The recent Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai cases targeting Muslim women show how the deeply anti-women and communal mindset manifests when deployed in combination with tech tools and social media platforms. Perhaps not so surprising is that the police appear to have been very casual in their investigations when Sulli Deals emerged last year for targeting around one hundred Muslim women. They only reacted after Sulli Deals reappeared as Bulli Bai in early January, and Maharashtra police registered an FIR in Mumbai. After widespread criticism and adverse international coverage, the police finally woke up to their responsibilities. They nabbed four persons involved with the Bulli Bai app and one who has confessed to having developed the original Sulli Deals app. All of them are members of a hate group called TradMahasabha, which proclaims Hindu supremacy and Savarna dominance and justifies violence to achieve these ends.
The mode of operations of these Trads (or traditionals) was to develop what appears to be an auction app, but was, in reality, an app that simply recycles pictures of some targets with a so-called “auction price”. The objective was to demean Muslim women in the public space. The group members collected their images from social media or other sources and fed them into the application or app.
This app was stored on GitHub servers, which allows people to store and share any software or data. It was then tagged with numerous derogatory comments on the targeted women, called the Sulli (a derogatory term for Muslim women) or Bulli Bai of the day. TradMahasabha members shared these images and remarks through Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Given today’s toxic digital environment, these images and comments were picked up and shared widely by the right-wing Hindutva handles that glorify Nathuram Godse, want Hindu supremacy even by using violence, and a return to Savarna dominance. The targets, as always happens when supremacist groups get into action, were women, particularly articulate young Muslim women in public spaces.
When Sulli Deals appeared in July last year, GitHub pulled the app immediately and suspended the account that uploaded it. However, Delhi Police, in whose jurisdiction the initial complaints were filed, does not seem to have conducted any further investigation. Mohammed Zubair, Pratik Sinha and Pooja Chaudhuri have a detailed and thorough account of Sulli Deals, in which they show that a group closely connected to the app attempted to blame a Muslim youth for it.
According to the police, GitHub failed to respond to notices sent in July last year seeking information on the app-creators under Section 354 (related to sexual harassment) of the CrPC. It then decided in January this year to use the MLAT (the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty) to secure the necessary information. Why Delhi Police took six months—July to January—is not explained by the authorities. Or, why was only Section 354 used when it was clearly an attack on religion or a religious minority? Neither were steps taken to find out which handles on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp shared the pictures that came via the TradMahasabha members. Nor, based on the money trail, did they trace and book the two Sulli Deals domains on GoDaddy.
Since around 30 handles appear to have been the originators who spread the demeaning pictures, tracking the money trail would have been an easy route for investigators. Contrast this with the zeal with which the police follow up on WhatsApp, Facebook or Twitter posts that criticise the Narendra Modi or Adityanath governments. The lethargy of law enforcement agencies in the present instance can only be understood as their tacit complicity in such criminal activities.
It was only after Sulli Deals morphed, after six months, into Bulli Bai, when public anger erupted, that the police swung into action in Maharashtra with an FIR filed in Mumbai. Within days, it traced some group members involved in the TradMahasbha through their social media handles—no MLAT was required—and their interrogation revealed even more names.
Currently, of the five arrested in the Bulli Bai app and original Sulli Deals cases, the youngest is 18 years old and the oldest 25. By all accounts, the perpetrators are no super-hackers but software developers with fairly rudimentary skills. If the police had been diligent when Sulli Deals first appeared, the women concerned would not have faced a repeated horrifying public attack.
The police investigations should not stop here. Any handle that participated in this campaign on any social media platform bears liability. Those who attempted to hoodwink the public with claims that a Muslim youth was behind the Sulli Deals app also appear to be involved, if not as organisers, but as accomplices to creating a false trail, are also prima facie guilty and should be proceeded against.
There are two other aspects to the Sulli Deals/Bulli Bai case. One is the internationalisation of right-wing ideologies, earlier using Facebook and now other platforms as well. Facebook promotes hate groups as its algorithms use engagement as their primary driver: hate posts have greater “engagement” than reasoned arguments. Motifs like White Supremacy seems to transfer easily via labels like “trads” to Hindu or Muslim supremacy. Even though each such supremacy excludes others, they are all “trads”!
The Hindu supremacists, of course, believe they are Aryans, like Europeans, and the genocidal settler-colonial states, the United States, Canada, Australia. Misogyny, a belief in the superiority of men over women and the desire to drive women out of the public sphere, is the other element that unites all trads. It is a uniting factor in cyberspace too, where misogynists can give free rein to their hatred of women, particularly those in public spaces. Yet surprise, there is an 18-year-old woman among the five arrested in this case. For her, hatred of Muslims appears to have trumped the anti-women nature of the group.
The other disturbing element that has emerged in the digital space is the weaponisation of sexualised disinformation against women. A recent report by the Wilson Centre, Malign Creativity: How Gender, Sex, and Lies are Weaponised against Women Online, says, “It is a phenomenon distinct from broad-based gendered abuse and should be defined as such to allow social media platforms to develop effective responses.” The research team defines this kind of disinformation as “a subset of online gendered abuse...sex-based narratives against women, often with some degree of coordination, aimed at deterring women from participating in the public sphere. It combines three defining characteristics of online disinformation: falsity, malign intent, and coordination”.
As this report identifies, this mode of attack is qualitatively different from the sexist abuse that women face in digital spaces. This identification is not to underestimate the malign nature of everyday sexist abuse but to point out the scale of the other form of attack: it is coordinated, false and uses software tools as weapons to multiply attacks targeting women. The Wilson Centre report also identifies the primary targets in the United States as women of colour and those active in the public sphere, such as Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Its objective is clearly political: to drive women out of the public sphere. The Indian example is no different: the targets are Muslim women who have created an identity for themselves, as journalists, pilots, activists, etc.
How do we fight such malign players in the digital space? To succeed, we need to understand that this form of attack is different from the staple right-wing Hindutva troll brigade abuses that we must fight every day. It is weaponised as it uses software tools to multiply the lies it creates. And, it targets minorities—religious, oppressed castes and women. It can be nipped in the bud if we are vigilant, raise our voices right at the moment when such attacks occur, and force the law enforcement agencies to act immediately. Else, we must move Parliament, the media and courts. Let us remember that only our vigilance, unity and organised resistance against attacks on different sections of our people can save our republic