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Sulli Deals, Bulli Bai and the young and educated hatemongers

Niraj Bishnoi. Illustration: Kannan Sundar

It was around 10:30 p.m. on January 5. The Bishnoi family had already turned in when a Delhi Police team arrived at their house in Jorhat, Assam. They stared at the police in confusion as the officers spoke about an application called ‘Bulli Bai’ , created, apparently, by Dasrath Bishnoi’s young son, Niraj . “We are not educated so we didn’t understand a lot, but the police said that Niraj had created this app. I had no idea what was happening,” says Dasrath.

After being questioned for half an hour, Niraj was whisked away. Soon, the formalities began to take him to the capital. Niraj is a 20-year-old Bachelor of Technology student from a college in Bhopal . He has been suspended from college since. The college is angry that he has brought disrepute to the institution and his parents are upset that he has given them a bad name.

 

Niraj, the police say, stands accused of building Bulli Bai to “auction” Muslim women. The app announces a “Bulli Bai of the day”. The app creators seem to have taken a leaf out of online sales and ‘lightning deals of the day’ to put women up for sale online. Investigators say the motive is to defame Muslim women. One hundred-and-two women’s names and photographs were fed into the code of the app, they say. Niraj, in front of his parents, agreed that he had built the application. “I don’t know why and how he did this. What was going on in his head,” his distressed father asks.

The arrests

Niraj was not the first to be arrested in the ‘Bulli Bai’ app case. On January 3, Vishal Kumar Jha, 21, was pulled out of class from an engineering college in South Bengaluru, questioned in the college campus, and then flown to Mumbai where he was arrested.

Vishal’s arrest came as a shock not only to many people who were following the case but also his college. One of his professors, who did not wish to be named, says Vishal was not bothersome. “During the first year, all the students study together. From the second year, they are divided into groups according to their choice of streams.We had limited interactions with him as classes started only in October 2021. We called his parents when his attendance dropped below 60%. But for that, he was neither remarkable nor troublesome,” he says. Enquiries revealed that Vishal was not close to any of his classmates. The college has maintained that it will not take any punitive action against Vishal until the probe is concluded.

 

Vishal hails from Patna, Bihar, and is the son of a ticket examiner in the Indian Railways. He has an elder sister working for a multinational company, sources say. His father, Sudhir Kumar Jha, is reported to have told mediapersons that he believes his son is innocent and was “trapped”.

The next day, Shweta Singh, an 18-year-old woman was arrested from Uttarakhand by the Mumbai Police. Shweta, who lost one parent to cancer and another to COVID-19, was active on social media and often posted extreme views, the police say. Soon after, Mayank Rawat, 21, was also arrested by the police. The bail pleas of both Shweta and Mayank were rejected on the grounds that they had intentionally used Sikh names on Twitter to promote enmity between Muslims and Sikhs .

The same week, Aumkareshwar Thakur, 26, was arrested from Indore by the Delhi Police . Aumkareshwar completed his Bachelors in Computer Applications. He and Niraj, who was nabbed around the same time, were remanded in police custody till January 27. The fifth arrest was made from Odisha by the Mumbai Police cyber cell. The accused is an MBA graduate, Neeraj Singh (28). All the arrested men and women are young and educated and hail from different parts of the country.

A loner and his laptop

According to his parents, Niraj Bishnoi led a disciplined life. He would wake up at 7 a.m. every day, take a bath, and head to the neighbourhood temple where he would worship Shiva and Hanuman for at least an hour. He would then return and “study on his laptop” for the next few hours before having lunch. After an afternoon nap, he would spend an hour reciting ‘Sundara Kanda’, a Hindu epic dedicated to Hanuman. He would then return to his laptop. Niraj, who didn’t have a separate room, would sleep around 9:30 p.m., like everyone else in his family, his father says. “His mother is very religious and he is very close to her. She is probably the only one he talks to,” Dasrath, who owns a grocery shop, says.

Also read | Niraj Bishnoi used a gaming character to run Twitter handles

Niraj was a good student in school and secured admission in an engineering college on merit, his father says. His parents say they were proud of him. But his father admits he never understood what Niraj did on his laptop. “About a year ago, he used to watch a TV news channel. He got so addicted to news that his mother had to dissuade him from spending so many hours before the TV,” Dasrath says.

An investigator who questioned Niraj for hours found him “abnormal” with a strong dislike for Muslims. This irrational dislike, he says, must have found an outlet through the app. “He is very confused. Sometimes he says he is a communist. He also believes a woman’s place is inside the home,” says the officer investigating him.

According to his family, Niraj has been raised in a “healthy environment”. He has two sisters: one studies law in Noida and the other is pursuing a Masters in Science. The sisters don’t believe Niraj hates Muslim women. Niraj was a loner who had no friends and no social life, his family says.

