After news broke at the end of April of the alleged abuse of at least tens of women by Hassan’s member of parliament Prajwal Revanna, Gowri K was the second woman to make a formal statement against him. Based on her statement, police filed a first-information report against Prajwal.

Gowri is a member of a zilla parishad in Hassan. In her statement, she recounted one meeting with Prajwal, the grandson of the former prime minister HD Deve Gowda. She needed to discuss the possibility of procuring places for female college students in welfare hostels in Hassan run by the Department of Backward Classes.

When Gowri arrived at Prajwal’s official residence in Hassan, there were many people waiting to speak with him. He asked her to proceed to the first floor and wait. “There were many women there and I was the last one remaining to speak with him,” she said. “When it was my turn, he asked me to come into a room.”

When she went in, Gowri said, he grabbed her by the hand and pushed her onto a bed. He then ordered her to take off her clothes. Confused and frightened, Gowri refused and asked him to let her go. He told her that her husband was “talking too much and causing problems” and that if she wanted to grow politically, she would have to do everything he asked her to do. “When I threatened to scream, he told me that he had a gun and could kill me and my husband,” Gowri said in her statement.

Then, she said, Prajwal proceeded to rape her and record a video of the act. He then showed her the video, and said that if she breathed a word to anyone about what he had done, he would share the video through social media. He explained that his face was not seen in the video and that only hers was visible.

In the days that followed, he continued to use the video to threaten her. “He would video call me and ask me to strip down,” she stated in her complaint. “He kept threatening me with the video and repeatedly raped me.”

Gowri said she was raped and blackmailed for more than two years, between January 2021 and April 2024.

In her complaint, Gowri made accusations against Revanna under several sections of the Indian Penal Code, including 376 (2)(n), which pertains to repeated rape, 354(c), which pertains to voyeurism and 505, which pertains to criminal intimidation.

The second woman to file a formal complaint against Prajwal Revanna was a member of a zilla parishad in Hassan. She alleged that Prajwal raped her when she met him professionally. Photo: Prajwal Revanna/Facebook

Two other cases have also been filed against Prajwal Revanna. One was filed by a former domestic worker who was employed by the family, and who accused Prajwal and his father HD Revanna of sexual harassment, stalking and intimidation. Another was filed by the son of an alleged victim, who accused Prajwal Revanna of raping his mother, and HD Revanna of kidnapping her to prevent her from filing a complaint.

Soon after news broke of the videos being circulated, Prajwal fled the country, and remained absconding for over a month, only returning at the end of May. He was arrested on arrival and produced before a Special Investigation Team of the Karnataka police. Even as he remained under arrest, in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections, Prajwal lost the Hassan seat. His father, meanwhile, was granted bail in both the cases against him. Scroll texted HD Revanna, seeking his response to the allegations against him. This story will be updated if he responds.

Prajwal Revanna’s alleged victims included domestic workers in his family home or farmhouses, government officials and actresses. Many, like Gowri, were political workers and leaders who, as part of their work, often have to meet members of the legislative assembly and legislative council, as well as members of parliament.

Gowri’s account is revealing of the particular vulnerability of these women. Conversations with women political workers in the region and elsewhere made evident that even if they decide to stand up to such abuses of power, the profession has almost no avenues through which they can seek redressal. “There are no associations or bodies that are devoted to addressing sexual harassment in politics,” said Najma Nazeer Chikkanerale, a member of the Congress from Mysuru.

This vulnerability is only exacerbated by the poor representation of women in politics. The newly elected Lok Sabha has only 74 women members, under 14% of the total strength of the house. Even this number represents a decline from the 2019 Lok Sabha, which had 78 women members.

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In Hassan, the problems that women like Gowri faced were particularly severe because of the immense power wielded by the family of HD Deve Gowda. Gowda is a leader of the Vokkaliga community, among the groups that dominate the state’s politics. He first became a member of the Karnataka legislative assembly in 1962, and spent the early part of his political career in the Janata Dal, as part of which he also served as the prime minister of India for a little under a year in 1996. In 1999, Gowda founded the Janata Dal (Secular), a breakaway faction of which he is today the national president.

