When Rupa Hassan heard the news late in April about videos and photos featuring alleged sexual abuse by her constituency’s member of parliament Prajwal Revanna, she did not believe it. But when she contacted journalists and activists she trusted, they confirmed that the information was true. They said that thousands of such videos and photos were being circulated through the phones and computers of residents of the Karnataka city of Hassan.

“Over 2,900 videos,” claimed Rupa Hassan, a writer and women and child rights activist. “I still cannot wrap my head around it. Even our house-help said she had received the videos on her phone.”

Hassan and her colleagues soon realised that many of the women in the videos were people they knew. “As women’s rights activists, we meet women day in and day out,” she said. “It was shocking to see so many familiar faces in these videos.”

In only a little while, Hassan and her colleagues began to receive desperate calls from a couple of these women. “They were weeping on the phone saying they had no choice but to resort to suicide,” she said. “Most of these women were married and with children.” Some women claimed that their faces had been morphed onto videos.

Rupa Hassan estimated that more than 300 women appear in the videos. “People are saying more videos will come out,” she said. “We are all living in perpetual fear.”

Hassan said that she heard that three of the women who featured in the videos had attempted suicide but survived.

A political storm is raging about the matter. Prajwal Revanna’s party, the Janata Dal (Secular), is an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had appeared at a rally of the Janata Dal (Secular) in Mysuru on April 14 and shared the stage with Revanna. When it was discovered Revanna had fled to Germany on a diplomatic passport on April 27, Opposition leaders accused Modi of having facilitated his journey.

Amidst the swirl of controversy, Rupa Hassan decided that that as a women’s activist, her priority should be to provide support to the women. “Before we discussed anything else, I realised that it was important for me to provide counselling so that they don’t take drastic steps”, Hassan said. “Many are feeling very guilty. I had to just find a way to give them the strength to survive this somehow. Everything else was secondary.”

Hassan said the women she spoke to were anxious about their husbands finding out that they were in the videos. “I told the women to stay calm and be strong and that they will get through these trying times,” she said.

Over the last few days, several formal complaints have been registered against Revanna and his father HD Revanna, the MLA from Holenarasipur in Hassan district. HD Revanna has also been a state cabinet minister.

On April 29, a woman, who had been a domestic worker in the Revanna household filed a complaint against the two with the Holenarsipur police, alleging that they had sexually harassed her.

On May 2, the son of a woman in one of the videos, filed a complaint in Mysuru, claiming that his mother had been kidnapped by HD Revanna’s associates to prevent her from talking to the police. He also alleged that his mother had been raped by Prajwal Revanna.

In addition, a former zilla parishad member in a statement to a Special Investigative Team formed by the state government alleged that Prajwal Revanna had raped her for over three years and had recorded videos that he later used to blackmail her. Based on her statement, the police registered an FIR against Prajwal Revanna on May 1, accusing him of rape, among other offences.

Scroll emailed Revanna seeking his comment for this story. Scroll also texted a Janata Dal (Secular) spokesperson seeking a response to allegations that the party had failed to take action against Revanna despite having ample information about his alleged crimes. This story will be updated if they respond.

The pattern of leaks

The videos were leaked in a way that seems almost too bizarre to believe. But Dharmesh, the district secretary of Communist Party of India (Marxist), who has been tracking developments from the start, confirmed the sequence of events. The videos were uploaded on pen drives that were dropped off in public places such as buses, bus stops, railway stations, parks, garbage bins and even boys’ hostels. These videos soon made their way to WhatsApp and other social media forums.

“In the first batch, Prajwal Revanna’s face was not revealed clearly,” Dharmesh said. “The women’s faces were fully exposed and a lot of them were JD(S) party workers.” But a second batch of videos, released the next day, revealed Revanna’s face clearly.

“The women in the videos were domestic workers and other staff of the Revanna family,” Dharmesh said. In a subsequent batch, “the women seemed to mostly be government officials, television actresses and a few others”, he said.

Rupa Hassan explained that the circumstances in which the women met Revanna and engaged or were forced into sexual activities were not precisely clear. “We are hearing that most of them went to him asking for favours and in return he made these demands,” she said. Activists said that the favours they needed included job appointments, promotions or money for themselves or family members.

She and other activists noted that based on the changing appearances of some of the women in the various clips, the videos seem to have been shot over many years.

Dharmesh said that one of the women in the videos had spoken to him after they leaked, and explained that she was a worker from the women’s wing of the Janata Dal (Secular). The woman, he said, told him that one day, when she visited Prajwal Revanna’s residence to discuss work, he began to ask her for sexual favours.

