Dehradun/Bengaluru: Shweta Singh, the 18-year-old Uttarakhand woman who was arrested by the Mumbai Police Tuesday for her alleged association with the Bulli Bai app, has been described as a “Hindu fanatic” who was highly active on social media. Uttarakhand Police officers said she was distressed and became more passionate about religion after the death of her father due to Covid-19 in May 2021.
Police said Shweta was also angry about the reported violence that followed the 2021 assembly polls in West Bengal, and the return of the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government in the state.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior police officer told ThePrint, “According to her siblings, she was unhappy with the violence in West Bengal after the 2021 assembly elections. This added to the distress she was facing because of her father’s death. Both incidents happened simultaneously.”
She is one of three people arrested thus far in relation to the app, which targeted dozens of Muslim women by uploading doctored photographs and listing them for ‘auction’. According to police, most of the Bulli Bai app’s photographs went viral after being shared through Shweta’s Twitter handle.
Another one of the accused, 21-year-old engineering student Vishal Kumar Jha, was picked up from class at his Bengaluru college Monday and formally arrested Tuesday. According to a professor, Jha was an unexceptional student, apart from his low attendance, and not a troublemaker.
Five or six months ago, Shweta got in touch with Jha, who she called bhaiyya (elder brother), and her social media activity increased, said the police.
Another student, 20-year-old Mayank Rawat, was arrested in Uttarakhand late Tuesday night. With the investigation ongoing, a case has also been registered against the Bulli Bai app’s unidentified developers, and police said more people could be involved.
‘Emotionally drained after her father’s death’
According to police sources, Shweta’s family had moved to Rudrapur from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh nearly 15 years ago. Her mother, they said, had died of cancer in 2011. She lived with her two sisters and a brother. One sister is older than her and is doing her undergraduate studies, while the other is in Class 10 and the brother is in Class 8.
“It’s difficult to share all, but she confided that she had been emotionally ‘drained’ after the death of her father, Anand Singh, in May 2021 during the second wave of Covid-19,” said Udham Singh Nagar City Superintendent of Police (SP) Mamta Bora.
“She was left stranded, having minimal means of sustenance with two sisters and a brother at home,” added Bora.
Police said that the family now had no means of sustenance other than monthly payments of Rs 3,000 to each of them under the state government-sponsored Vatsalya Yojana for children orphaned by Covid, and around Rs 5,000-10,000 that they received monthly from a private firm where their father had worked.
Shweta completed her higher secondary education at Rainbow Public School, Rudrapur, last year, and was studying for her higher education entrance examinations. She already had a passion for sharing pro-Hindutva posts and materials via social media accounts including Facebook and Instagram, but pursued this more aggressively after losing her father and making contact with Jha, according to the police.
“She admitted to having come in touch with Jha, arrested by Mumbai Police, five-six months ago, and took to social media sharing of pro-Hindu posts more vigorously after that,” said Bora, adding that her social media activity was in line with that of “Hindu fanatics”.
Account shared with ‘Nepal-origin man’, modus operandi
Bora said “most of the photographs that went viral in the Bulli Bai app were shared and posted through the arrested girl’s Twitter handle”. “This was the main cause of her arrest by the Mumbai police,” Bora added.
However, the SP said although Shweta had admitted her passion for sharing pro-Hindutva posts through her Facebook and other accounts, she denied that she had actively used her Twitter handle to make these pictures go viral with hate comments.
“She has admitted to vigorously exploiting social media accounts for promoting and sharing her religious feelings and beliefs. But the girl claimed her Twitter account, @jatkhalsa07, was misused by someone with whom she had shared her login ID and password. Her Twitter handle was used to make such pictures viral, but that’s being investigated and has to be verified by the Mumbai Police,” said Bora.
Bora further told ThePrint that the woman had shared her Twitter ID and password with another person in order to keep it alive, as it was being suspended frequently. “The girl was constantly in contact with this Nepal-origin man who had promised her that he would ensure that her Twitter account would remain untraced even if she was trolled for her comments.”
