The first case of online auctioneering of a few hundred Muslim women of the country came to light a little over six months ago, and was reported to the Delhi Police.
Half a year later, another app called 'Bulli Bai' found its way onto the platform GitHub, using similar means of auctioning these women online, violating their consent and privacy.
While there have been five arrests in the two cases so far, the recurrence of these acts hints at a more grievous problem that lies at the core of such incidents, which may continue to persist even after they are resolved.
The Ugly Concoction of Anonymity, Misogyny, and Communalism
The defamation of women belonging to a particular community, besides being an act of communal and gendered hatred, is in large parts a direct result of the cushion of anonymity available on social media platforms to anyone and everyone.
A quick Instagram search of some of the usernames shows how this abhorrent behaviour is commonplace across communities, though it is masked behind a virtual identity. Sample this: multiple handles on Instagram with usernames of the likes of zaalim_hindu and zaalim_muslim have existed for months now, each sexualising the women of the other community.
It's near impossible to identify the women in their posts at the outset. However, there are markers to indicate their belonging to the community these handles aim to vilify.
These handles have followers spanning hundreds – thousands in some cases – and operate very akin to locker rooms, allowing people, who are apparently well-behaved, to act on their worst instincts by hiding behind the veil of anonymity.
The likes, reactions, and followers of all such accounts are indicators of the people, who willingly espouse such behaviours, of which Niraj Bishnoi and Shweta Singh may be the extremes.
Anita Gurumurthy, executive director at IT for Change, a non-profit aimed at creating a secure cyber world, noted how "the digital space creates virtualised lives that we have no control over," and that "the Bulli Bai case pointed to the paradox that those who perpetrated violations, in this case, are an insignificant part of a larger socio-political fabric in which religious polarisation and hate against Muslims is the ordering principle."
"They are not just the tip of the iceberg, but in some sense, foot soldiers of an ideology that many others, much more powerful than them, construct, endorse, and normalise."Anita Gurumurthy, Executive Director, IT for Change
The hatred spills over to other platforms too. Handles and trends on Twitter show a ditto menace, where accounts are used to target women of the other community. These accounts, while not causing any evident damage to the order of a 'Bulli Bai,' or 'Sulli Deals,' pave the way for such sub-groups to flourish, until they assume a proportion that is impossible to ignore.
Women Suffer Either Ways
Just a week after the Bulli Bai incident surfaced, a tweet brought to the attention of IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw the existence of a channel on Telegram that shared objectionable images of Hindu women.
The channel was blocked immediately thereafter. As is the case of handles on Instagram, the existence of similar other channels is hard to deny. We reached out to Telegram for a comment, and their response was typical: to report a channel if deemed inappropriate. The fact that numerous channels continue unreported, however, remains a concern.
The Quint reached out to Dr Debarati Halder, co-author of Cyber Crime Against Women in India, to understand the embedded nature of these acts.
"Data-mining and photo-mining," Halder remarked, "is a relatively unchecked process, where photos of people – women in this particular case – can be extracted and circulated without their consent. The responsibility of the policymakers, social media platforms, and creators of these profiles needs to be fixed, and the IT rules must be broadened to include provisions that cover this aspect."
Notably, the common thread across all the abuse is the blatant objectification of women across communities, and the underlying sexist attitudes of the offenders that often persist unabated.
Gurumurthy also discusses how "much more needs to be done by platforms to publicise their complaint mechanisms, put out reports of action taken on complaints in the public domain, and use cutting-edge technology to hash and create a digital fingerprint for patently content that violates community guidelines. The refinement of these guidelines and harmonisation with the law of the land is another important issue – not without contentions, but important, nevertheless."
"All of us as online citizens need to become responsible bystanders – calling out and flagging handles/ tweets/ posts that perpetuate rights-violations."Anita Gurumurthy, Executive Director, IT for Change
That the culprits of the two cases are caught may close the chapters for now, but it still remains to be seen if more rounded actions would be taken to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.
(The author is an intern at The Quint.)
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