Fear and feudalism in Hassan: How politics and the state let down sexual assault victims

Devegowda and Prajwal Revanna in a BJP-JD(S) rally in Belur assembly constituency, on 16 April 2024. The parties allied well after BJP leader Devaraje Gowda wrote to the party leadership saying that he had evidence of sexual abuse occurring at the Revanna household. COURTESY PRAJWAL REVANNA
Elections 2024
11 May, 2024

“The man spared neither the woman selling fish nor the sweeper,” an anganwadi worker from Holenarasipur, in Karnataka’s Hassan district, told me, her voice quivering with anger. “From an 18-year-old to a 68-year-old woman, he sexually assaulted everyone.” Like nearly everyone else I spoke to in the small town, the worker did not want to be named. A pall had set over the town: fear, suspicion and a struggle to stay under the radar of the many journalists venturing in. The reactions were uncommon for a situation where the national media was reporting on a candidate’s sexual crimes during a general election. But in Holenarasipur, the lawless and deeply feudal fortress of the Revanna family, it made all too much sense.

The town, with a population of only about thirty thousand, as of the last census, was the birthplace of HD Devegowda, India’s eleventh prime minister. Devegowda represented Holenarasipur in the Vidhan Soudha from 1962 to 1989, before winning the Hassan Lok Sabha seat, which includes the town, five times. While his third son, HD Kumaraswamy, who was twice chief minister of the state, shifted his base to the neighbouring Ramanagara constituency, Devegowda’s second son, HD Revanna, is currently serving his sixth term as the legislator from Holenarasipur. Revanna’s son Prajwal is the current Hassan MP.

Three days before Prajwal Revanna sought re-election, on 26 April, hundreds of USB drives were anonymously distributed across the constituency—left conspicuously in bus stands, railway stations, shops, parks and other public places. They reportedly contained almost three thousand videos of at least a hundred women, some of whom were being sexually abused, assaulted or raped. The survivors reportedly include workers of Devegowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), wives of JD(S) workers, public servants and journalists. Some of the videos, which were allegedly shot by Prajwal, reportedly included visuals of him, while he is audible in others. The earliest allegations that Prajwal and his father were involved in scores of cases of sexual assault came in early 2023. The question then arises: if there was some public knowledge of sexual assault occurring in the Revanna household, how was a crime of such severity, and affecting such a large number of people, left unreported for so long?