“When she denied him, he kept promising her government grants,” Dharmesh said. “She said he kept making one offer after another, urging her to agree. When she continued to refuse, he grabbed her by the arm and forced her inside a room. She said after a point, she just gave in.”

After this incident, the woman told Dharmesh that Revanna showed her the video he had shot of the incident, and told her that he would delete it. “He even clicked the delete button on the phone in front of her,” Dharmesh said. “And then later told her that he had not deleted it, and used the video to blackmail her into sleeping with him over and over again.”

Two women who were reportedly sighted in some videos told veteran journalist and social worker RP Venkateshmurthy that their faces had “been morphed onto the bodies of the women in the video”.

“I don’t know if it’s true or if they are lying out of fear or humiliation,” he said.

Venkateshmurthy said that the Revanna family has major properties in Hassan. Revanna “seemed to have frequented one more often”, Venkateshmurthy said. “A shopkeeper near the property said that every day he would see new women going to the house.”

Dharmesh noted that many of the videos had been shot in the official residence of Hassan’s member of parliament. “Interestingly, right next to the quarters is the office of the superintendent of police,” Dharmesh noted.

Venkateshmurthy recounted that after the videos leaked, he spoke to members of the police he knew and asked why no action had been taken against Prajwal Revanna. He also asked if any steps were being taken to stop the videos from spreading.

“They said none of the women had formally filed a complaint and thus they could not take any steps,” he said. “They also said they were very busy with election duty. If they had taken action right away, maybe it would not have spread so rapidly.”

A police official in Hassan on condition of anonymity reiterated to Scroll the argument that without a formal complaint from the victims, they could not have taken action earlier. “We did not get any written complaint from any of the victims,” the official said.

Activists are particularly outraged because the police had sufficient warning about the existence of the videos and the risk that they might be leaked.

This became clear in June 2023, when Revanna filed a suit seeking a gag order against 86 media outlets and three individuals, including his former driver Karthik who was in possession of the videos and photos. The suit claimed that “there is a threat of broadcasting, publishing and circulating such fake news, morphed photographs/video against the plaintiff by the defendants”. The court granted Revanna the injunction that he sought.

In October 2023, the Janata Dal (Secular) announced an alliance with the BJP. Early in December, Prajwal Revanna’s grandfather, former prime minister Deve Gowda announced that Revanna would contest from Hassan. This announcement is said to have irked many local BJP leaders, including Devaraje Gowda.

Later that month, Gowda wrote a letter to BY Vijayendra, the BJP state president, warning the party that there were allegations of sexual abuse against Revanna. He also held a press conference at which he stated that he was in possession of a pen drive with 2,976 videos of Revanna “misbehaving” with women.

“Why did the police not investigate or even attempt to find out what these videos were and where they came from?” Dharmesh said. “If only the local police had taken some kind of step, we could have avoided this entire incident.”

Activists said that the police at first argued that the acts depicted in the videos were consensual. But Dharmesh alleged that the police had adequate evidence of sexual assault and should have sought to arrest Prajwal Revanna. “In the second set of videos released, there was definite evidence of rape,” he said. “The woman in the video was begging for him to stop and yet he forced himself on her. That was enough evidence to arrest him, but they let it slide.”

Besides, activists argued, the question of consent itself was murky in a situation such as this, involving an individual in a position of immense power. Hassan argued that even if for argument’s sake, one assumed that some of the women had consented to the acts, there was no indication that they had consented to being filmed.

“This is someone’s personal life,” she said.

Hassan and other activists said it was apparent from the videos that Revanna had filmed the acts himself. The leaking of the videos, then, represented another grave violation of the women’s rights. “Nobody has the right to expose somebody’s personal information in this inhumane way,” Hassan said.

The women who had called Rupa Hassan are no longer available on their phones. “Fellow social workers and I have been trying to reach out to these women but all their phones are switched off,” Hassan said. “We don’t know where they are or how they are.”

She added that the women’s safety was at stake. “These videos will also put the wrong ideas in young people’s minds,” she said. “Apparently a lot of young people are enthusiastically sharing these videos and trying to track down the women in the videos. This sounds very scary.”

Hassan expressed hope that the Special Investigative Team formed by the state government to look into the matter “works quickly so these women don’t continue to live in fear”.

She and other activists have submitted a memorandum to the police demanding that the police make it a priority to stop the videos from spreading. “We’ve also said that women will only come out to complain if they can trust the police, so the victims have to be treated with dignity and compassion,” she said.

They have also recommended that the police create a dedicated helpline so women can be assured of anonymity and security.