118 days since… still no justice for those targeted by the “Sulli Deals” incident.


tl;dr

On July 4, 2021, the news first broke about the “Sulli Deals” incident, in which Muslim women were specifically targeted due to their gender and religious identity. However, after much furore and backlash, there is still no end in sight for them. We wrote to the Delhi Police asking them to expeditiously investigate the incident to provide closure and support to those targeted.

What happened?

On July 4, 2021, multiple Twitter accounts posted the screengrab from an application hosted on GitHub titled, “Sulli Deals”. The application shared the photographs and social media handles of more than 80 women belonging to the Muslim community in India. The application showcased the information of the women in a way that the user could “claim a sulli” - the latter term is a derogatory term used by right-wing trolls in India for Muslim women, as the “deal of the day”. The aim of the application was to objectify and demean the targeted women by allowing them to be auctioned for sale to the users of the application.

However, even after 118 days since the incident, no arrests have been made. Below is a timeline of events related to the incident.

Date

Particular

4.07.2021

Multiple twitter accounts posted the screengrab from an application hosted on GitHub titled, “Sulli Deals”. The application shared the photographs and social media handles of more than 80 women belonging to the Muslim community in India without their consent to purportedly “auction” them off.

05.07.2021

Erica Brescia, COO at GitHub, confirmed on Twitter that the app has been removed. However, no formal statement has been issued.


06.07.2021

One of the targeted women, Pilot Hana Khan filed a FIR with the Delhi Police under S. 509 of the IPC which relates to acts intended to insult the modesty of a woman and S. 66 & 67 of the Information Technology Act. 

08.07.2021

  1. National Commission for Women (NCW) has taken suo-moto cognisance of a media report "about now a defunct website 'Sulli Deals', which had posted pictures of Muslim women and had put it up for auction". NCW asked the Delhi Police to file FIRs "so that perpetrators be punished".

  2. Delhi Commission for Women also issued notice to the Delhi Police on the incident and asked for a detailed action taken report.

  3. Delhi Police registered FIR in ‘Sulli deals’ case u/s 354A, sends notice to website host GitHub.

  4. According to an update posted on Twitter, there is a new domain that has been registered, but not yet hosted, on GoDaddy.com titled, “sullidealing.co.in”.

  5. GitHub spokesperson told HT that, “GitHub has longstanding policies against content and conduct involving harassment, discrimination, and inciting violence. We suspended user accounts following the investigation of reports of such activity, all of which violate our policies.”


16.07.2021

  1. IFF sends Representation to GoDaddy.com.

  2. 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.

17.07.2021

IFF sends representation to both NCW and DCW.

26.07.2021

DCW wrote a second letter 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: 

  1. Whether any accused had been identified and arrested yet. 

  2. The details of the steps taken by the police to identify and arrest the accused in the case of non-arrest. 

  3. Detailed action report on the matter and current status of the investigation.

28.07.2021

Delhi Police 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. 

19.08.2021

Police sources said that a notice under the Criminal Procedure Code was issued to GitHub to share the details of the IP address of the web page where photographs of Muslim women were shared, but the company has responded by asking the enforcement agency to take the legal route to approach them under Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT).

Our concerns

The lack of progress made in the “Sulli Deals” incident signals a worrying trend for women and minorities in India who wish to safely access the internet. Social media platforms are the town halls of our modern times. Yet, the persistent incidents of sexual harassment have made these platforms highly unsafe and toxic for women, ultimately leading them to disengage from social media altogether after facing harassment.

According to a study conducted by Plan International, one in every five young women have opted out of social media after being targeted or harassed. The abuses are further aggravated in cases of women who voice their opinions as well as those women who belong to minority communities on social media platforms and in turn, dissuade them from expressing themselves without any fear or inhibitions. Here, it is also important to note that some female journalists, who face constant harassment due to their gender and religion, were also targeted. This squarely violates the women’s right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution.

In addition to the lack of progress, we feel that the Delhi Police has failed to adequately address the nature of the crime in the current incident. The application categorically targeted women belonging to the Muslim community and therefore, this is not only an act of gender based harassment but also an instance of targeting on the basis of religion. The application targeted these women specifically because of their religious identity as the aim of the application was not just to sexually harass women but to also demean Muslim women and their community by objectifying them and reducing them to “auction items”.

This is evident from the fact that the application title itself contains a derogatory slang term used to denote Muslim women specifically and not just women in general. Therefore, we are of the view that while the provisions related to sexual harassment, insult to the modesty of a woman and publication of obscene information are relevant here, this investigation is incomplete unless and until the Delhi Police as well as the NCW & the DCW take cognisance of the fact that this incident was religiously motivated.

Our recommendations

Despite it being more than 110 days since the incident and two First Information Reports (FIR) being lodged, no arrests have been made which have been revealed publicly. There are no clear reasons which can explain this lack of progress by the Delhi Police in this matter. In light of this, we made the following recommendations to the Delhi Police:

  1. Please make publicly available a progress report of the investigation so far which would include steps being taken pursuant to the FIRs which have been filed.
  2. Please comply with Github’s policies on information sharing to access the information necessary for the investigation.

IFF will continue to consistently follow up on the progress made by the authorities on this incident till justice is done towards those who have been targeted. Ensuring safe access to the internet is essential and we strongly believe that such targeted harassment needs to be dealt with expeditiously.

Important documents

  1. Letter to Delhi Police on Sulli Deals incident dated October 29, 2021 (link)
  2. Reply to RTI request filed with the National Commission for Women dated August 27, 2021 (link)