Link to Sulli Deals

The police arrested Niraj as the “main conspirator, creator and mastermind” behind the Bulli Bai application on GitHub, the hosting platform. Investigators say Niraj used five Twitter handles that had the name ‘Giyu’, a Japanese gaming character, to communicate in the virtual world. According to them, Niraj not only created the Bulli Bai app, but one of the handles used by him also appeared in the investigation of the Sulli Deals app. Sulli Deals was created six months ago. Niraj tried to mislead the police by saying that the Sulli Deals app , which auctioned prominent Muslim women, was created by a Muslim man, Javed Alam, an engineering graduate from Uttar Pradesh.

Also read | Bishnoi ‘was in touch with Sulli Deals accused’

Investigators also say Niraj posed as a female journalist and tried to get details about the Sulli Deals probe. An officer says the accused was also involved in an earlier case of online harassment.

News of the Bulli Bai app hit the headlines when a 23-year-old Delhi-based journalist shared a screenshot on Twitter when she found herself featured as the “Bulli Bai of the day”. She lodged a complaint with the District Police and an FIR was registered on January 2. The FIR was sent to the Special Cell’s Intelligence Fusion and Strategic Operations Unit which began investigating the matter. Within two days of taking up the investigation, the team arrested Niraj after what they called “backtracking the digital footprint”.

The investigators questioned Niraj for seven days with each day bringing forth “shocking” revelations. Niraj admitted to have started hacking websites at the age of 15. “He defaces websites regularly. He claims to have hacked into and defaced the websites of various schools and universities in India and Pakistan,” an officer says.

 

Niraj lived in the virtual world, investigators contend. His connections with people were only through Twitter group chats and closed social media groups. When questioned, Niraj mentioned that he was in touch with the creator of the Sulli Deals app, Aumkareshwar Thakur.

The investigators say there is “no doubt” that Niraj was the brain behind the app. When the police wrote to GitHub to share details, they also sent him an email as part of protocol, informing him that they were seeking details on the email account used by him. When the police made some arrests in Mumbai, Niraj felt that the arrests were not right and announced on Twitter that he was the creator of the app. He also spoke to a journalist and shared the email sent to him by GitHub to prove that he was the mastermind. “He was using ProtonMails and a different VPN. He believed he wouldn’t be traced,” the officer says.

When Niraj was arrested, one question was raised by many, including the women who were ‘auctioned’: why did the Delhi and Noida police make no headway in the Sulli Deals app case?

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For six months starting last July, when the case was registered, the police maintained that they had written to GitHub asking for details on the account linked to the application and were following the MLAT (Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty) process to get the required information from GitHub’s office in the U.S. It was only later that the Sulli Deals creator too was booked.

‘Stunned, frightened, disgusted’

On New Year’s day, Sidrah Patel received a photograph on WhatsApp with a message that read: “They have started again”. “I did not download it immediately, but I could make out the photo through that blurred image. I have been attacked in the online space multiple times earlier. But when I finally opened the photo, I was stunned, frightened and disgusted. I didn’t know what to do,” Sidrah says.

Bulli Bai app case accused Shweta Singh and Mayank Rawat are brought to appear before the Bandra Metropolitan Magistrate court in Mumbai on January 10, 2022.

Bulli Bai app case accused Shweta Singh and Mayank Rawat are brought to appear before the Bandra Metropolitan Magistrate court in Mumbai on January 10, 2022.

 

Sidrah, a resident of Mumbai and a vocal Muslim woman on social media, was one of the hundreds of victims, all Muslim women, who had been “auctioned” on the Bulli Bai app. It seemed like the Sulli Deals nightmare, which had happened in July 2021, had begun again. An FIR registered with the Delhi Police by victims of Sulli Deals led to no arrests then as the Delhi Police, which falls under the Union Home Ministry, could neither trace the creator nor stop this from taking place again.

“My friend called me and told me that last time, the complaint was made to the Delhi Police. She asked me whether I would like to file the complaint since I am from Mumbai. I said no. I wanted to stay away from all of this. Meanwhile, the whole list came out. It had women of my mother’s age in it. I felt so disturbed that I felt I should do something. Around the same time, Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi also called me asking whether I want to file the complaint. She spoke to me and assured me of all support,” Sidrah says.

Priyanka says the Delhi Police, which was supposedly working on the Sulli Deals case, did nothing until October 2021. “I kept raising the issue even though it was becoming clear that nothing was going to come out of it,” she told The Hindu .

 

Mumbai Police’s cyber crime branch got in touch with Sidrah soon. As she did not want to open the screenshots, Sidrah sought the help of Mohammed Zubair of Alt News , a fact-checking website, who had flagged the issue on Twitter. The police began their work. Sidrah went to the police station at around 10 a.m. on January 2 by which time they were prepared with all their background work on the case. By evening, an FIR was filed. The first arrest was made on January 4.

