The new year began in a disgusting and traumatic way for visible and vocal Muslim women. For the second time in six months, young and old among them were faux auctioned on an app hosted on Github – taken down since – with their photos stolen from their online profiles and these ‘deals’ were gleefully circulated on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Called the Bulli Bai app, the revolting occurrence was a reprise of a similar online ‘auction’ of Muslim women last July in what was called Sulli Deals. A case registered against it with Delhi Police led to virtually no action but a brave woman took the Bulli Bai app case to the Mumbai Police.
In 48 hours, cops had arrested three people and had gathered information on the network. Perhaps feeling outsmarted, Delhi Police took the 21-year-old Neeraj Bishnoi into custody claiming that he, studying at an engineering college in Bhopal but arrested from Assam, was the mastermind of this dirty business. Those arrested by the Mumbai police include 21-year-old engineering students Vishal Kumar Jha from Bengaluru and Mayank Rawal from Uttarakhand, and 18-year-old Shweta Singh also from Uttarakhand.
It is necessary to call out their names because religious identity was a key aspect of the disgusting ‘deals’ on both occasions. There’s no escape from the fact that they are radicalised Hindus displaying strong Islamophobia – Jha reportedly has a colourful history of online hate speech against and harassment of Muslims – and their targets were all Muslim women who had called out rabid Hindutva or the Narendra Modi government. Another instance came to light, of a Telegram channel targeting Hindu women with abuses; it was shut down instantaneously with the intervention of the Government of India though its scale and impact was nowhere comparable to the auction apps on Github.
In the offline world, the ‘auction’ would likely amount to trafficking and religious persecution. The jury is out on whether the key architects of the hate-misogyny network will ever be identified and caught even if the money or IP trail leads to them. The law will, of course, take its course if it does not become a tug of war between Delhi and Mumbai police forces, a proxy for the political battle between the BJP and non-BJP governments at the Centre and in the state. Law and politics aside, the disgusting incidents throw light on the darkest holes of the social fabric in India and bust myths of urban life, education, and social exposure.
Cities are supposed to be cosmopolitan, throwing people of different faiths and ideologies together in the larger pursuit of living and self-discovery. Cities are supposed to liberate minds from narrow and tightly knit community bonds that dominate rural life. Higher education in cities, such as the ones the arrests were made from, is meant to foster kinship beyond one’s caste and religion. Urban social exposure and shared living are believed to break down prejudices that people carry around.
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All this is true – and it isn’t. Cities provide the opportunity to form new bonds beyond barriers of caste and religion, but it does not mean that people do so. In a society relentlessly fed with the hate-Muslims menu, from family and peer groups as much as from news and social media, where the lynching of Muslims evokes pride instead of shame, young people learn quickly that this hate floats their boat. Hate of ‘other’ women is a special category of misogyny.
Teach young people the value of love, poetry and compassion, and chances are that many will embrace these qualities. Feed them hate and that it pays to hate, and many will grow up seeing value in deepening religious or caste schisms through it. This is not to suggest that there was complete communal or religious amity in cities earlier, but data shows a sharp uptick in hate crimes since the Modi government took charge of India’s destiny. Before that, hate speech and hate crimes were exceptions, now hate brings gain and status.
Hate (and misogyny) are everywhere, everyday – from television screens to WhatsApp groups, from social media timelines to drawing room conversations. Against this constant hate flow, urban life and its promises are no antidote. Hate shape shifts to urban forms – denial of houses to Muslims and taunting Christians as rice-bag converts are but two examples. Swift action by Mumbai Police helped send out a message to others like Jha-Rawal-Singh that hate can get you into trouble but it’s hardly enough to halt the tide.
Education was also supposed to tear down narrow prejudices and misconceptions that people carry around. In this case, it does not seem to have done that. In fact, as anecdotal evidence over the last few years shows, highly educated men and women, especially those with engineering, medical or management education, have turned out to be the most bigoted and hateful of minorities. The Indian middle class in cities has long cherished – even fetishised – engineering or medical or management as the only streams worth their children’s future and has taken great pleasure in frowning upon or diminishing the humanities, especially history and sociology.
A warped knowledge of history gleaned from families and the now-infamous ‘WhatsApp University’, in which hate-Muslims or hate-Christians is the refrain has steered young people to use their skills – in this faux auction case, technological and IT skills – to giving expression to their hate. It’s common for teenagers and young people these days to pour scorn on Jawaharlal Nehru, to cite one example, without the foggiest idea of the man, his values or his work. In fact, there’s a virtual army of young people out there, called Trads in social media parlance, who believe that Modi is not a good enough champion of Hindutva and Hindus need a stronger leader.
Mumbai Police, or Delhi Police, cannot address these glaring lacunae in our social fabric. These and similar elements in the frayed fabric are beyond their writ even. But what they can do is turn this case into an example. The message should go out loud and clear to all young people – and their parents – that the deadly cocktail of hate and misogyny will not bring gains, if anything it will lead to jail time. There’s the issue of tackling misogyny and crimes against women outside the online world; Delhi and Mumbai rank first and second in the latter. The real-world crimes against women are as or more horrendous as the online ones.
While the cops do their job, a salute to the brave women who took the ‘auction’ app perpetrators to task legally and thoughts for all women forced to face crimes against them
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