The unsettling observations by Karnataka High Court in Bhavani Revanna’s bail order

The HC’s observations may seem innocuous when a woman is accused of a minor offence but not when a powerful woman politician is accused of abetting the abduction of one of the victims of several sexual assaults allegedly committed by her son.
Bhavani Revanna
Bhavani Revanna
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In the past fortnight, courts in Karnataka have been in the spotlight owing to Prajwal Revanna’s remand hearings, actor Darshan’s arrest, the non-bailable warrant issued against former chief minister BS Yediyurappa, Prajwal’s mother Bhavani’s anticipatory bail hearings and his elder brother Suraj’s arrest in a sexual assault case. In particular, the Karnataka High Court’s observation: “He is no Tom, Dick or Harry. He is not a bandicoot” while hearing Yediyurappa’s petition made it to the headlines.

While public attention on these cases may begin to wane soon, some of the judicial observations, reasoning, and verdicts are bound to leave an indelible impression on victims, potential victims, and their families. On this score, the observations of the Karnataka High Court while granting anticipatory bail to Bhavani Revanna are rather unsettling.

Background: Abduction of a victim of sexual assault

To form a reasoned opinion on the High Court’s observations and its decision, it is important to examine the history of the case. In April 2024, during the first phase of the general elections in Karnataka, news broke out that then Hassan Member of Parliament Prajwal Revanna had allegedly sexually assaulted several women. It was also reported that a few miscreants had widely shared videos of the alleged sexual assaults, thereby endangering the privacy and safety of the victims. Notably, Prajwal is the grandson of former Prime Minister Deve Gowda and son of HD Revanna, a six-time MLA from Holenarasipura in Hassan district, while his mother Bhavani is a former Zilla Panchayat member.

On April 27, Prajwal fled to Germany. The next day, the first case of sexual harassment was lodged against him at the Holenarsipura Police Station by a woman who had worked as a domestic worker in his house.

While the Special Investigation Team (SIT) was looking into this case, a man filed a complaint at the KR Nagar Police Station in Mysuru district on May 2 that his mother had been abducted by a person named Satish who claimed to have been sent by HD Revanna. According to the FIR, Satish visited the victim’s house on April 29 and asked her to accompany him as HD Revanna had summoned her. It is pertinent to note that the victim had worked in Revanna’s house for many years.

On 1 May, her son learnt from his friends that his mother could have been sexually assaulted by Prajwal as a video of the assault was being circulated. When he lodged a complaint, the police registered a case of abduction against HD Revanna and Satish. Subsequently, the SIT arrested Revanna and the other accused persons and rescued the victim who had escaped from the place of confinement.

Special Court refuses to grant anticipatory bail

As a vital part of the investigation, the SIT recorded the statement of the victim who was abducted and also got her statement recorded before a judicial magistrate under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The victim’s statements, call records of the accused, recorded phone conversations, etc., led the SIT to invoke provisions related to abetment and conspiracy, and summon Bhavani Revanna.

Apprehending arrest, Bhavani sought anticipatory bail before the Special Court. The SIT vehemently opposed the bail plea and placed the case diary before the Court to demonstrate the role played by Bhavani. On May 31, the Special Court rejected her plea for anticipatory bail. The Court observed that the victim’s statements to the police and the magistrate indicated that after her abduction she was taken to Bhavani’s house where Bhavani instructed Satish to take the victim to a “safe, secluded place.” Thereafter, the victim was detained in a farmhouse that belonged to another accused called Rajagopal.

The Special Court observed that the technical evidence suggested that prima facie, Bhavani was constantly in touch with the other accused. Considering the gravity of the offence, the evidence collected, the overt illegal acts attributed to her, reasonable apprehension of witnesses and victims being dissuaded, and the need for custodial interrogation, the Special Court found it necessary to deny anticipatory bail.  Thereafter, the Court issued a non-bailable warrant against Bhavani as she failed to appear before the SIT.

High Court’s unsettling approach

On June 7, the High Court heard Bhavani’s application for anticipatory bail. On the same day, the High Court passed an interim order restraining the SIT from detaining her if she appeared for interrogation. This came as a big relief for Bhavani who appeared before the SIT within a few hours of the order being passed. On June 14, when the matter was posed for arguments, the Special Public Prosecutor sought cancellation of the interim relief and urged the Court to reject the plea for anticipatory bail. Apart from the grounds urged before the Special Court, he strenuously submitted that Bhavani was not cooperating with the investigation as she had not produced her phone, she was the ‘kingpin’ who abetted the abduction, and that she had allowed her premises to be used for the commission of sexual assaults. However, the High Court granted anticipatory bail to Bhavani.

