The persecution of Muslim women is on the rise in India and it is evident from the recent controversies that took place. Hindu right-wing nationalists target Muslim women on social media handles, ban Hijab in some states, and there are several instances of violence against Muslim women. At the onset of the year, one such controversy that caught the limelight was the controversy of the “Bulli Bai” app. This application was created by students from different states who were strong supporters of Hindu right-wing ideology. “Bulli Bai” is a derogatory phrase reserved for Muslim women. An app was created by a group of students who were pursuing engineering and management from different universities. They used the platform to upload doctored photos of prominent Muslim women and auction their sales. These prominent women were journalists and activists from different fields from all over India. It was a shocking moment for all of them when they found their photos on Twitter with an offensive caption – “Your Bulli Bai of the day”. Ismat Ara one of the journalists who was a culprit of this contentious app, filed a complaint with the Delhi police which led to the filing of the First Information Report (FIR). After a long day of outrage on social media platforms, the IT minister of India, Ashwini Vaishnav started the probe and requested the hosting platform “GitHub” to block the users involved. Arrests were made and four students were arrested. The most controversial arrest was of Niraj Bishnoi who was an engineering student of Vellore Institute of Technology and was the main conspirator. This case of social media radicalization against Muslim women is an example of how hate speech against Muslim women and their harassment is becoming customary with growing social media influence.
“Bulli Bai” is not the first incident of social media hate speech against Muslim women. In July 2021, several pictures of Muslim women were posted on the social media platform Twitter and were described as “Sulli deals of the day”. The mastermind behind the creation of “Sulli Deals” Aumkareshwar Thakur was arrested in January 2022 after massive public outrage. Not only this but many YouTubers are also involved in hate speech cases against Muslim women in the year 2021 when Covid hit India considered the internet and social media as indispensable. Not a single year was passed and the other app was created by the name “Bulli Bai”. It was also created on web hosting GitHub and was an open-source project like the other app.
GitHub is a web-hosting service provider headquartered in California. Microsoft acquired GitHub in 2018 and is the parent organization of the same. GitHub after social media outrage and several requests by authorities blocked the users and took down the hosting of the applications. “Bulli Bai” was created by right-wing activists who claims themselves as Trads. Trads are the ultra-right-wing activists who support the oppression of minority religions. On January 1, 2022, doctored pictures of several journalists and Muslim activists were posted on Twitter. These Trads used the social media platform and their application to auction famous and prominent Muslim women. The picture of the Muslim activist and the Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai was also posted on the app. With the help of cyber wings of Delhi and Mumbai police, five people were arrested – Vishal Kumar Jha (in Bengaluru), Shweta Singh (in Uttarakhand), Mayank Rawal (in Uttarakhand), Niraj Bishnoi (in Assam’s Jorhat) and Neeraj Singh (in Odisha). The bail plea of Niraj Bishnoi who was the main conspirator and mastermind behind this app was rejected by the Delhi High Court saying his offence was not only against the essence of womanhood but was also designed to disturb communal harmony. The bail plea of other accused was also rejected by their respective session and magistrate courts. Over 100 pictures of Muslim women were posted and this is a strong case of sexual harassment against women in India and the offence committed is serious, harming the Muslim community.
The “Bulli Bai” case has touched upon many legal issues and discussions. The actions of the accused students were strongly condemned by many women communities including WCLA (Women Criminal Law Association). According to the WCLA, it is a targeted misogynistic hate campaign directed at Muslim women and should be punishable under Criminal law. Article 15 of the Indian Constitution bars discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste and sex. The aim of this article should not only be to protect from discrimination but also incitement of discrimination. This case is a gross violation of this article as it is discrimination against targeted Muslim women. The fundamental right to privacy (KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India) and dignity included under Article 21 is also violated. This led to the increase in Islamophobia amongst Muslim women in India and they were badgered into silence by the right-wing majority. The Information Technology Act, 2000 which deals with cases of cybercrime also came into the picture. Their doctored photos were uploaded without their consent intentionally violating Section 66E of the IT Act, 2000 which makes it illegal if someone intentionally or knowingly captures, publishes, or transmits an image of a person’s private area without their consent in circumstances that violate that person’s privacy. The accused have the right to personal liberty but it can be curtailed as they defamed women harming society at large. This incident is an example of how hate speech and communal hatred has increased with the increase in the use of social media.
The “Bulli Bai” controversy is a disgraceful incident that blemished the reputation of many laureate Muslim women. These women included various journalists, activists, and politicians who deserved respect but ironically, they became the victim of online trolling. They deserved some kind of recognition in their respective fields but they got a slap on their face when they saw their photos on Twitter being used for auction. They were reduced to marketable items. Women in India who are considered mother figures faced oppression, violence behind closed doors, harassment and now they witness intimidation from online trollers. The students who used these women as marketable items should be punished and an example should be set. India is a secular country and there should not be any discrimination based on religion. Muslim women in India largely face discrimination by the majority groups and this incident is a clear example of this. The purpose of social media handles is to promote social awareness, connect people socially, raise issues on disputed matters and not troll people. There should be communal harmony and not hatred.
Author(s) Name: Vansh Agarwal (Nirma University, Ahmedabad)