A day later, Mumbai Police Commissioner Hemant Nagrale held a press conference announcing the arrest of Shweta and Mayank after finding their connection with Vishal in the same case. A day later, the Delhi Police arrested the alleged mastermind of the Bulli Bai app, Niraj, from Jorhat. Interestingly, a Mumbai Police team was also heading to arrest Niraj then and was barely few hours away from Jorhat. Since then, Niraj has been kept in the custody of the Delhi Police, while the Mumbai Police team which is probing the case is demanding his custody for further investigation.

Sidrah points out that even before the Sulli Deals in July 2021, Pakistani women used to be “auctioned”. “All the accounts and their conversations have been online for months since then. It is not that like this incident has happened out of nowhere,” she says.

Modus operandi

Mohammed Zubair has been following all these happenings and believes that the Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai app have a lot in common. “The code was identical. Even in the source code of the Bulli Bai app, the word Sulli was used,” he says.

A month after the Sulli Deals app controversy broke, a person named Javed Alam from U.P. began to be blamed for the app. Screenshots and Telegram chats were created to place the blame on him, Zubair says. The Delhi Police were tagged in posts seeking action against Javed. The police swooped in and detained Javed for about a week without even registering a case. But Zubair, who has been following the Sulli Deals case, knew which accounts had created the Sulli Deals. He gave this information to Javed’s brother who passed it on to the police. The Delhi Police called one more person named Krunal Patel while interrogating Javed. Krunal was among those who had blamed Javed for creating the Sulli Deals app. But the police let him go within a few hours. According to Zubair, Krunal is connected to those who have been arrested in the Bulli Bai case. Zubair says he has stored Krunal’s interactions, which the latter had deleted. Javed was reportedly told by the police to not trouble or blame Krunal before he was let go.

 

Zubair closely followed the Bulli Bai app when the allegations exploded on December 31, 2021, and was among the first to ensure that all the data and screenshots were stored. These were later handed over to the cyber cells of both the Mumbai and Delhi Police. “Some accounts had shared the link to the Bulli Bai app. The first thing I did was to screenshot all the victims, around 100 names with photos, which were shared with the victims personally. Later on, we retrieved the source code,” he says.

Sources within the Mumbai Police say they had received a few online complaints about Sulli Deals but could not do much as nobody came forward to provide information. There was also the problem of jurisdiction. Even in the Bulli Bai app case, social media platforms such as GitHub and Twitter were reluctant to share information. “There is no seriousness about the issue that multiple apps are being created to silence women. No priority is given to this issue. There is no understanding of the sensitivity of online crimes,” says Priyanka. She had communicated with the Union Information Technology Minister over the need to tackle this issue and the need to bring in necessary amendments in law, but received a half-hearted reply in return.

An ecosystem of hate

While the attack was an attempt to target vocal Muslim women who speak truth to power, seek justice and amplify voices against hate crimes, it is also seen as an attempt to sexualise women and normalise such sexualisation. “Nobody can work with so much impunity and continue to challenge the Mumbai Police. The network has to be really big. This cannot just be the work of 21-year-olds or 18-years-olds working on the Internet. There are many other players who are yet to be unmasked and that can only happen if the investigation is fair,” says Sidrah.

 

Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai are not the only such apps. There are ‘Trads’ (short for Traditionalists), for instance, who label anyone who opposes them as ‘Raitas’. The Trads are so extreme that they even abuse Bharatiya Janata Party and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders for being soft on Muslims.

“Trads are against Muslims, liberals, Dalits and all castes other than Brahmins. They abuse even the Jains. They make vulgar comments under the photos of women, even of Hindu women who are not Brahmins. They are everywhere: on Twitter, Reddit, Telegram. We don’t see them because we dismiss most of them as trolls. But they exist,” says Zubair, who has been working extensively on understanding the methodology of online hate-spewing groups.

Zubair believes that this work cannot be done in isolation. He also makes an interesting observation. Many of the photos on the app, he says, were of Muslim women who were neither active on social media nor vocal against the BJP government at the Centre. Some were not related to politics, nor did they make any political comments. Almost 30% to 40% of the photos of the women were from the Sulli Deals app and some were old display pictures. “Somebody supplied them with these photographs. I am not sure if these guys even know who these women are,” he says.

According to the Mumbai Police, all the accused are also involved in the Sulli Deals app. On January 20, Metropolitan Magistrate Komal Sing Rajput rejected the bail pleas of Vishal, Mayank and Shweta citing the seriousness of the offences and said the investigation is still at a primary stage. All the accused are booked under Sections 153A (promoting enmity on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc.), 153B (Imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), 354D (stalking), 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman), 500 (criminal defamation) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 67 (publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) of the Information Technology Act.

With inputs from K.V. Aditya Bharadwaj in Bengaluru and Sonam Saigal in Mumbai


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Printable version | Apr 25, 2022 12:39:17 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/sulli-deals-bulli-bai-and-the-young-and-educated-hatemongers/article38305009.ece