Mumbai, January 19: New year this time start with a shock when over a hundred Muslim women activists, journalists and artistes found themselves being auctioned on an online app using their manipulated pictures from the social media without their consent in a bid to humiliate them and demean them in a malicious manner.

The App- Bulli Bai App was posted on GITHUB platform where five months earlier the Sulli Deals app was also posted on July 2021. This Bulli Bai App seems to be inspired by Sulli Deals app where a complaint was filed in Delhi but the police didn't make any headway and no arrests were made in that case.

The new year started with a shock for many of the vocal Muslim women who found their pictures taken from social media and featured on the Bulli Bai app in a demeaning manner. In some cases, their pictures were also posted as the Bulli Bai of the day and auctioned on the site. Needless to say people posted horrible comments to add to their embarrassment.

Radio jockey Sayema Rahman is one of the well-known women who was featured on Bulli Bai app. She has come out in the open about being featured in the app and condemned this move to humiliate successful Muslim women. Other women who also were also featured on the app include the mother of missing JNU student Najeeb, journalist Ismat Ara of The Wire, online news portal, Kashmiri journalist Quratulain Rehbar and several others. Sayema has expressed her outrage at this and pointed at the lack of fear among the creators of this app as this is the second time in less than five months that such an horrible app have been created.

Journalist Ismat Ara of The Wire, online news portal, filed an FIR in the Cyber Crime Cell of Delhi Police under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) including for promoting enmity among religious groups, sexual harassment, criminal intimidations, and other sections of the IPC. Ismat also posted a screenshot of her being called the Bulli Bai of the day on the website writing about the whole incident.

In her complaint, Ismat said that "Social media being a form of public expression cannot be used to demean and derogate women in general and Muslim women in particular by misogynist sections of society”. Further, the complaint stated, “It is indeed disappointing to see the impunity with which such hate mongers continue to target Muslim women, without fear of any sanction whatsoever.”

Case registered in Delhi and Mumbai

While Delhi police registered a complaint and handed over the investigation to superintendent of police Manzoor Alam, the Mumbai Police also registered a complaint in their Cyber Crime Division and began their own investigations into this app which has since been taken down. In Mumbai the complaint was filed by one Sidrah, whose photograph also featured in Bulli Bai app.

The first arrests in the case were made by Mumbai Police when they arrested Vikas Kumar Jha, 19, from Bengaluru on January 3, just a couple of days after the app was first posted online. Vikas is an engineering college student. Then Shweta Singh 18 and Mayank Rawat 21 were arrested from Uttarakhand. Mayank is also an engineering college student on January. Shweta just completed 12 class and have a sad history of having lost her mother to Covid 19. The investigations in Mumbai are being headed by deputy commissioner of police Rashmi Karandikar of the Cyber Cell team.

Then on January 6 Delhi Police arrested Niraj Bishnoi from Jorhat in Assam for being the creator of Bulli Bai and also Omkareshwar Thakur from Indore for being the mastermind of the Sulli Deal app. Niraj, 20, is also an engineering college student and like the other three arrested is tech savvy and also very active on social media.

All the accused have been remanded to judicial custody and have been denied bail. They are all young technology savvy, educated and active on social media but they seem to have been influenced by the hatred being spread against the Muslim community in India going by their actions.

Policitians and activists condemn the app

Opposition leaders and women activists have been condemning the violation of Muslim women's rights and the harassment that they are facing.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi asked people to raise their voice against insult to women and for spreading communal hatred. He said that this will stop only when we stand against it in one voice. . “The insult of women and communal hatred will stop only when we stand against it in one voice. The year has changed, the situation should also change. It is time to speak up,” Gandhi tweeted using the hashtag ‘No fear’.

NCW chief Rekha Sharma “noted” a tweet from a journalist whose photo was used in the app. The journalist also raised a complaint with the Cyber Cell of the Delhi Police.

“@NCWIndia has taken cognizance of this incident. Chairperson @sharmarekha has written to @CPDelhi to immediately register FIR in the matter. The process must be expedited so that such crime is not repeated,” the NCW tweeted.

