Some 100 Muslim women in India had a disastrous start to 2022 when they woke up on January 1 to find that they were being auctioned online. To their horror, they found that someone or some people had stolen their images from their social media profiles and placed them for sale alongside nasty comments about them on an app called Bulli Bai.

Considered an insult to women across India – apparently ‘bulli’ refers to the penis in southern Indian languages, while in north India, ‘bulli bai’ is an innuendo for housemaid – the brazen attempt to degrade and dehumanise women triggered public outrage. Everyone was shocked. But few were surprised.

For that matter, Bulli Bai wasn’t the first attempt made to harass and humiliate women in India. Some six months ago, another app surfaced similarly suggesting that women were up for sale. The women were branded as Sulli Deals – ‘sulli’ being an insulting term regularly used by trolls to insult Muslim women.

Though separated by months, the two episodes had uncanny similarities. The victims in both cases were Muslims, who also were known to have an opinion of their own. Like then, Bulli Bai targeted journalists, opposition politicians, activists, and even the mother of a student mysteriously missing for years from a university that Hindu right-wing organisations view with suspicion as a hotbed of left-liberal ideas and have attacked physically.

Though no real auction took place, the online vilification smacked of brazen audacity by the people behind it, encouraged by the lack of response from the establishment bordering on tacit complicity. When the women complained last time against Sulli Deals, the Delhi police – under direct control of the Indian central government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – barely took any action. No suspects were questioned and no arrests were made. This time though, the women have had some better luck. They lodged a complaint with the Mumbai police, which swung into action and took several teenagers into custody within days.

Politics perhaps played a role behind the police’s proactive approach this time round. Mumbai falls with the Maharashtra state, which is governed by a coalition of political parties ranged against Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the police therefore were relatively freer to act.

But there is little guarantee that administrations elsewhere in the country would as swiftly come to the aid of Muslims who have been the target of a broader campaign of intimidation, particularly since 2014 when Modi’s BJP stormed to power.

Spurred by its nationalist agenda, the party has been pushing for the dominance of Hindus in a country where minorities make up some 20 percent of its 1.3 billion population. The upshot has been a carefully crafted climate of hatred that has been whipped up against the minorities.

Muslims, in particular, have had to pay a heavy price in recent years. Scores have been lynched on suspicion of smuggling cows or possessing beef by Hindu vigilantes who consider the animal holy.

At times, the campaign against Muslims takes subtle and insidious forms. The whole community was demonised during the first wave of the Covid pandemic when dozens of Muslims belonging to the Tablighi Jamaat group — the largest Islamic missionary movement — turned out to be afflicted by the virus. Many accused the Muslims of carrying out ‘Corona Jihad’.

More recently, a popular television anchor accused the Muslims of conducting a ‘Thook Jihad’. Thook is spitting in Hindi and the anchor argued on live television that members of the Muslim community were spitting into everything – from breads to fruits and vegetables – to spread harmful viruses among an unsuspecting Indian population.

The anchor has got away lightly with his outlandish claim. He is still in his job, allowing the sense of impunity enjoyed by supporters of Hindu nationalism to further grow.

Emboldening them are top elected officials. Muslim Friday prayers at designated open spaces have been disrupted by Hindu mobs for months in Gurgaon, next to Delhi. But instead of upholding the law, the region’s top elected official – the chief minister of Haryana state – has come out in support of the disruptors. He has gone on the record saying his administration wouldn’t allow prayers in public places.

Elected officials brazenly taking sides are plenty. Take, for example, the case of Narottam Mishra, the home minister of BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh state. When a mob vandalised the set of under production web series that they felt denigrated the Hindu community some months ago, Mishra reportedly hailed them as patriots.

With leaders talking in such provocative language, foot soldiers of Hindu nationalism feel adequately empowered to do what they deem right – including their attempt to demean Muslims by ‘auctioning’ their women.

They aren’t content with just attacking Muslims – just look at the way they mercilessly beat up an autorickshaw driver in Kanpur of Uttar Pradesh, even while his young daughter begged them to spare him. Or, the manner they assaulted a Muslim bangle seller for daring to sell his wares in a Hindu neighbourhood of Indore.

Evidence is in abundance that India is indeed passing through twisted times. For that matter, it was the bangle seller and not his assailants who spent time in jail, based on the accusations of some of his attackers.

And in the town of Anand in Gujarat – the state Modi hails from – residents came out to protest in their hundreds against the inauguration of a hotel part-owned by two Muslims.

In a country as large as India, examples of such bigotry may not necessarily seem too common. But they are substantial enough to show that Muslims are struggling to keep their space in a country whose vaunted principle of secularism is rapidly fraying.

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