Several Muslim women have again found themselves “listed” in an online “auction” as part of the "Bulli Deals" scandal, echoing the similarly despicable "Sulli Deals" that sparked a furore in July last year.
Though the police in Mumbai and Delhi have registered first information reports (FIRs) under the relevant laws, experts note that perpetrators of such crimes are emboldened by a lack of prompt action.
Recently, the Delhi Police registered an FIR against unidentified persons for offences under Sections 153A (promoting enmity on grounds of religion etc), 153B (imputations prejudicial to national-integration), 354A (sexual harassment) and 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The Mumbai Police, on the other hand, registered the FIR against “relevant Twitter handles” and arrested a man from Bengaluru, as per news reports. The case was registered under Sections 153A, 153B, 295A (insulting religious beliefs), 354D (stalking), 509 and 500 (criminal defamation) of the IPC and Section 67 (publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) of the Information Technology (IT) Act.
Advocate Vrinda Grover, who had given legal advice to some of the victims of “Sulli Deals,” has seen “no progress” in the investigation in any of the cases registered then.
“In each one of them, either the complaint has been closed or we have hit a wall. The police doesn’t inform them about the status or progress of the investigation. There is absolutely no information. The same women are in the new Bulli Deals. Last time, it was 80 plus women and this time, it's 100 plus women. I have the same clients this time also,” Grover told Bar & Bench.
The pattern of investigation in the latest case is similar to what happened last time, Grover pointed out.
“Two FIRs were lodged then - one by Special Cell Delhi Police and another by Noida (Police). There is zero progress in the investigation as per our knowledge because despite our requests, we have not been given any update. What we do know as part of public knowledge is that nobody has been arrested, no chargesheet has been filed. It is fair to assume there is no progress in the investigation.”
In her opinion, the perpetrator was “emboldened” to act with “impunity” owing to a lack of police action.
“So we are not only looking at those who are committing these crimes, but also looking at the State, which is allowing and enabling this crime. Clearly these are all Muslim women who have asserted their views and who are speaking their minds on social media or public domain. Therefore, it is not only about the offences, but this is a scenario where this is an intimidation to silence Muslim women from asserting their views,” argued Grover.
She felt that the State had a “greater burden” to ensure that women from minority communities are able to exercise their freedoms.
“Social media is a space where they have the right of freedom of expression and targeting Muslim women, who speak their mind, is an attempt to silence them.”
“It is a serious attack on a woman and these are Muslim women who are taking their place in the world of opinion particularly at a time when there is clearly browbeating of a religious minority - the Muslim community - and a very strong and violent assertion of majoritarianism, very often with the implicit support of the authorities. At that juncture, this kind of an attack acquires many meanings,” Grover emphasised.
She termed these incidents as those of online sexual violence against women.
Explaining the technical aspects of the issue, advocate and founder of digital advocacy organisation Internet Freedom Foundation Apar Gupta explained that these incidents stem from a program, which is uploaded from the open source platform Github, common in both “Sulli" and “Bulli” deals sites. The program is then posted on social media websites such as Twitter and Instagram.
Gupta highlighted that Github, in fact, had well developed policies when it came to dealing with requests from law enforcement agencies seeking user information.
“It states that it provides for all details once there is compliance with something called MLAT or the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty process, which has the US as a signatory in 2005 with India. There is a defined process of how these requests are made which emerge from an investigative agency to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which then sends a request to the corresponding department in the foreign country. The foreign country then sends it down the platform, which would be in the US,” he revealed.
In his view, going by Github’s own policy requiring adherence to the MLAT, it was incumbent on the local investigating agencies to provide public information whether it had initiated a request with the Ministry of Home Affairs for such a request to the US to gather details. Such a request should not only be restricted to Github, but also include Twitter and Instagram as the posts were discovered not on Github, but by users who subsequently posted it on Twitter and Instagram, he said.
Gupta felt doubtful over the seriousness shown by public functionaries over the crime.
“Police departments have not proactively looked towards prosecuting people who are indulging in other forms of hate speech against women from minority communities which is rampant on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and even on YouTube,” he said.
Gupta urged for regular updates in the investigations and putting out of specific details in case there was non-cooperation from international agencies.
According to the statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 10,405 cases pertaining to cyber crimes against women under various provisions of the IPC, the IT Act and the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act in 2020. It only seems that the trend is continuing unabated.
Senior Advocate Rebecca John outlined the “brazenness” with which these crimes were carried out and the failure of the police in taking prompt action. She argued that there had been instances where people were booked and prosecuted on the basis of retweets or likes on social media, but agencies had to be prodded when it came to investigating such crimes against women.
"Who are these people who are running these platforms and who are these people circulating these messages? I am also disturbed by the dual standards of approach followed by agencies in prosecuting and pursuing criminal cases. FIRs are registered by the police against people for simply tweeting or retweeting a news item or news story. And yet when a platform so brazenly targets women from a minority community, you have to prod agencies to first register an FIR and then hope that they conduct robust investigations,” she argued.
John opined that one has to be mindful of the fact that the offences are serious, as the crime had exposed several women to physical harm given that their names and photographs had been published.
“The response of the State has been disappointing. A cursory one line response that the offensive content has been taken down or the platform has been pulled down does not reassure citizens in any way. On the contrary, the lack of a more stern response emboldens criminals further. If an offender feels that he will be exposed to arrest or prosecution, he may not repeat the offence,” she added.
The lawyer highlighted that it was unfair on individuals to fight such a problem on their own, as it burdened them with onerous responsibility.
“The law of the land, laid down by the Supreme Court, is that if a cognisable offence is made out, an FIR has to be registered and it doesn’t require each of these women to go to police stations to complain. An offence has been brought to the notice of authorities and they must now act,” John underscored.
Co-founder of Mumbai-based Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan Dr Noorjehan Niaz demanded immediate action against the perpetrators. She said,
“Earlier the Sulli Deals and now this goes to show the impunity with which these groups function, knowing well that the ruling establishment will turn a blind eye. This filthy mindset is a result of years of hate-mongering against the community ably assisted or ignored by various governments, so much so that today they understand no fear of law.”