Bhubaneswar/Salem: Linkan Subudhi was on cloud nine on the morning of 29 May, before her political career nosedived.

It was the day after the state-level conference of the Biju Janata Dal’s (BJD) youth wing at Bhubaneswar. As a general secretary of the wing, she had worked hard to launch a campaign to enrol 20 lakh members. Chief minister Naveen Patnaik had inaugurated the drive and her efforts were well appreciated.

So when Saroj Behera, a reporter from Zee Kalinga, called her up around 10am, Subudhi was quite cheerful.

“Linkan ma’am, I have seen a picture of you on a website." It was an ad for escort services.

“What is this website?" she asked.

Behera told her that it was in the personal section of a classifieds website Locanto.

The post was featured in the category “Women Looking for Men - Balianta." Balianta is a suburb lying east of Bhubaneswar.

The post title summarised a few intimate massage services provided by a 22-year-old “Sex Girl Reema." Below it was a picture of Subudhi, wearing a pink cardigan, with her face turned to the camera. An innocuous picture, one that could have been used as a profile photo.

Below the photo was a message that identifies her as Reema, 22 years. (Subudhi is 33 years old). It’s followed by a sexually-explicit list of massage services. An appeal to call ‘Reema’ follows—with a mobile phone number.

Subudhi suspected that her quick rise in the party was the reason behind the post.

In 2013, Subudhi rose to fame when she nearly died trying to prevent a child marriage in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. She had received a call from a girl she had taught while volunteering in a slum. She wanted to be rescued from her wedding.

The girl’s mother and the groom had attacked Subudhi with sticks and knives when she reached the slum. The police rescued the girl and Subudhi ended with some 30 stitches to her head.

The law provides redress to victims under the Information Technology Act, 2000, and the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Some amendments were also added to the IPC after the 2012 Delhi gang rape.

She moved back to her home state Odisha where she would become a household name. Chief minister Patnaik presented to her the Biju Patnaik bravery award, the first in several years, and BJD gave her a ticket in the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation elections. She lost the election, though.

“In a very short period, I am at a level which would take most people a decade," Subudhi says.

There was one clue left behind on the Locanto post: the phone number. When Behera checked the number on Truecaller—a phone app that lets you look up names from numbers—it revealed a name: Surya.

Neither Subudhi nor Behera knew who this person was.

Subudhi called Namrata Chadha, her mentor and a child rights activist, and they visited Satyabrata Bhoi, the deputy commissioner of police (DCP) Bhubaneswar.

Within three-four minutes, the DCP had a lead. He showed the Facebook profile of a man to Subudhi and said he might be the culprit.

She lodged a first information report (FIR) and addressed an email with screenshots to the DCP.

Later, Subudhi met the local inspector and he sent an email by 6pm to Locanto to remove the post and share IP details with them (Locanto did not respond to an email for comment).

By then, Behera had telecast the story on Zee Kalinga and the story shot to the top of the Odia news cycle.

******

Subudhi’s story is not unique, but an example of a growing new wave of online harassment—against women, almost always—in India as millions get online every month.

Harassers seek to harm or take revenge for personal or professional reasons and use Facebook, Twitter or lesser-known sites such as Locanto and GigoloList. They scrape photographs from social media and morph photos. In some cases, phone numbers or emails are also put up.

A. Nagarathna, who heads the Advanced Centre for Research, Development and Training in Cyber Laws and Forensics at the National Law School of India University Bangalore, says many victims attempt to get police officers or employ lawyers to write to these sites.

But there’s no legal force to these requests. “The effectiveness of these methods is completely dependent on how benevolent the website is feeling," says Nagarathna.

A few websites have laid out community standards and users can flag offensive content.

FactorDaily reached out to Facebook to understand how it handles complaints.

Once Facebook receives a complaint, the community operations team reviews that content. “Our global team reviews these reports rapidly and will remove the content if there is a violation," a spokesperson from Facebook says.

It claims that reports are reviewed 24 hours, seven days a week.

Facebook says it has real people looking at reported content in more than 40 languages across the world. This includes more than 10 in India. “These include native language speakers because we know that it often takes a native speaker to understand the true meaning of words and the context by which they are shared," the spokesperson says.

But language issues still persist. A police officer from Tamil Nadu, who works on cybercrime cases, cited several instances when offensive content in Tamil was not taken down soon enough.

Facebook has also begun using automation to enforce some of these standards. “After someone reviews and removes a photo or video for nudity or pornography, this system may remove the same photo or video if it surfaces in other places," the spokesperson adds. It also has new features to prevent people from misusing profile photos.

Big technology companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter have realized that they need to tackle these issues head-on.

Taking the legal route is another option, for sure.

The law provides redress to victims under the Information Technology Act, 2000, and the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Some amendments were also added to the IPC after the 2012 Delhi gang rape.

While it’s hard to come by granular data on these crimes, the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report this year shows 957 cases filed for publication or transmission of obscene or sexually explicit content.

This is the second largest category of cybercrimes, much higher than other categories such as cyberterrorism or banking fraud.

