Bahuli Sharma, associate at Bharucha & Partners and Shivam Singh, lawyer at the Supreme Court of India and Delhi High Court in India, discuss the ‘Bulli Bai’ app controversy and the need for a legal framework grounded in intersectionality to address such crimes...
The year 2022 began on a torrid note with the news that profiles of several Muslim women had been surreptitiously created on an app called Bulli Bai hosted on Git Hub for the purposes of putting the women up for ‘auction’.
This was not the first instance when Muslim women were targeted through this online mechanism. In May 2021, a large number of Muslim women were first ‘auctioned’ on a YouTube channel run by the username “Liberal Doge”. Close on its heels, in July 2021, several Muslim women had similarly found their profiles created and put up for ‘auction’ via an app called Sulli Deals. Though a police complaint was filed, and a First Information Report (FIR) was registered in the case of Sulli Deals, there was scant progress made in the matter except the application being blocked for access. A lack of arrests by law enforcement agencies in the Sulli Deals case quite likely emboldened the perpetrators and resulted in the creation of the Bulli Bai app. It was only in the aftermath of arrests in the Bulli Bai case that a solitary arrest was made in the Sulli Deals case.
There are traumatic accounts that indicate the harrowing experiences of the victims/survivors of this vile online attack as well as equally distressing accounts from their family members. There was massive outrage against the ‘Bulli Bai’ application which resulted in an FIR being registered in the present case by the Cyber Cell of the Mumbai Police as well as by the Delhi Police. In the present piece, the authors shall be dealing with the following issues, namely:
- Summarise the progress that has been made in investigating the present case;
- Analyse the sections under which the FIRs have been registered and whether they are sufficiently robust to deal with further instances of such criminal misconduct;
- Assess issues relating to evidence that may arise during the trial of this case;
- Flag concerns that may weigh with courts at the time of sentencing, in the event that this case results in a conviction; and
- Suggest the need for a legal framework grounded in intersectionality to address such crimes.
Status of investigation
There were two FIRs registered at the instance of aggrieved women by the Delhi Police and Mumbai Police. These FIRs were lodged against Twitter handles and unknown persons responsible for the development of the Bulli Bai app. The unknown accused persons were booked under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’) and Information Technology Act, 2000 (‘IT Act’). These sections are Section 153A (promoting enmity on grounds of religion etc), Section 153B (imputations prejudicial to national integration), Section 295A (insulting religious beliefs), Section 354D (stalking), Section 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman), Section 500 (criminal defamation) of the IPC and Section 67 (publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) of IT Act.
The investigation, in this case, is currently at its nascent stage. Quite likely due to the wide-scale indignation and immense media scrutiny, there have been multiple arrests made of accused persons. The arrested persons are the following:
- Niraj Bishnoi – 21-year-old engineering student and a resident of Assam. He is supposedly the mastermind behind the Bulli Bai app that was hosted on Git Hub.
- Shweta Singh – 19-year-old and a resident of Uttarakhand. She is also suspected as being a mastermind.
- Vishal Kumar Jha – 21-year-old engineering student currently pursuing his studies in Bangalore. He allegedly changed usernames to Sikh names with a view to show that the account was being handled by Khalistan supporters.
- Mayank Rawal – 21-year-old science student of Delhi University. He originally hails from Uttarakhand. He is suspected of having shared the posts that were originating from the Bulli Bai account.
At the time of writing this article, all the accused persons have been remanded to judicial custody and their exact role is a subject matter of further investigation.
Analysing the provisions under which arrests have been made
Section 153A of the IPC makes it a cognisable and non-bailable offence to promote, attempt to promote or commit an act that leads to disharmony and hatred between religions. Similarly, Section 153B makes any assertions or imputations against a specific class of society thereby disallowing or denying them of privileges, an act punishable by the IPC. The nature of the Bulli Bai app was such that a specific class of the society- the Muslim women – were targeted and denied their basic freedoms, liberties, and autonomy of life when their personal information was acquired for a purpose which is cut from the same cloth as human trafficking. Targeting women from a particular religious identity at a time when Islamophobia has been bubbling under Indian geopolitics can be considered nothing short of fanning hatred and discord between religious groups.
