A disturbing trend visible in India currently is the issue of “auction” of Muslim women online. This “auction” is bogus, with no one buying or selling; what is done is uploading photographs of Muslim women, taken from their social media accounts. But the very act reeks of misogyny, hate, and, conversely, low self-esteem.
The issue appeared first in June last year. An app called “Sulli Deals” hosted by Microsoft-owned GitHub, appeared with profiles of Muslim women up for fake auction. It remained up for a couple of months until complaints began pouring in, when it was taken down. But no one was charged or penalised. This is thought to have emboldened those behind the act to create a similar app—“Bulli Bai”—for a second time. However, the police both in Mumbai, where it was first reported, and in Delhi, have acted swiftly this time, and three persons from three different geographical locations have been arrested. All three—two men and a woman—are students in their early twenties. The main accused is allegedly a 20-year-old student of Information Technology. Delhi Police have reportedly said that he was involved in both the apps.
This “auction app” issue brings to the fore several issues. First, the sheer hate. The matter is still under investigation and therefore it is not known if there was any financial incentive for the three alleged culprits. But the fact that all the photographs uploaded were of Muslims, some prominent ones, points to the communal factor.
India is becoming a polarized society, where the polarization occurs at different levels. There is polarization between sections of Hindus, the majority community, and sections of Muslims, the largest minority. There is also polarization, perhaps even more fierce, between those belonging to the so-called “liberal”, often ‘liberal Left”, wing of politics, and those not only on the “Right” but even the more moderate Right-of-centre. Default positions are taken up and the split is visible in both media and civil society, which often shapes and frames the narrative.
Stemming from this is the politicization of Indian society. Those on the liberal and Left side are usually supporters and/or members of the opposition parties, primarily the Indian National Congress (INC), which held sway over Indian politics for almost seven decades after independence in 1947 but is now limited to only a few pockets of India, some regional parties, and the almost banished but vocal Left parties. The Right and centre-Right are mostly supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Even minor issues tend to get politicized and often swallowed up in the larger discourse of Right vs. Left liberal.
The second issue, related to the first, is that the hate is taking on an increasingly fierce and youthful face. Hindu-Muslim tensions have existed for centuries in India. Alongside, however, there has also been inter-communal interaction and bonhomie in equal measure. But younger generation seems to be lacking this interaction, and an ugly, fierce hatred is rearing its head. Part of the reason could be that Islamist terrorism and disruption it causes, which has enormously impacted India in the last two decades, when the generation of the “auction” accused has grown up. Yet, another factor is that all the accused are from small towns, where communities tend to be more segregated and this results in a lack of information and interaction with others, leading to an easier “othering” and demonizing of communities. This is sometimes encouraged by politicians, who then tend to take advantage of communal cleavages to harvest political support from their local communities.
The third factor is gender and women’s bodies as the marker of cultural territory and proprietorship. The photographs uploaded for auction were of women and not men. The buyers, it is anticipated, were also to be men. This was an act to humiliate not just the women, whose photographs were uploaded, but on a broader scale, the Muslim community. The most humiliating way to hit out at the community was by humiliating its women. That a woman is also alleged to be involved this time demonstrates that communal identities override gender.
The need to humiliate stems, amongst other things, from the need to avenge what is widely described as “love jihad”. While the percentage of inter-faith marriages in India is still relatively small, when it does occur it usually occurs amongst Hindu women with men from other communities, primarily from the Muslim community—India’s second largest religious community, rather than the other way around, though there are instances of the latter, of course. While Indian law also provides for persons of different religious communities to marry under civil law without any of them converting to the religion of the other, in marriages amongst Hindus and Muslims, the tendency is for Hindus to convert to Islam and marry under Muslim law. This tendency has been termed as “love jihad”, where Muslim men allegedly seduce women of other communities to convert to Islam in order to spread Islam. Interestingly, the term “love jihad” was coined by a Christian church in southern India where local clergy alleged that Muslim men had been marrying Christian women in order to convert them to Islam.
Some activists have alleged that there are similar sites where Hindu women are being targeted and humiliated and offered for auction, but it has not merited any attention. However, no woman has come forward to lodge any related complaint.
Linked to this is sexual gratification. In smaller towns and villages it is not always possible for young men and women to enter into sexual relations comfortably. On the other hand, the widespread use of mobile phones has made pornography much more accessible to Indians of all age groups and locations. The very act of browsing women’s profiles, selecting and uploading photographs, reeks of salacious gratification.
The role of the internet also needs to factored in. The internet has brought home events and actions taking place far away, as it has connected people irrespective of their geographical location. The three accused who have been arrested in the latest case of the “auction” are located in three different locations, far away from each other.
The internet has also brought into Indian homes the news of widespread, open auctioning of women and girls taken as slaves in the territories controlled by the Islamic State (Da’esh), a phenomenon that has greatly impacted Indians, especially Indian youth. News of Da’esh activities have been closely followed by many Indians, again especially youth, of all communities. While some have eulogized them, others have used Da’esh for propaganda and to spread hatred against and to revile the Muslim community. This has fed an increase in cyber-bullying and cyber-crimes, and created a difficult issue for India, since it is necessary to maintain a balance between cyber-policing, censure, and ensuring online security of individuals.
Finally, the failure of the authorities to prosecute and convict anyone the very first time the news of a fake online auction of Muslim women broke can directly be said to be responsible for the same crime occurring again, and with the involvement of the same people. This time around, the police are doing better: they have been proactive, an investigation is on-going, and arrests have been made. However, the matter should be fast-tracked and a thorough investigation, without fear or favour, be completed, and all the culprits and facts should be revealed—who is behind this, what is the motivation, the objective, etc. A mere naming and shaming would hardly serve any purpose. This should be applicable to any public display of hate, as happened recently, by one community to the other.
In this particular case, the National Commission of Women, whose main objective is to uphold women’s rights and security, should take cognisance.
A tragic fallout of the polarization between liberals and conservatives, mentioned earlier, is that liberals tend to justify any negative tendency amongst Indian’s non-Hindu communities, and exaggerate even the smallest of their grievances, while turning a blind eye to any grievance, perceived or real, articulated by any Hindu. As a corollary, conservatives tend to oppose any issue taken up by liberals. As a result, even the very real causes taken up by liberals, tend to be downplayed or ignored by others, which includes the large silent majority, which is neither liberal nor conservative. This is one of those cases, which has not mustered enough attention in society.
Alternative narratives also need to be built up, and more interactions encouraged between communities. Communication is the key to peaceful coexistence and communities must sit together and thrash out their differences, and discuss even uncomfortable subjects. There is very little constructive dialogue amongst communities in Indian society. All interactions either border on appeasement or on othering.
A good study also needs to be conducted on the psycho-social background and character of the accused in the “auction” cases. It is important to know and understand what motivates such young people, of reasonably comfortable backgrounds, to engage in such hateful activities. Such persons are harmful for society. Such research can help correct the accused and prevent others from taking to such crime.
Until then, it is very important for the law to take its course and for the law-enforcement authorities to be proactive before matters spin out of control. The justice system in India is a slow and lackadaisical one, and this is dangerous as it can motivate people to take matters into their own hands. No one, however, should be able to get away with peddling hate, for whatever reason. India is so much bigger.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.