With due respect to the discretion of the High Court, some of the findings are diametrically opposite to the findings of the Special Court, and unlike the Special Court’s order, the High Court’s order contains certain extraneous observations. To begin with, in reason (d) on Page 9 of the order, the High Court observes “no assumption of the kind (risk to the abductee’s life) can be made against the petitioner who is not named by the complainant or by his mother in her sections 161 & 164 statements that are furnished in a sealed cover”. (emphasis supplied)

However, the Special Court’s order reads as follows: 

It is also relevant to note that the victim herself has given a statement under Sec.164 of Cr.P.C., before the learned Magistrate that she was detained in the house of accused No.7 Rajagopal. Prior to that the statement of the victim indicates that the accused No.2 had taken her to the house of the petitioner and at that place, the victim’s sister was also present and subsequently she was called alone to the room where the petitioner was staying and there a direction was given to take her to the farmhouse of accused No.7.” (emphasis supplied).

Furthermore, it is true that Bhavani was not named as an accused in the FIR as the victim’s son merely mentioned that a person called Satish had abducted his mother pursuant to HD Revanna’s instructions. However, at the time of lodging an FIR, the victim’s son could not have possibly known the roles of all the accused. It was the victim’s statements and technical evidence collected by the SIT that implicated Bhavani. In any case, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly held, an FIR is not an encyclopaedia of facts. It merely needs to disclose the commission of a cognisable offence so as to enable the police to investigate the case and collect evidence.

During the arguments, the Special Public Prosecutor contended that Bhavani belonged to a powerful political family and if released on anticipatory bail, witnesses may be threatened and evidence may be destroyed. He pointed out that potential victims of sexual assault alleged to have been committed by Prajwal would be dissuaded from filing cases if a person accused of abetting the abduction of a victim is granted anticipatory bail. The High Court refuted these submissions and observed: “Even the arguable misuse of political influence for desired exculpation from the case also can be taken care of by the State machinery having enormous authority”. The hope reposed in the state machinery with enormous authority is of little consolation to the hapless victims of sexual assault who had suffered in silence for long fearing for their safety.

After being convinced that Bhavani was entitled to anticipatory bail, the Court ought to have restricted its reasoning to grounds rooted in law and refrained from making observations that are inapposite in a sensitive case with a gruesome history. For instance, the Special Public Prosecutor had pointed out that Bhavani allegedly allowed her premises to be used for commission of sexual assaults by her son and was well aware of the commission of the crimes. Instead of refuting these submissions on legal grounds alone, the Court observed:

But, what duty a mother owes in law to prevent her major children from committing offences, has not been shown by turning the pages of statute book or by citing rulings. History & epics bear testimony to the fact that children of noble parents may commit delinquencies. Vice versa may also be true.”

Unfortunately, these are not the only problematic observations in the order. To drive home the point that women are generally entitled to preferential treatment in matters of related to bail, the Court observed:

In our social structure, women are the epicenters of family life; their displacement, even for a short period, ordinarily disturbs the dependents. Added, they are emotionally attached to the family. Therefore, investigating agencies should be very cautious while seeking their custodial interrogation

These observations may seem innocuous when a woman is accused of a minor offence but not when a powerful woman politician is accused of abetting the abduction of one of the victims of several sexual assaults allegedly committed by her son. It would not be rhetorical to point out that the ‘disturbance’ the dependents would experience if the accused was subjected to custodial interrogation is inconsequential when pitted against the State’s duty to protect victims of sexual assault and ensure that justice is served.

Victims might lose faith

A widely reported bail order containing extraneous observations can have a demoralising impact on victims of sexual assault and other heinous crimes. At this juncture, it is also relevant to point out that though the High Court initially observed on May 31 that the Special Court’s order granting regular bail to HD Revanna appeared to be ‘defective’ prima facie, the SIT’s plea to set aside the order granting bail has not been decided till date.

Read: “Women are going to be more scared now” – why activists say HD Revanna should have been denied bail 

It is imperative that courts adopt a cautious and perceptive approach while dealing with heinous crimes alleged to have been committed by persons wielding social and political power, more so when the victims belong to vulnerable sections of society.

Rahul Machaiah is a lawyer from Karnataka. He holds an LLM in Law & Development from Azim Premji University.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

TNM’s coverage of the Prajwal Revanna case can be accessed here.

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