Since then, Karnataka has been the state in which the party has the most significant presence, while Hassan in particular has been its stronghold. Gowda has won three Lok Sabha elections from Hassan. One of his sons, HD Kumaraswamy, has served twice as the chief minister of the state, albeit without completing either terms, while his other son, Revanna, has won assembly elections six times from Holenarasipura, which falls within Hassan. Prajwal Revanna entered electoral politics in 2019, with his victory in Hassan’s Lok Sabha election.

While Gowda remained widely respected in the region, RK Venkateshmurthy, a journalist and social worker from Hassan, noted that the public’s perception of his children and grandchildren was significantly different.

“Deve Gowda was a good leader,” he said. “His sons and grandsons are nothing like him. Today they are a highly powerful family. They can do anything and nobody will bat an eyelid.”

He added, “Deve Gowda has actually lost some support because of his children’s activities. Revanna in particular is a very arrogant man.”

The problems that women in Hassan faced were particularly severe because of the immense power wielded by the family of HD Deve Gowda, former prime minister and national president of the Janata Dal (Secular). Photo: Kamal Kishore/Reuters

As a result, some residents of Hassan would refer to the district as “the ‘Repulic of Revanna’ because you can’t get anything done without their approval,” said Najma Nazeer Chikkanerale, who served as the president of the Janata Dal (Secular) women’s wing, but joined the Congress party two months ago, after the former party entered into an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. “It’s almost like people need to get permission from them before you enter Hassan.”

An atmosphere of fear prevailed in the region when it came to the family, Venkateshmurthy noted. “Nobody will raise any questions about any wrongdoings,” he said. “They have reached a position where they have become untouchable. I guess it is that very attitude that has allowed Prajwal Revanna to feel like he could get away with anything.”

The Gowda family also has a reputation of being feudal and casteist. HK Sandesh, a member of the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti in Hassan, said that though the party has benefited from the support of many marginalised communities, it has not worked towards ensuring social justice for them. “Revanna is very casteist,” he said. “Even to this day, he has a bath after meeting with a Dalit person in order to ‘purify’ himself,” he said. HD Revanna did not respond to Scroll’s requests for comment on these allegations.

HD Revanna, Deve Gowda’s son and the MLA from Holenarasipura, is accused in two cases, of offences including sexual harassment, stalking and kidnapping. He is currently out on bail. Photo: HD Revanna/Facebook

Dharmesh, the district secretary of Communist Party of India (Marxist) concurred with this view of the family. “In politics, Deve Gowda maybe be secular and socialist but in his personal life, things are different,” he said. “The family is very religious and are casteist.”

But despite these problems, the Gowda family has managed to retain power for decades in the region, because of the prominence of the Vokkaliga community, Dharmesh said. “They also own large amounts of property and land,” he noted. “So, locals know that they are very powerful and are fearful of them. But I think over the last couple of years, the fear has reduced.”

While women in politics in Hassan appear to have suffered particularly horrific treatment at the hands of powerful leaders, the problem is a widespread one.

Sushma Mahabala has spent over five years researching women and politics in Karnataka for a master’s degree. She has spoken to women from across party lines to understand the challenges that women face. Her interviews revealed that sexual harassment is pervasive across parties.

“When the ‘me-too’ movement happened, men were getting called out from various professional fields,” Mahabala said. “But I observed that there were zero names from the political field. It seemed unbelievable to me because I had heard of stories of sexual harassment during my research.”

She added, “Women don’t talk about it openly.”

Mahabala explained that the working conditions in politics frequently expose women to misogynistic behaviour. “When women go to a political campaign or any other political event or meeting after 7 pm, they are not treated with respect,” she said. “A woman I spoke to said she joined politics when she was 16, and it took her ten years to just figure out safe spaces for herself.”

In politics, sexism is amplified “because women have to deal with men who are extremely powerful”, noted Kavitha Reddy, a member of the Congress party in Karnataka. “One phone call and they can completely finish your career.”

She explained that if women stood up to men, “they will immediately resort to character assassination”. She added, “Men just don’t respect women. I thought maybe the younger generation was a little better, but then we have people like Prajwal Revanna.”

Women from political families are relatively better protected against harassment, Mahabala noted. “Otherwise, anyone is prone to it, especially if they are unmarried or divorced,” she said.

