of horror

Two survivors have recounted their ordeal to the police. Based on their complaints, Prajwal has been booked for rape in two cases.

A political worker of the JD(S), 44, alleged that Prajwal raped her at his official residence in Hassan when she had gone to meet him in 2021 seeking seats for some women students in a hostel. She said he threatened to kill her and her husband if she did not cooperate. She also alleged that Prajwal took out his mobile phone and recorded the act. “He said he would make this video public if I told anyone. He said he was not visible in the video, while I was. He said I had to have sex with him whenever he called me. Later too, he used to make video calls to me asking me to strip, and harass me. He has sexually assaulted me multiple times in these years and blackmailed me saying he will make the video public,” she said in her complaint.

In many of the videos they have accessed, the man’s face is not visible, say SIT officials. They believe this gave the perpetrator confidence that he would not be caught. However, SIT officials are confident of using forensics and establishing the man’s identity in the video.

The second complaint pertains to a former house help in the Revannas’ Holenarsipura household. She is about 60. She is seen in a video clip pleading with the man to spare her. In the video, she says she served food to the man’s father and grandfather and begs that he leave her alone. But the man, whose face is not visible, forces himself on her.

The woman had gone missing since. On May 1, her 20-year-old son walked into K.R. Nagar Police Station in Mysuru claiming that his mother was forcibly taken away by a man called Satish Babu at Revanna’s behest to prevent her from testifying against Prajwal. He said Satish had claimed that his mother was in danger of being arrested and took her away. He realised that his mother had been abducted after he discovered the video clip. This led to an FIR against Revanna for abduction.

On May 4, the SIT rescued the woman. She was allegedly held captive at a farmhouse belonging to the former personal secretary to Revanna in Hunsur, Mysuru. Minutes after Revanna’s anticipatory bail plea was turned down by the Special Court for Elected Representatives, Bengaluru, the SIT team arrested him from the house of his father. Out of deference for the former Prime Minister who is in his 90s, the SIT officials say they waited at the door for half an hour for Revanna to emerge. Revanna has now been remanded to judicial custody. The total number of arrests in the abduction case is now six.

The politics

The incident has led to protests in many pockets of Karnataka. Interpol has issued a Blue Corner Notice against Prajwal. This notice is part of Interpol’s colour-coded notices which enable countries to “share alerts and requests for information (on wanted persons/crimes) worldwide”.

Meanwhile, speculations are rife that Prajwal is unlikely to return home before June 4, when the results of the elections will be declared. “Prajwal’s case has become a national issue and the INDIA bloc parties are trying to embarrass the BJP with it. If Prajwal returns now, he will dominate the news cycle for at least a week. So, it is unlikely he will return in a hurry,” says a leader.

Former Rajya Sabha member H.K. Javare Gowda says he was shocked when he learned about the issue a few days ago. “I was a blind follower of Deve Gowda once, but not now. I pity him. I want him to talk about the issue,” he says. Deve Gowda has not made a public appearance since the news broke and has remained silent.

The JD(S), the BJP, and Congress have been busy in a mudslinging match over the issue of how the video clips came into the public domain, so much so that this debate is threatening to mask the alleged abuse of the women.

JD(S) State president and Prajwal’s uncle H.D. Kumaraswamy, who initially sought to distance himself and his father Deve Gowda from the controversy, is now accusing Shivakumar of distributing “25,000 pendrives to evidently influence elections in Hassan”. He has also told Shivakumar that this was “not the way to become a leader of the Vokkaligas”. He has alleged that the SIT is biased and has demanded, along with the BJP, a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

At the same time, JD(S) workers have held multiple protests across the State claiming to fight for the survivors and against Shivakumar. There are posters in Bengaluru condemning Shivakumar for “misusing” the explicit clips for his politics. In various instances, Kumaraswamy has expressed doubt over the veracity of the clips, while also saying he is “not defending” Prajwal.

Countering the JD(S) charge, many Vokkaliga Ministers and leaders of the Congress have accused Kumaraswamy and BJP of “attempting to cover-up of the sex abuse” by diverting the attention from ensuring justice to the survivors to the alleged role of leaders involved in the distribution of pen drives.

Revenue Minister Krishna Byre Gowda, also a Vokkaliga leader, attacked Kumaraswamy for “trying to use the community as a shield to cover up henious crimes and, in the process, dragging the community into the biggest sex abuse scandal in the world”.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has maintained that the SIT is “impartial” and has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his intervention to cancel Prajwal’s diplomatic passport immediately, so that the MP is forced to return to India. Prajwal’s passport has not been cancelled yet. Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have hit back saying law and order is a State issue.

Activists are angry about the political turn the case has taken. “People across political parties are making use of these women as pawns in their own game,” says Roopa Hassan, an activist and poet based in Hassan.

For now, everyone is waiting for the Lok Sabha election results, especially in Hassan, and Prajwal’s return. But this alleged sex abuse case will likely cast a shadow on Karnataka’s politics for years to come. Meanwhile, the victims are scared, stigmatised, and are battling patriarchy.

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