When asked about the current status of Shweta’s social media accounts, Bora said that it was being investigated by Mumbai Police, and only they could throw light on it. “We did not interrogate her on these lines as it was under the Mumbai Police’s jurisdiction. It’s difficult to comment on that. The arrest was made by the Mumbai Police. We provided only support to them,” she said.
According to the police, Shweta also admitted that she was in touch with Jha through various platforms including WhatsApp and the Bulli Bai app itself, the point of origin of the viral pictures.
Police also claimed that Shweta’s modus operandi was to be in contact with like-minded people and propagate hate comments against those they disliked. This helped her fulfil her desire to remain active and popular on social media, they said.
Meanwhile, a Mumbai Police team that was given transit remand of Shweta Tuesday evening was still waiting to take her to Mumbai from Uttarakhand. They had not yet got a policewoman to accompany them, as is required.
‘Cautious’ Jha was picked up from class at Bengaluru college
Other than his low attendance, professors at a renowned engineering college in South Bengaluru saw nothing odd about Vishal Jha, a third-semester engineering student.
Speaking to ThePrint Wednesday, a senior professor who teaches in Jha’s branch of civil engineering at the college said he was just an average student.
“He was in class when officials requested to take him out for a conversation. He was very cautious when he was asked to go with them. It was only later that they informed us that they needed to detain him, and of the charges against him. We cooperated with the police,” the professor said.
The only time the college has had to contact Jha’s parents since class began in October was when his attendance dropped below 60 per cent. “College mentors called his parents and warned that he would be detained in the third semester if he didn’t buck up. But in class, he wasn’t a troublemaker. He was just like any other student,” added the professor.
Jha had chosen civil engineering only this year and was yet to take any exams or tests.
Jha stayed in private accommodation near the college in South Bengaluru and his activities outside college, the professor said, were not under their control or purview. The college has also decided to wait until investigations are complete to decide on whether any action needs to be taken against the accused student.
“This is a very young student who has his entire life before him. Let the police investigate and find out if he really had a role to play and to what extent. Until then, let us not judge whether or not he is guilty. As a college, we need to show concern for our student’s career too. He is very young,” the professor added.
The ‘other Uttarakhand connection’
As for the third accused, Uttarakhand Police said Mayank Rawat is a student of Zakir Husain Delhi College.
According to Uttarakhand Police personnel, a team of two Mumbai Police sub-inspectors reached Kotdwar town of Pauri district, 115 kilometres from Dehradun, late Tuesday late night and arrested Rawat from his home around 2 am.
He was at home with his mother and younger brother at the time, Kotdwar Police said. His father, serving Army subedar Pradeep Rawat, is currently posted in Jammu and Kashmir, they added.
“A team of two Maharashtra Police sub-inspectors came late Tuesday night, seeking help to arrest Mayank. We provided all the support they asked for and a joint team of local and Maharashtra police arrested Rawat from his home,” said Jagmohan Ramola, station officer at the Kotdwar police station.
Ramola denied Mayank was interrogated by Kotdwar police and said the Mumbai police personnel “already had the details of his social media activities”.
“They began their work immediately after taking him into custody. We were in a mere supporting role,” he said.
Police said Rawat shared six to seven links pertaining to images on Bulli Bai through his Twitter timeline.
Pauri Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Yashwant Singh told ThePrint that Rawat didn’t appear to be “a bigot kind or a habitual social media hate writer”.
“A WhatsApp chat contact of the arrested youth shared with him around six to seven links of the said app. He was asked by the contact to share the links to his Twitter timeline and he followed. He doesn’t seem to have any zealot bent,” he added.
“On the contrary, he is apparently a bright student pursuing his BSc Honours from Zakir Husain College Delhi.”
Singh said Mumbai Police will take him to the Maharashtra capital for further investigation as a local court has granted the transit remand.
He said Rawat and Shweta will both be taken to Mumbai together Wednesday night. The SSP, however, denied any link between Rawat and Shweta Singh.
This report has been updated with details about the third suspect, Mayank Rawat. An earlier version of the report erroneously referred to him as Mayank “Rawal”.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)