As a former techie, it didn’t surprise me that several of those arrested in the Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals cases that put up Muslim women for auction were young middle-class techies.
Vishal Kumar Jha, 21, is a civil engineering student in Bengaluru. Niraj Bishnoi, 20, is pursuing a BTech in computer science in Bhopal. Aumkareshwar Thakur, 26, has a bachelor’s in computer applications and works as a freelance web designer in Indore. Mayank Rawal, 21, is a BSc (chemistry) student in Delhi and Shweta Singh, 18, wanted to major in archaeology. They were all very active in the online world.
And it won’t surprise me if more techies emerge as the investigation unfolds.
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It’s not just because the cases involved technical expertise—creating apps and online personas with multiple Twitter IDs and covering up one’s digital footprint. There’s something about technical education that can breed a world view where we think there is only ever one right answer and everything needs to be laid out in clear-cut black and white. Technical colleges have boomed in India, holding out the holy grail of a “good job” to anxious youngsters struggling to race ahead of their peers. Humanities are much derided and devalued because they do not carry that promise of a “good job” in an intensely competitive society.
In a 2014 interview with Firstpost, Homi K. Bhabha, the Anne. F. Rothenberg professor of the humanities at the US’ Harvard University, said large Indian corporations complain that they struggle with software engineers who are excellent as programmers but “cannot share the vision of our product” because they do not have those skills of “presentation, interpretation and description”. Interpretation, said Bhabha, is “at the heart of humanities”. If humanities give us breadth, technical education gives us focus—but that focus can take us down a rabbit hole as well.
It’s no surprise that even as technical schools are brimming with the promise of young India, they are also a pressure cooker for frustration and anger because that’s also where upper-caste Indians most strongly feel the impact of reservations and quotas. That’s where there is the least tolerance for the messy complications of India’s social history and a conviction that India can become an unquestioned superpower as soon as the trains run on time.
In some ways the preliminary accounts of those arrested in these cases tell that same troubling story of thwarted ambitions—the boy who wanted to get into IIT but could only make it to a less celebrated engineering school. We hear that Vishal Jha used to be a bright student with a “warm social outlook” but became “aloof” in the months before his arrest. In the real world they had few friends but in the online world, one person might have six Gmail accounts and several Twitter handles. While the youngsters came from different backgrounds and different parts of India, what’s common is their families’ bafflement about the virtual lives of their children. Aumkareshwar Thakur’s father said he himself barely knew how to operate a mobile phone. Shweta Singh’s family is adamant she has been framed because they cannot believe she was “bright” enough to have the technical knowledge to be involved in the whole imbroglio.
It’s understandable that the media are interested in mining the details of life stories when people are accused of something heinous. We saw that during the 2012 Delhi gang rape as well.
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We want to find the fork in the road, pinpoint the moment where we think it all started to go wrong. Is the laptop allegedly only filled with games and porn, that too porn involving older Muslim women, proof of how an ordinary life veers dramatically off-track online? In Shweta Singh’s case, some have pointed to her parents’ deaths, one from cancer and the other from covid-19, as pushing her over the edge. Priti Gandhi, the national social media head of the Bharatiya Janata Party Mahila Morcha, tweeted that Singh should be “counselled & reformed” because she was an 18-year-old coping with the loss of her parents rather than being a terrorist. When Disha Ravi, the climate activist, had been accused of sharing a toolkit for protest during the farmers’ movement, the same Priti Gandhi had said, “What this got to do with her age or the fact that she is brought up by a single parent?? Matlab, kuch bhi.”
All this points to our eagerness to try and paint these youngsters as rotten apples, as singular stories of ordinary people whose lives go terribly wrong for some reason. That ignores the ecosystem that connects them, feeds their fevered fantasies and abets and encourages them. Investigations will reveal who was involved to what extent, who led and who was led. Perhaps some were unwitting accomplices who just allowed their emails to be used.
But it is also true that they were not just posting rabid conspiracy theories that were proven false. Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals were depraved apps that took pleasure in humiliating Muslim women. The larger question is, how was it just fun and games for them? This is not young people breaking windows on a lark. Some of them were savvy enough to create multiple aliases suggesting different religious identities to confuse people trying to track them down. There is something far more sick at work here. We have to accept that people are capable of doing terrible things to other people, especially when they feel they are cloaked in anonymity.
There are no easy answers. Young people have gotten radicalised from time immemorial. The online world has just made it faster and easier to find like-minded people and live entirely in a world that reinforces a narrow world view. WhatsApp forwards don’t make us radicalised, they just play into existing biases. The more worrying issue is the alternate reality these young people inhabit.
The Sulli Deals and Bulli Bais are clearly just the tip of the iceberg. They were so egregious they stuck out and ignited a civil war within the right wing—the so-called “raitas” who support mainstream BJP/RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) politics and the more hard-core “trads” who think they are too moderate.
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We think in our naivety that we can fix these issues by fact-checking, through logic and reason. But alternate realities do not work that way, says Shivam Shankar Singh, co-author of The Art Of Conjuring Alternate Realities. By the time the fact-check happens at the content level, Singh said in an interview, “you’ve already bought into the narrative, you’ve already accepted the fact that the Muslim population is going to overtake the Hindu population by 2030 or Muslims will not survive in India in the next 30 years.” That belief, reinforced over and over again through the algorithms of the social media we consume, becomes part of our identity.
The connection is not logical. It’s emotional. So, a factual attack feels like an attack on our core. Anyway, the fact-checkers have long been discredited as the enemy by those peddling the narrative. While we may accept one fact as erroneous, we are loath to let go of the ecosystem because without that we would feel truly orphaned.
Meanwhile, even as the Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals apps were dominating social media, a video emerged of people in Kundi Kalan village in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district taking a group pledge to boycott Muslim vendors and end all commercial transactions with them, including giving them land on lease. Police allege the “pledge” was orchestrated by mischief-makers taking advantage of a New Year brawl between two villages. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the ground was fertile for such a pledge. While calls for riots and lynchings and Bulli Bai apps are easier to condemn because they employ tactics that are overtly violent or hideously misogynistic, this calm, matter-of-fact, almost disciplined pledge is chilling. Is it proof that the shadowy alternate virtual realities are bearing toxic fruit above the ground as well?
This will not be so easy to “counsel and reform” or explain away with stories of personal tragedy.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
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