As the issue snowballed, IT Minister Vaishnaw tweeted on Sunday, “Government of India is working with police organisations in Delhi and Mumbai on this matter.”

“The action taken in both the cases must be apprised to the Commission at the earliest. A copy of the letter has also been sent to Dy Commissioner of Police, Delhi,” the NCW said in another tweet.

 “It is unacceptable that this project of dangerous anti-Muslim misogyny is back. Appalling indictment of the state of affairs, that not only was nothing done last time, but these forces also felt emboldened to repeat the whole thing because the establishment backs them,” Congress MP Karti Chidambaram tweeted.

Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi said that GitHub removing the app is not enough and that the perpetrators must be punished. She took an active interest in the case which spurred the Mumbai police to act swiftly in the case.

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti alleged that ”fringe elements” who were targeting Muslim women online had the ”official patronage”.

The All India Progressive Women’s Association alleged that “Hindu supremacists” were behind this and expressed solidarity with the victims.

Many netizens took to Twitter to raise the issue.

Meanwhile, a women lawyers' body, the Delhi High Court Women Lawyers Forum (DHCWLF), in a letter to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) N V Ramana. The letter highlighted the failure of the central and state governments to secure the minority communities in India, their fundamental right to life with dignity and safety, and sought to put in place preventive guidelines to ensure accountability of law enforcement agencies.

More humiliating than the existence of the apps themselves is the sheer audacity of some cowardly minds to attempt something like this, twice, publicly, encouraged by bigotry openly being expressed among the common public and lack of action by police and judiciary, it said.

"Auctioning women online, from a particular community, not once but twice, is not only a criminal offence, but it also deprives people of their right to life with dignity. People are losing faith in the independence of investigative agencies and the lack of deprecation by the government is worrisome," the plea endorsed by 77 members of DHCWLF stated.

The events of the past few years have indicated that the State has failed in its obligation to secure the fundamental right to life with dignity towards the minority communities in India, the plea read.

"This amounts to a grave attack on the independence of the judiciary and may have a chilling effect on the ability of other Muslims to take up the position of being judges of the high court and other courts. Already Muslims are disproportionately represented in the judiciary and this may make matters worse," the petition added.

Several other women bodies have also expressed their anger and shock at the Bulli Bai app being posted and blamed the police inaction in the previous Sulli Deal app for this brazen attack again on Muslim women.

The Network of Women in Media, India, strongly condemned the online attack of prominent, Indian Muslim women – including journalists – in the form of ‘Bulli Bai’, an app on GitHub which ‘auctioned’ Muslim women using stolen and doctored photographs. In a statement, NWMI said in their statement, "Apart from amounting to online sexual violence, the ‘auction’ clearly promoted the crimes of trafficking and sexual slavery, which GitHub purports to stand against. 

This is not the first time that such bigoted misogynists  have ‘auctioned’ Muslim women. It is regrettable and unacceptable that the Indian state and its agencies have taken no action against them despite repeated violations. Technology has been used as a weapon to humiliate, intimidate and terrorise Muslim women in the country multiple times, and ‘Digital India’ appears to have no concrete response aimed at  bringing the perpetrators to book. No minister in the Union cabinet has questioned, let alone condemned, this online harassment, or pressed for action against the perpetrators. 

We also question the policies and ethics of GitHub, the platform on which ‘Bulli Bai’ was hosted.  This is the same platform on which Islamophobic bigots had hosted ‘Sulli Deals’ in July 2021. Despite the earlier instance of predatory sexual violence, the tech platform has evidently done nothing to prevent  misuse of the platform to post material relating to sexual abuse, including child sexual abuse. Such inaction has evidently emboldened those who come up with such repugnant ideas;  they clearly assume they can  repeat similar violations with impunity. We note that GitHub has blocked the user behind the latest atrocity but it clearly needs to do more to prevent such outrageous apps from appearing in the first place."