In Chikkanerale’s view, men were less likely to prey on women who they thought of as assertive. During her time in the Janata Dal (Secular), Chikkanerale worked with Prajwal Revanna, but noted that he “never misbehaved with me. He was quite polite”. She thinks this was because she is from an activist background. “I am not from a political background, but I was an activist before I became a politician,” she said. “I think that is what prevented him from misbehaving with me.”

But Reddy noted that despite the fact that her family has been in politics for many years, and the fact that she also is a member of the party, she has still faced her share of harassment from male colleagues. “If you are not ready to be completely subservient, ready to fall on their feet, then they are out to sabotage you,” she said.

All the women agreed that those who work in lower levels of governance face the worst of the problem. “Women from local levels and state levels do sometimes open up about male leaders making inappropriate comments, sometimes touching too, and even propositioning them,” Reddy said.

Chikkanerale observed that many women in the Prajwal Revanna videos appeared to be lower-level party workers from Hassan at the zilla parishad, taluk and gram panchayat levels. “I think these are women who approached him asking for posts, transfers, or for some other work for their husbands,” she said. “Basically, women who were in vulnerable positions.” She believes that “women in top positions were spared”.

Najma Nazeer Chikkanerale is a member of the Congress from Mysuru. She noted that the women in the Prajwal Revanna videos appeared to be those in lower levels of the party, and in “vulnerable positions”. Photo: Najma Nazeer Chikkanerala/Facebook

Chikkanerale was herself hounded and trolled on social media after news broke about Prajwal Revanna’s alleged crimes. “People found an old video of me praising Revanna and commented saying that if Revanna did not spare his maids, why would he have spared me,” she said.

Such responses left her questioning her career in politics. “When news like this comes out, my parents also ask why I wish to stay in a profession like this,” she said. “Honestly, hearing about these videos and experiences of these women, it makes me also feel unsafe and uncomfortable to be in this space.” She added, “People seem to want women-‘mukt’ politics.”

T Farzana, another Janata Dal (Secular) women’s wing member who shifted to the Congress after the former party joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party, recounted that she was treated well during her time in the party. But even she received occasional late-night text messages, or faced casual sexist comments, she said.

The female political workers said that to survive in the field, they had to work towards putting on a tough exterior. Reddy likened it to “building a fort around you”.

Chikkanerale argued that there was a need for a broader system of support for women in politics.

“Like there are workers unions, student unions, women’s communities, workers communities, why can’t there be something for women in politics?” she said. “It could include all the women in politics from different parties so we can confront these problems united.”

But Scroll’s interviews indicated that considerable ground needed to be covered even among women in the field. R Shakuntala and Leela Devi, two senior members of the Janata Dal (Secular), agreed that women should have avenues to complain, but also argued that incidents of harassment and assault may not occur if women were also “more careful” and behaved “correctly”.

Chikkanerale disagreed with such views. In the context of the Prajwal Revanna case, she said the allegations “should not raise any questions on women in this case. He prayed on women who were vulnerable”.

Under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, any workplace with a minimum of ten employees has to have an internal complaints committee, to address complaints of sexual harassment.

The act defines “workplace” widely, and includes government departments, private sector organisations, hospitals, sports stadiums and houses. It also includes “any place visited by the employee arising out of or during the course of employment including transportation by the employer for undertaking such journey”.

Political parties, however, do not fall within the purview of the law

In 2018, Sandhya Raju, a lawyer based in Kozhikode, Kerala and the founder of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, Research and Advocacy, filed a petition in the High Court of Kerala, seeking to change this.

Around 2017 or 2018, Raju said, she recalled reading news articles about female party workers complaining about sexual harassment from seniors in their parties. In one case, a youth leader from the Community Party of India (Marxist), alleged that PK Sasi, a member of the legislative assembly from Shornur, Kerala, had sexually harassed her – specifically, that he had often called her on the phone and made lewd comments. Since she was unhappy with the state leadership’s response, she wrote to the party’s central committee and senior women leaders. Following this, the party conducted a probe and suspended Sasi for six months.

Raju was also deeply troubled by the case of abduction and sexual abuse that an actress filed against the prominent Malayalam actor, Dileep, and a case of rape that a nun filed against Bishop Franco Mulakkal.