Section 354D of the IPC provides that any man following a woman for the purposes of fostering interaction despite her refusal or monitors the woman through any form of electronic communication commits the offence of stalking. This case presents an example of how the four accused used different means to follow, monitor and acquire information on these women without their permission making a suitable case for slapping charges of stalking under the IPC. This offence is cognisable and non-bailable with a maximum punishment of 5 years imprisonment with a fine. Section 509 of the IPC prescribes a punishment of three years with a fine when a person makes a gesture which if seen by the woman would violate her privacy. Setting profiles of women, without their knowledge on a public platform with the intent of auctioning them, violates privacy in every perspective and attracts charging of this section. The IT Act under Section 67 imposes a more stringent punishment for transmitting obscene information with a maximum punishment of ten years imprisonment. Sections 499 and 500 of the IPC provide for the definition and punishment of defamation. The creation of the website was a visible representation of persons made with the intent to harm their reputation by putting them for auction and attracting the punishment of two years or fine for committing the offence.
As per the news reports, the only evidence obtained from the perpetrators is their electronic devices and the information contained in them. This brings the evidentiary issues under the scope of electronic evidence and their admissibility in courts. Sections 65 A and B of the Indian Evidence Act are relevant. Any information contained in a digital form that has been saved, recorded, or copied as a computer output is presumed to be a ‘document’ under Section 65B(1), and is admissible as evidence without additional proof or the production of the originals if the prerequisites are met. Section 65B(2) specifies the requirements that must be met in order for information to be classified as a “computer output”. In this case, all data obtained from the electronic devices which incriminate the accused would be valid evidence under these provisions. Section 65B(4), which specifies that if electronic evidence is to be utilised in any court process, a certificate identifying the electronic record and particulars of the equipment involved must be supplied had led to differing interpretations. There was some doubt as to whether a certificate under Section 65B(4) would be required even if an original copy of the electronic record was presented as evidence. Another question was whether compliance with the provisions of Section 65B(4) was required or if the necessity to acquire a certificate might be waived. This has been settled through the case of Arjun Panditrao Khotkar v. Kailash Kushanrao Gorantyal that Section 65B(1) distinguishes between the ‘original’ electronic record and the secondary copies created from the primary electronic record. For example, in this scenario, the initial electronic record would be the accused’s computer, which is where the app code was first saved. The secondary copies of the electronic record would be copies of data on CDs, if it is replicated. It has been held that a certificate under Section 65B(4) should only be granted when the electronic record’s secondary copies are presented to the Court.
There has been a clamor for displaying leniency and forgiveness towards the arrested accused. These pleas for leniency and requests for compassion have come from intellectuals such as Javed Akhtar. The requests centred around the fact that the perpetrators are young people of limited means and the display of compassion by the victims/survivors shall help in putting a quietus to the matter. The authors believe that this is entirely misplaced and in fact even counter-productive for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the offender’s age, financial status and educational background are only mitigating circumstances. These are factors that may weigh with a court at the time of sentencing and cannot be used by the accused to wriggle away from the effects of their misconduct. Secondly, it places the onus of positive action upon the survivors/victims as opposed to ensuring that the accused persons undergo active reformation. Thirdly, by throwing in such misguided requests for leniency and compassion, a message is projected that any apology would be sufficient to reverse the consequences of criminal misconduct and ignores the fact that unpunished behaviour tends to embolden others.
Unpacking the onslaught through the prism of intersectionality
Historically, women belonging to religious minorities have experienced a greater level of targeted harm, particularly in the form of sexual violence because of the intersection between their religious and gender identities. Most of the Muslim women targeted by the accused have vociferously criticized the growing religious intolerance and polarization in our society. It is likely that this ignominious attack was designed to ‘punish’ or ‘silence’ such dissent from women, and in particular, Muslim women.
While the addition of Section 153 IPC in the FIR is an acknowledgement of the underlying religious bigotry behind the attack, our existing legal framework does not address gendered religious persecution and discrimination of women belonging to religious minorities. Interestingly, Sections 3 (e) and (k) provisions of the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 penalise gendered caste-based persecution.
With the rampant rise in such visceral attacks on women belonging to religious minorities, it is probably time for a legal or policy framework grounded in intersectionality which specifically addresses and acknowledges this form of faith-based sexual violence.
Bahuli Sharma is an Associate at Bharucha & Partners, New Delhi (India). She read law at Harvard Law School, University of Oxford and Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi.
Shivam Singh is a lawyer at the Supreme Court of India and Delhi High Court. He read law at Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School and National Law School of India University.
The authors are grateful to Nishtha Gupta for her research assistance. She is currently reading law at NALSAR, Hyderabad (India).
Suggested citation: Bahuli Sharma and Shivam Singh, Bulli Bai App: When Misogyny Collides with Online Anonymity and Religious Bigotry, JURIST – Professional Commentary, January 24, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/01/bahuli-sharma-shivam-singh-bulli-bai-misogyny-online/.
This article was prepared for publication by Ananaya Agrawal, JURIST Tech (Beat) editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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