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Passport to Rape: How a politician accused of assaulting hundreds of women could ensure his victims stay silent

An Indian lawmaker accused of rape make sure they hide – because being a rape survivor is a bigger social taboo than being a rapist

In what is being called the biggest sexual assault and rape case in the world, Prajwal Revanna, 33, a member of the Indian parliament from the Hassan constituency in the southern state of Karnataka allegedly recorded himself raping women. Nearly 3,000 such clips have been circulated in Hassan and uploaded online. 

Yes, you read that right: 3,000.

The women ranged from his 68-year-old family cook, to political workers, to government officials, and virtually all the women who worked for the extended Gowda clan – a clan headed by the fugitive’s grandfather, former Prime Minister H. D. Deve Gowda, who ran India from June 1996 to April 1997. 

Incredibly, Revanna’s father H. D. Revanna has also been arrested on charges of kidnapping a woman and serial sexual assault. The younger Revanna, who some might call ‘a chip off the old block’, fled to Germany using his diplomatic passport (one that is issued to each MP) as soon as the videos were circulated. He was later suspended by his party, the Janata Dal (Secular), over the allegations. Indian officials have requested Interpol’s help to bring him back to stand trial. 

The burden of Revanna’s perverted crimes, however, is being borne by his victims – the survivors whose identities have been unmasked because of the viral circulation of the rape videos. In India’s agrarian and patriarchal society, being a rape survivor is a bigger social taboo than being a rapist. 

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Police are unsympathetic to women who try and report or register a crime; hence, so many rapes are severely unreported even though the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2019 said a rape happens every 16 minutes. Trials are a nightmare, with the survivor subjected to humiliation and grilling. And afterwards, it is difficult for a family to get a survivor married off – an economic imperative in an impoverished milieu. Hence, families try to avoid the “stigma” of rape.

The misplaced sense of honor in patriarchal Indian society burdens the woman’s body as being the repository of the man’s honor. The Hassan victims whose identities have been unmasked have locked their homes and left in a desperate bid to avoid prurient gossip and prying eyes. 

I spoke to a senior official of the Karnataka police for this column and he expressed frustration at the lack of cooperation from the victims. 

Can you blame them, I asked, with the way the system is skewed against women in India? The rapist is not blamed but the women are, even if it happens to be an eight-month-old baby girl or a bedridden 80-plus woman.

Sources told me that the tell-tale signs of locked houses, of women gone into hiding, with their husbands and fathers seeing the videos and demanding answers, is the predictable fallout.

Where does Revanna draw his power from? His grandfather Deve Gowda was an accidental PM for a brief interregnum. Gowda is a dynast of the old school and has always indulged in ‘family first’ politics, finding important jobs for his sprawling clan.

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Hassan, which is located some 180km from the country’s IT capital of Bangalore, is the family pocket borough. The systematic exploitation and abuse of women predates Prajwal’s political career. One of his victims in the viral videos can be heard saying: “I am 68 years old, please spare me, I have fed you as a child. I have fed your father.”

Another, a policewoman who is forced to strip her uniform is begging for mercy, saying that she will commit suicide if he continues. An unmoved Prajwal is seen giggling in the video.

Hassan is such a stronghold of the Gowda clan that before a woman could reach the police the vindictive powerful clan would be tipped off and terrible consequences for the victim’s family would follow. That’s the main reason the women kept quiet.

Prajwal is believed to have recorded his acts as a blackmail weapon against the victims to keep them quiet and biddable. If they refused him anything, he would threaten to make the rape video viral.

The entire Gowda clan was aware of Prajwal’s monstrous activities yet they turned a blind eye perhaps because his father was also doing the same. The powerful family obtained gag orders from courts to ensure that the abuse did not become public. 

So far the family’s defense has been eye-watering and sickening as they have claimed the videos are three to four years old. There is no statute of limitations on rape cases in India, but the defense seems to claim that the acts were acceptable because they happened some years ago.

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Even though the Hassan case came into the public eye because of the sheer number of women Prajwal abused, the media was squeamish in reporting the abuse even calling it a “sex scandal,” which is ridiculous. The women were not willing participants in the media-termed “sex scandal.”

The uproar and shame over the leaked videos forced the Karnataka police’s Special Investigation Team to warn it would arrest and prosecute anyone circulating or even in possession of the videos. A district court even denied anticipatory bail to anyone found doing so; this includes four men charged with distributing pen drives with the videos.

Yet Prajwal is not the only politicians to get a free pass on a heinous case of sexual abuse or assault. Here’s a 2018 list of powerful politicians facing charges of sex crimes.

More recently, Indian Olympic gold medal winning women athletes accused another powerful MP, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, of serial sexual harassment. Because the establishment turned a blind eye, thanks to the MP’s considerable political influence in his native Kaiserganj, in India’s most politically important state of Uttar Pradesh, the women went on a public protest and sat on hunger strike. 

Instead of acting against the harasser who ran the wrestling association, the police in April 2023 violently cleared the athletes from the protest site in New Delhi.

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Incredibly, in what seemed a clear bid to rehabilitate him, a famous male TV anchor from a mainstream channel this weekend conducted a friendly interview with Singh, whose son is contesting the ongoing parliamentary election in his father’s place. The anchor proudly shared pictures on social media of himself arm-wrestling Singh and repeatedly called him a “strong man.”

I don’t mean to pick on the anchor, who apologized when faced with a swift and harsh backlash on social media, but this is how abuse against women is normalized instead of the criminal being ostracized.

Yes in India you will be valued as a woman if you don’t complain, and if you quietly confirm and win medals. Political leaders will seek you out for photo ops and selfies. But if you dare complain against powerful politicians, the entire establishment will seek retribution.

As Prajwal hides to ensure he is not punished for his alleged serial abuse, ironically his victims also have to hide their faces to ensure a fake sense of honor. Until this victim shaming and apologizing for alleged rapists changes, women will keep being abused and remaining silent in India.

May 09, 2024 at 10:21AM

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