Raju’s petition asked the court to order the implementation of the law against sexual harassment at the workplace “in the entertainment and media industry including working journalists, faith-based institutions, political and other organisations”.

In 2021, Sandhya Raju, a lawyer based in Kozhikode, filed a petition in the Kerala High Court, seeking among other aims, to bring political parties within the purview of the workplace sexual harassment law. Photo: Special arrangement

Raju filed the petition in October 2018 on behalf of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, Research and Advocacy. The respondents in the case included the state’s women and child development department, the Kerala Television Federation, the Kerala Union of Working Journalists and the Film Employees Federation of India. They also included the three major parties in the state – the Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The petition cited the cases of Sasi, Dileep and the bishop and noted, “The blatant attempt at silencing the victims have been seen in the actions undertaken by the three agencies namely the film fraternity organizations, the political organizations and the faith based organisation.”

The High Court passed a judgement in the case in 2022. The court ruled in favour of the petitioner, but only partially. When it came to the film industry, it observed that each unit is an “establishment”, and therefore, had to have an internal complaints committee to address sexual harassment complaints. The court also ordered film associations to establish such committees.

But the court did not rule that political parties had to do the same.

It stated that parties did not have an “employer-employee relationship with its members” and did not fall under the definition of “workplaces”, and so were “not liable to make any Internal Complaints Committee”.

Raju said she was surprised by the court’s reasoning. “I did not expect this explanation from the court,” she said. “The act is very clear. One doesn’t have to be paid to be covered by this act. It also includes volunteers or interns, who may not technically be employees. So, I’m not sure why there is this dichotomy, and why the court decided to look at the relationship in such a literal manner.”

She added, “It is absolutely normal for people from lower levels of governance to interact with those in the higher levels and there are definitely chances of sexual harassment taking place in those situations.”

Raju said that among the parties at the national level, as far as she knew, only the Congress had taken any action towards adhering to the spirit of the sexual harassment law – in 2013, the party set up an in-house grievance redressal cell and a legal cell to help women facing sexual harassment within the party. “It is because the party is so old and the women’s cell is also very old,” Mahabala said. “So, I’ve observed that women do speak about the issue and address it.”

But many women argued that even if political parties were to set up committees, they would be unlikely to function properly. “I’m not sure these committees will work unless there is an independent body that is dealing with the complaints,” Farzana said.

In fact, Mahabala and Raju both noted that the law against sexual harassment of women at the workplace does not only envisage internal complaints committees within companies, but also local complaints committees under the government, which are overseen by the local administration.

Under the law, every district has to have such a committee, and the government must notify a local official, such as the district magistrate, as the officer who will receive complaints. This officer has to further “designate one nodal officer in every block, taluka and tehsil in rural or tribal area and ward or municipality in the urban area” to receive and forward complaints to the local complaints committees. The committees are responsible for addressing any complaints of sexual harassment at workplaces within their jurisdiction, across professional fields.

The committees are empowered to initiate enquiries into complaints, and make recommendations about the actions that can be taken if they are found to be true, such as imposing a financial penalty on the perpetrator. Under the law, the employer concerned must act against the perpetrator within 60 days of receiving the report from the committee.

But Mahabala noted, “Five years ago, when I looked into the state of the local complaints committees in Karnataka, I found that these committees were not allotted any funds.”

In its ruling in the petition that Raju filed, the Kerala High Court ordered the government to set up these committees in all districts. Raju explained that “within two years of the petition, all districts established these committees”, which, she said, are centred “in the collectors’ offices in Kerala”. She added, “But I’m not sure about other states.”

Mahabala suggested that independent bodies could be formed even at the state and central levels to look into these complaints. “Like a legislative committee or a parliament committee,” she said.

But there was still a need for internal complaints committees in parties, given the widespread misogyny within them, Raju emphasised. “We should also be looking at other aspects of harassment,” she said. She cited incidents such as of Karnataka politicians watching porn in the assembly, and Narendra Modi referring to Congress leader Sonia Gandhi as a “Jersey cow” and Shashi Tharoor’s late wife Sunanda Pushkar as a “50-crore girlfriend”.

She added, “Why would women want to be subjected to this kind of environment?”