The truly shocking fact about the so-called “Bulli Bai” app (which reportedly featured a humiliating mock auction of more than a hundred Muslim women active in public life) is that some of its alleged perpetrators have actually been arrested. Vishal Kumar Jha, Shweta Singh, Mayank Rawat and Neeraj Bishnoi – those arrested so far – must be wondering if they have suddenly been transported into an alien world. Because, in the world that we have lived in for several years, this would clearly count as cruel and unjust punishment.
The “angry Hindu” cloak of impunity is evidently available to assorted godmen to incite mass violence against Muslims on millions of television screens. It is claimed by our highest elected officials to routinely denigrate those who say “abba jaan” or those who can be “identified by their clothes”. It is also offered to mobs who prevent Friday prayers. And even killers who led lynch mobs are publicly feted and tacitly assured that the law will go easy on them. If all this can happen, then it is certainly unfair to single out a mere digital app that has, after all, killed no one. A police force eager to bend before the winds of power would immediately recognise that, regardless of the Indian Penal Code, nothing much needs to be done here since the alleged purveyors of the app bear clearly Hindu names and their targets are all Muslim women. This is what happened some months ago when a similar app called “Sulli Deals” appeared. Neither the Mumbai police — which has suddenly woken up in the Bulli Bai case — nor the Delhi, Gurgaon or Noida police showed any unseemly eagerness to act. Why the flurry of activity now?
The most plausible answers involve the unfavourable coverage in the international media and the fact that Maharashtra is not ruled by the BJP. But these are not entirely convincing, because nothing happened in Maharashtra when the previous app appeared. It is also possible, but unlikely, that sustained pressure from the victims (many of whom are prominent in public life) finally forced the Mumbai police to act the second time around.
We may never be able to fully answer the why question, but the what questions are far more important. What is the larger significance of the uncharacteristic response to the Bulli Bai app? What does it point to or represent?
The first thing that the anomalous arrests point to is the changing character of our institutions. If we are surprised when the police act to curb crimes — something they are supposed to do — then it is obvious that a lot has changed. Of course, the law has never treated everyone alike in practice. In most societies and in most times, the rich and the privileged are treated more leniently than the poor and the powerless. But long-familiar patterns of social pampering and persecution are being radically re-arranged now. The Hindu-Muslim divide is being elevated above all our other divisions, including those between victim and perpetrator, or the innocent and the guilty. Moreover, this division is being turned into a rigid dichotomy. In India, we are used to the messiness of our social categories — there are always exceptions, grey areas, or contextual variations. But the Hindu-Muslim divide is being purged of its porosity and turned into a sharp, permanent line — literally a social Line of Control. A new border is being drawn inside our nation, where, as with international borders, no ambiguity is allowed about who is on which side.
This is still a journey, a process in the present-continuous tense. But its end is not far, and all our public institutions are well on their way towards the same destination. Our Parliament, our highest courts, our hugely bloated media, educational institutions and the entire bureaucracy, including especially its coercive arms – they are all changing their tune. Like the animals in Orwell’s Animal Farm, they are no longer a choir but a chorus chanting the same doha or couplet: “Hindus good, Muslims bad. Government good, opponents bad.”
The second thing that the Bulli Bai arrests alert us to is that the last line of the couplet is the punch line — the first is only a means towards this end. The anti-Muslim agenda is the most potent weapon in the electoral armoury of the current regime, the rath or chariot that has brought it to power. Its pitch and intensity can be adjusted according to need. But the new — and increasingly, the only — benchmark for our institutions is the government line on any issue. They are behaving as though their highest duty is to obey the stated and even the unstated wishes of the ruling regime rather than the Constitution or their own charters.
But the third indication provided by this episode is the most crucial. The Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai apps are part of a large and ever-growing list of hate crimes that are the spontaneous initiatives of ordinary people. What we are witnessing is nothing less than the successful culmination of a nearly century-long campaign of empowerment. It is only habit that makes us think that this word should be reserved for politically correct things, like the empowerment of women. Whatever else they are or are not, Vishal, Shweta, Mayank and Neeraj are certainly shining examples of empowered youth. They are living evidence of the success of the larger campaign that has shaped the environment in which they came of age, and bequeathed to them the fantasies that they have felt emboldened to enact in real life.
Since it began in the 1920s, the larger Hindutva project of the Sangh Parivar founded on hatred for Muslims (and others) had only been battery-powered, so to speak, requiring the dedicated labour of anonymous activists to keep the batteries charged. The Modi-Shah regime has plugged this project into the power of the state. Today’s spontaneous hate crimes are the bitter harvest of fields cultivated laboriously for a century and fertilised with state power since 2014.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 14, 2022 under the title ‘A social line of control’. The writer teaches at Delhi University. Views expressed are personal