Indian police have arrested three suspects following an investigation into an app that shared photos of over 100 prominent Muslim women and said that they were being sold on an online “auction.” Rights activists and Muslim community leaders say the case is an apparent hate attack aimed at the minority Muslim community.

The cybercrime unit of Mumbai police arrested Vishal Kumar Jha, a 21-year-old engineering student from the southern city of Bangalore Tuesday, saying that he was “closely involved” with the app “Bulli Bai,” named after vulgar and derogatory local slang used to address Muslim women.

The same day, the Mumbai police arrested Shweta Singh, 18, from the northern state of Uttarakhand, alleging that she was the mastermind behind the app and that the two suspects knew each other.

After arresting the third accused, Mayank Rawal, from Uttarakhand, Wednesday, Mumbai police chief Hemant Nagrale said more arrests are expected in the case.

Following protests and outrage from the Muslim women victims, rights activists, and others, the app — which was hosted on web platform GitHub — was taken down, a day after it had gone up. 

In Hindu-majority India, Muslims make up around 14% of the country’s 1.38 billion population. 

On New Year’s Day, scores of influential Muslim women, including some journalists and rights activists, found that their photographs had been displayed on the app without their consent and they were placed on “sale” in the fake auction of Bulli Bai.

It was the second harassment attempt targeting Muslim women within six months, after another app called “Sulli Deals” surfaced in July, carrying profiles with photos of over 80 prominent Muslim women as “deals of the day.” 

In both cases of Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai, there was no actual sale or auction, but they were aimed at harassing, humiliating and intimidating some Muslim women who are mostly known for being vocal against the right-wing Hindu nationalism and some policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Fatima Khan, a Delhi-based journalist was shocked on New Year’s Day to find that she was “for sale” online on Bulli Bai.

“For the second time in less than six months, I found that I was ‘for sale’ to the highest bidder or, just anyone else, online. It triggered a feeling of extreme disgust and repulsion. Discovering my image there also made me realize just how far they could go to harm me,” Khan told VOA. “A shiver ran down my spine.”

All the individuals listed on Bulli Bai were prominent Muslim women, she said.

“These women use their platforms to throw light on the injustice taking place in the country. They exist in the public domain — and that is enough to provoke the right-wing Hindutva groups to target the Muslim women in another hate attack,” Khan added. 

Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific director of Reporters Without Borders, said, that the appearance of the kind of app, “offering to place women journalists at the disposal of its users as if they were objects, is absolutely chilling.” 

“We urge the Indian authorities to do whatever is necessary to bring those responsible for such apps to justice. To do nothing would be to condone an extremely violent form of harassment, a form of intimidation that discriminates against an entire sector of the journalistic community and exposes those targeted to potential physical attacks,” Bastard said in a written statement.

Hyderabad-based social activist Khalida Parveen said that she believed her name was listed on Bulli Bai because she had recently raised her voice seeking action against Yati Narsinghanand, a right-wing Hindu monk who called on Hindus to take up arms against Muslims.

“I launched a campaign on Twitter demanding the monk’s arrest. The campaign led the police at several locations to initiate actions against his hate speech and it received international attention. They mischievously put me ‘for sale’ on that app in a bid to stop my campaign,” Parveen, 67, told VOA. 

“Those who launched the app attempting to shame and intimidate me and other Muslim women are mentally sick. However, they have failed in their evil plan. Neither do I feel ashamed, nor intimidated … I feel pity for them.”

Social activists and Muslim community leaders said that Hindu right-wing activists were behind Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai. 

“Sulli Deals and, now Bulli Bai are an assault on Muslim women’s free voices and dignity. They are specifically targeting Muslim women who are vocal on various social issues and have their own minds. This is part of the larger right-wing Hindu agenda to defame Muslim women and vilify Muslims,” Delhi-based rights activist Shabnam Hashmi told VOA. 

“If the culprits were apprehended after Sulli Deals, maybe we would have not seen Bulli Bai now.” 

Former chairman of Delhi Minority Commission, Delhi-based Muslim community leader Zafarul-Islam Khan said that the fake auction apps targeting Muslim women were “crude manifestations of the hate carefully cultivated for over a century, by the RSS.” The right-wing Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or the RSS, is the ideological fountainhead of India’s ruling party of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“Before May 2014 [when Modi became prime minister], the campaign against Muslims was covert and shy, spread via unsigned pamphlets, letters and messages sent and posted by faceless people. Post-2014, they are emboldened. Now the right-wing Hindu forces know that they have the protection of the state and hence act boldly and openly,” community leader Khan told VOA. 

“With elections in a number of Indian states being round the corner, the anti-Muslim hate campaign will become more visible. A free and democratic India cannot co-exist with Hindutva,” he said. Hindutva is a movement that seeks to establish the hegemony of Hindus and Hinduism in India. 

 

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