NEW DELHI — Even as the horror we felt when hearing about an online auction of Indian Muslim women recedes from our collective conscience, the “Sulli Deals” hate crime continues to haunt Noor Mahvish, a law student, and there are days when she has to relive it.
On 31 July, for instance, one Rahul Singh Kulsetra, who says that he is a gym owner in his Instagram bio, sent her the following message: “Aapk; o khi dekha h yr, I think apki bhi pic aayi thi na, Sulli wale matter me… But yr, acha app tha.” (I have seen you somewhere, I think your photo came in the Sulli matter… It was a good app).
“I keep thinking that if they are stalking and finding me online, they could be following me in real life. I’m living with this fear,” said Mahvish. “On top of all this tension, the follow up of the case is so slow.”
“Sulli” is a derogatory term used for Indian Muslim women. On the night of 4 July, a Twitter user posted that scores of Indian women had been put up for sale on an application called “Sulli Deals,” hosted by Github, a repository hosting service based in the United States, which took it down on 5 July.
Following weeks of outrage, media coverage and parliamentarians calling for police action, no arrests have been made. While two FIRs have been registered — in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi — three women that we spoke with said they have not been informed whether FIRs were registered against their complaints.
Interviews with police personnel suggest that they are pursuing one line of inquiry — getting information from GitHub regarding the people who created the application — but the US-based company has not responded to them.
In an email response to India Ahead, GitHub said, “GitHub responds to law enforcement requests that comply with established legal procedures. We informed India police of our policy in this case, and will assist upon receiving valid legal process from them.”
Senior advocate Vrinda Grover, who is representing five women targeted in the “Sulli Deals” app, said that her clients were sending “follow-up emails” to the Delhi Police, inquiring about the status of their complaints.
Questioning this dependency on GitHub to identify the culprits, Grover said, “Surely, the cyber crime experts in Delhi Police can track down digitally and forensically who committed the offence. The Delhi Police should be able to crack cases like this. If they are not doing it, what does that tell us?”
“I keep thinking that if they are stalking and finding me online, they could be following me in real life.
Seeking a response
Mahvish, who lives in Kolkata and filed her complaint about the “Sulli Deals” app at the Lalbazar police headquarters on 9 July, said that she has struggled for a month to get any information about her case.
When she returned to the cyber crimes department at the police headquarters on 19 July, Mahvish said that a receptionist told her the investigating officer was unavailable and suggested that she take his phone number from a list posted on a wall.
“I told them, ‘Please give me my complaint number or an FIR number at least. I have filed a complaint but I don’t know anything that is happening in my case,’” said Mahvish.
“I had given them screenshots as evidence but the police said that they could not tell me anything because they did not have any information. They asked me whether I was called to the police station. I told them that I went on my own because ten days had passed and I had heard nothing from them,” she said.
When she went to the police station for a third time on 3 August, Mahvish said that she was able to speak with the policeman in charge of her case — one SI (Sub Inspector) Ghosh — who gave her the complaint number.
“He only wrote down the complaint number after I insisted that he do so. When he said, ‘We are not closing your case,’ I responded by saying, ‘Why would you close the case when I have given you so many evidences?’” said Mahvish. “He said that they had taken ‘primary action’ and now they would take ‘secondary action.’”
No FIR had been registered against her complaint.
SI Ghosh told us that the matter was “under inquiry,” and that the Kolkata Police had reached out to GitHub for details about the people who had created the Sulli Deals app, but they had not received any response.
Ghosh said that he was now pursuing the inquiry based on material provided by the complainant — Mahvish.
“If there is such a struggle to get one FIR registered, I cannot imagine how much one will have to struggle to get justice,” she said.
If there is such a struggle to get one FIR registered, I cannot imagine how much one will have to struggle to get justice.
DCW and Delhi Police
In Uttar Pradesh, an FIR was registered on 6 July under Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — insulting the modesty of a woman — and section 66 and 67 of the Information Technology Act — transferring obscene material — against the complaint of Hana Mohsin Khan, a commercial pilot targeted by the “Sulli Deals” app.
In Delhi, an FIR was registered under Section 354-A of the IPC — sexual harassment — on 8 July after the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) and the National Commission for Women (NCW) wrote to the Delhi Police, demanding action.
Chinmoy Biswal, spokesperson for the Delhi Police, told India Ahead, “The matter is under investigation.”
Anyesh Roy, DCP (Cyber cell) told The Indian Express, “We sent notices to GitHub but haven’t received a reply. Our team has approached them several times but there’s been no response.”
In its letter on 7 July, the DCW has sought information on the FIR registered, details of the accused identified and arrested, steps taken to identify the accused in the case of non-arrest, and a detailed action taken report, by 14 July.
According to DCW spokesperson Rahul Tahilani, the Delhi Police replied on 16 July, saying that they were trying to get details from GitHub, but the American company did not follow Indian laws. “They said that they were having a difficult time getting data from them,” he said.
In a second letter on 26 July, the DCW wrote to the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Cyber Crime, stating that the reply it had received on 16 July was “incomplete,” and summoning the police before the Commission on 29 July. It asked the Delhi Police the following questions: whether any accused had been identified and arrested yet? The details of the steps taken by the police to identify and arrest the accused in the case of non arrest. Detailed action report on the matter and current status of the investigation.
