Bulli Bai App: Too many questions still unanswered despite arrests and claims by police

Why did culprits switch to actual handles after initially using bots? Why would Neeraj Bishnoi claim he was the mastermind and what about the mystery man in Nepal instructing the girl in U'khand?

Mumbai Police Commissioner Hemant Nagrale briefs the press about the arrest of the accused in Bulli Bai app case
Mumbai Police Commissioner Hemant Nagrale briefs the press about the arrest of the accused in Bulli Bai app case

Gautam S. Mengle & Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra

One app, five followers, four arrests and a welcome pushback to online ‘mock auction’ of women. Public outrage over the second such online auction and prompt police complaints forced the police to act. That is one aspect of the Bulli Bai app controversy.

Another aspect is that all the four arrested happen to be in the age group of 18-21, three of them engineering students and the youngest, a girl, preparing for an engineering course. Nothing, however, explains how they compiled the list of 100 Muslim women, many of them critics of the BJP Government, among them the wife of a sitting Delhi High Court judge.

But while the app uploaded on January 1 with the intention of harassing and maligning the women, was quickly taken down, and four culprits, including the alleged mastermind were swiftly arrested, questions remain. Delhi Police arrested Neeraj Bishnoi (21) from Jorhat in Assam, and claimed to have retrieved the source code from him.

Mumbai Police arrested a second-year engineering student Vishal Jha from Bengaluru and two more youth--Shweta Singh (18) and Mayank Rawat-- from Uttarakhand.

There has been no information, however, about the mysterious person in Nepal, who was allegedly instructing the 18-year-old Shweta Singh. Police believe she did it for money. She had lost her father to Covid last year, having lost her mother in 2011, and might have been lured by the money. But did money actually change hands and, if so, by whom, how much and when? Why is it taking so much time to track down this mysterious Nepali?

Above all, why did these youngsters switch to their actual handles after initially using bots? Why would Neeraj Bishnoi claim on Twitter that he was the mastermind and Mumbai Police should stop harassing and arresting the innocent? Switching to their actual accounts helped the police track them down swiftly. The tech savvy youngsters would have known they would be caught. So, why did they do it? There are far too many uncomfortable questions around the Bulli Bai app controversy. Police is reluctant to share details, arguing that they cannot divulge too much because the investigationis in progress. But one hopes details would be available soon.

The chain of links between an engineering student in Assam, another in Bengaluru and two others from Uttarakhand is also intriguing. Have they been known to each other? Were they following each other? What was their motivation? Did they all do it for money? Were they involved in floating the earlier online auction of Muslim women as well? The unwitting admission that the young woman could have done it for money raises the question of who would have spent money on the operation and why. Are bright, engineering students being recruited, paid and trained to do it? What else are they being trained to do?

Why would the youngsters try to pass off as Sikh sympathisers of Khalistan? Who would gain by creating the impression that Sikhs were maligning Muslim women in India? This surely does not appear like an innocuous misadventure by some misguided youth.

The app, named Bulli Bai, was developed in November and hosted on GitHub, an open source software development and hosting platform, as was the earlier app named Sulli Deals. On January 2, the Mumbai cyber police station registered a complaint which named five Twitter handles, namely @bullibai_, @ sage0x11, @hmmaachaniceoki, @jatkhalsa7 and @wannabesigmaf.

“Technical analysis of the Twitter handles led us to one of the accused, identified as Kumar Vishal Jha (21), a second year Engineering student in Bengaluru. We then started obtaining details of the followers of the app, which led us to two more accused based in Uttarakhand, identified as Shweta Singh (18) and Mayank Rawat (21),” Mumbai Police Commissioner Hemant Nagrale said.

The accused had purposely included words like ‘Jat’ and ‘Khalsa’ in their usernames, in order to give the impression that people from the Sikh community were involved in the offence. They had set up a Twitter handle, named @khalsasupermacist, and entered the user location as Canada. The username had also been changed time and again.

Creating an app on GitHub would have been easy for the youth, maintain Mumbai Police sources. “GitHub is an open source platform, which means other users can check the web page or app that you are working on and improve on it with their own suggestions or comments. It is also a platform that is easy enough for anyone with basic knowledge of software engineering to use, and is also openly available for all to use,” explained a police officer.

Another officer said that, with knowledge now available at your fingertips, the age of criminals is decreasing, and a significant number of cybercriminals are aged between 18 and 21 years, if not younger.

In 2020, the Mumbai Cyber Cell had booked a 17-year-old boy from Thane for allegedly cloning gift cards of a popular coffee shop chain. The accused had learned the art of cloning via the dark web, which he accessed through some Telegram channel. The purpose behind his offence was not sinister though; he simply wanted to be the most popular boy by treating all his friends to coffee and cakes, claimed police sources.

The same year, a group of boys, some of them as young as 14, were found to planning how to sexually assault their female classmates in graphic detail in an online group on Instagram. There is, therefore, no surprise at the young age of the culprits.

The harassment is nothing new. I have had my photos morphed several times in the past. The government and the police ignored these trends, which emboldened these people and allowed them to get more organised. This exact same modus operandi was followed with the Sulli Deals app last year and nothing happened. That would have given them the courage to make a similar app again,” a victim who was also targeted by the Sulli Deals app, told National Herald.

Noted criminal lawyer Farhana Shah says, “They might have been influenced by somebody; it’s necessary to investigate and reach out to the real culprits and prosecute them.”

Prashant Mali, a cyber expert and lawyer said, “Like the censor board for films, online content should also have a regulator. There are several mobile applications where irregular or illegal activities are conducted but the government has failed to them seriously so far.”

“In the case of this FIR, since sexually explicit activity has taken place, the offence should normally attract penal action under Section 67 and 67 (A) of the Information Technology Act. The punishment in these cases can go up to seven years of imprisonment,” he added.

While Sulli Deals last year had also triggered outrage and a few complaints were lodged at that time too, the push back this time has been more concerted. Victims lashed out immediately and lawyers came forward to help. Delhi High Court Bar Association adopted a resolution condemning the online crime and several lawyers offered pro bono service to the victims.

Sidrah Patel, an activist in Mumbai, recalls waking up on January 1 to be told that she was on the list of women on an “online auction”. With growing revulsion, she accessed the list to find that her photograph too had been uploaded by the culprits. As she scanned the list, she felt cold rage while spotting names of prominent actor Shabana Azmi, wife of a sitting Delhi High Court judge, the 65-year-old mother of JNU student Najeeb, and even Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai.

“They were the names of impressive and independent women with a mind of their own. How dare people humiliate and malign us in our own country,” she remembers thinking. By the time she was through, her mind was made up. She had to file a complaint with the police. “It is my country and no one is above the law,” she declared before leaving for the police station.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 08 Jan 2022, 6:00 PM