In a reply on 28 July, the Delhi Police, according to Tahilani, said that notices had been sent to GitHub to provide information about the registrant and IP details. The police, according to the DCW spokesperson, said that GitHub had asked for a legal request under the existing — Treaty Between India And United States of America On Mutual Legal Assistance In Criminal Matters — and the same had been initiated.
On 2 August, the DCW called on the Delhi Police to arrest five men — Kunal Sharma, Shringi Yadav, Sukhdev Sahdev, Rambhakt Gopal and Vikas Sehrawat — “for posting derogatory messages that incite people to commit crimes against Muslim women on social media.” Referring to Sharma, the DCW said that the UP Police had informed the commission that the accused lives in Delhi.
Women want action
While the Delhi Police has invoked the IPC section dealing with sexual harassment, civil society groups like the Internet Freedom Foundation say that it is important to make a case under sections like 153-A, 295-A, and 298, which would classify this act as a hate crime targeting one community.
Hana Mohsin Khan, the commercial airlines pilot, said that while an FIR had been registered against her complaint in the GautamBuddha police station, she was not aware of any other steps taken to apprehend the culprits.
“When it happens to you, you think that things are going to be different. Then, you find out that nothing is different. I’m surprised but I’m also not surprised,” she said. “I’m sure they can find out who these people are, but it is not happening.”
When it happens to you, you think that things are going to be different. Then, you find out that nothing is different.
Gazal, a Delhi resident whose photograph was posted on the “Sulli Deals” app, said that she filed a complaint with the Delhi Police on 11 July but she had not been informed if any FIR was registered.
“Whenever I have tried to contact them, they have told me that an IO (investigating officer) will contact me and that there is no need to call personally here,” she said. “This is nothing new but I still feel shocked.”
Nabiya Khan, a poet and activist whose photo was published on the “Sulli Deals”app, said that she had filed a complaint with the Delhi Police Cyber Cell on 12 July, seeking registration of an FIR under relevant sections of the IPC, the Information Technology Act, 2000, and Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986, but she had not been informed if any FIR was registered.
“There was a lot of outrage but no action has been taken yet. I knew that our complaints would not be met with dignity but with animosity,” she said. “This has become so normalised but we must keep speaking about the reasons why this is happening. People were asking us to stay quiet because it was a virtual auction but people are not understanding that this could turn into real violence at any given point of time.”
There was a lot of outrage but no action has been taken yet.
Leads at home
The women that we spoke with raised three issues; why they were not made aware of any action taken in response to their police complaints, why they have not been questioned in furtherance of the investigation , and why domestic leads have not been pursued.
One such lead is Ritesh Jha, who reportedly ran a YouTube channel called Liberal Dogge that ran an auction of Muslim women from India and Pakistan on Eid in May. Newslaundry has reported that he was a 23-year-old resident of Gurugram, Haryana, whose email address and UPI (Unified Payments Interface) id they were able to find with some digging.
Last month, Dhanya Menon, India’s first woman cybercrime private investigator based in Thrissur, told us about the lack of expertise and urgency in investigating cyber crimes in India.
When we spoke with her this week, she said, “There seems to be enough evidence against Rakesh Jha. If the police get information about the whereabouts of the real person behind the online identity, they have every reason to confiscate his gadgets and run a forensic investigation.”
But there is a history of police inaction.
In May, Congress Party spokesperson Hasiba Amin registered a police complaint at the Kishangarh Police station in Delhi after she was auctioned on Twitter. Last month, Amin told us that an FIR was registered against her complaint but there was no progress.
“Nothing has changed,” she said on Tuesday. “I still haven’t heard from them.”
Two years after journalist Rana Ayyub filed a complaint about her face being morphed on the body of another woman in a pornographic video, and provided links of Twitter handles from which offensive messages were posted, the case was closed by the Delhi Police.
Journalist Ahmad Seema Javed told us that her images had been morphed on the woman’s body in a pornographic movie, and she has collected 782 screenshots of violent abuse targeting Muslim women, but no FIRs were registered against two complaints made by her to the Delhi Police in 2020.
Others call for action
On 27 July, Congress Party’s Member of Parliament in Lok Sabha Mohammad Jawaid said that he had requested Home Minister Amit Shah to ensure that the people behind the Sulli Deals app were apprehended.
In a letter addressed to Shah and signed by 56 lawmakers, Jawaid said that several complaints had been filed in Delhi, Noida and even one in Kolkata, but only two FIRs had been registered so far.
“It is deeply saddening to see the lack of action given the gravity of the situation,” he said in the letter.
On 30 July, Shiv Sena’s Member of Parliament in Rajya Sabha Priyanka Chaturvedi wrote to the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw, saying that it “pains me to see that hardly any movement with regards to this case has been taken as of now despite the seriousness of it.”
“The women targeted on the app face threats, embarrassment and harassment after their pictures had been put up without consent,” she said. “The purpose of the app was to degrade and humiliate women belonging to a particular community.”