NCRB also categorizes cybercrimes based on motives. In 2016, 686 cases were filed under the category of insult to modesty of women, while another 569 cases were filed for sexual exploitation.

Though these laws are comprehensive, very few victims have received relief. NCRB data shows that only 12 people were convicted in 2016 for publication or transmission of obscene or sexually explicit content.

One reason is that you have to get a court order that directs websites to remove this content. This procedure is time-consuming.

Cumbersome procedures make things further difficult.

If the server is located outside India, it becomes a complicated task to collect evidence. The Code of Criminal Procedure requires the investigating officer to write to a local magistrate. The magistrate, in turn, sends the request to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Many victims of online harassment attempt to get police officers or employ lawyers to write to sites that are used to harass them. But there’s no legal force to such requests.

CBI scrutinizes the application. Nagarathna says CBI rejects a lot of cases at the vetting stage. “Unless they feel it is a very sensitive and serious case, they won’t forward the request," she says.

After being vetted, a copy is marked to the ministries of external affairs and home affairs. The ministries then forwards it to the diplomats of the country where the server is located.

Once the request reaches the host country, it has to be processed through a similar stack in reverse: justice department, a local magistrate, local police, and then the company that hosts the server.

The process takes months: sometimes six, sometimes 12. Nagarathna says cybercrime investigations follow procedures designed for conventional crimes such as murder. “Here, you have a crime committed in seconds. But, you’re still following a procedure which is so time-consuming."

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In Elampillai village on the outskirts of Salem, Tamil Nadu, all these issues tragically came to a head in the summer of 2016. Manjula Annadurai gets no sleep these days, often crying through the night, while her husband Annadurai is lost in his thoughts. Their only daughter, Vinupriya, killed herself on 27 June last year. She was 20.

The story of Vinupriya’s suicide begins on the night of June 22 in 2016. Annadurai received a call from his nephew, Sathish Kumar, to ask if Vinupriya had a Facebook profile. Vinupriya said she did not.

Annadurai and Manjula, parents of Vinupriya who committed suicide after she was harassed online. Photo: Shamsheer Yousaf/FactorDaily
Annadurai and Manjula, parents of Vinupriya who committed suicide after she was harassed online. Photo: Shamsheer Yousaf/FactorDaily

Sathish came to his house and showed them a Facebook profile in Vinupriya’s name. It featured a photo of her in a bikini.

“It was a morphed photo," explains Annadurai, who weaves saris. “I was using Vinupriya’s photo as my WhatsApp profile picture. Somebody took that photo and morphed her face onto a photo of a scantily clad woman."

The Facebook page also mentioned a phone number. It was the same number that Annadurai used for WhatsApp.

“We started getting calls late into the night," says Manjula. “We didn’t sleep for five nights. The impact was visible on my daughter. She started shrivelling up."

Annadurai liked to pamper Vinupriya. For a family function, Annadurai took her to Salem for sari shopping. It took two days for her to find the perfect pink half sari.

When the morphed photos surfaced last year, Annadurai acted to get the post taken down immediately.

He visited the superintendent of police (SP) at Salem the next day. He referred him to the deputy SP’s office in the adjacent town of Sankari.

The DSP, in turn, sent him to the local police station at Magudanchavadi. Over there, the local inspector asked him to approach the cybercrime police station in Salem—right next to the SP’s office where Annadurai had started off.

At the cybercrime station, the officer told him taking down the profile would take 15-20 days. They said the server was in Ireland. They also asked for a mobile phone in bribe so that they could communicate with Facebook. “They said without the mobile phone, blocking the profile would take another 20 days," Annadurai recalls. He spent Rs2,000 on the mobile phone and paid Rs300 as bribe.

Meanwhile, the local police at Magudanchavadi wanted to question Vinupriya. They asked her and Manjula to meet them next to a school.

Sitting in his car, the sub inspector asked if Vinupriya had given her photo to anybody. She said she hadn’t.

“The sub-inspector shouted, ‘You have given your photo to somebody. Tell me the truth’," says Manjula. They didn’t believe Vinupriya.

“He yelled, ‘If you make me get down from the car, I’ll knock out your teeth’," adds Manjula.

“His way of questioning was humiliating and torturous. And my daughter took it all to her heart," Annadurai says.

Meanwhile, the late night calls continued.

On June 27, Manjula and Annadurai were on the way to the police station when they received calls from a neighbour: first, Vinupriya wasn’t answering the door; next, that she was being taken to the general hospital in Salem. It was a dead-on-arrival case.

Manjula and Annadurai refused to accept their daughter’s body or let the hospital conduct a post-mortem until the police caught the culprit. They protested in front of the hospital.

They (the police) said without the mobile phone, blocking the profile would take another 20 days- Manjula Annadurai, who had approached the police to seek help in taking down a fake Facebook profile in his daughter Vinupriya’s name. Annadurai would spend Rs2,000 on the phone and pay Rs300 in bribe.

The police sprang to action. They got the Facebook page pulled down the same day. They received the IP address from Facebook the next day.

A day later, they arrested Suresh, a textile worker from a village 2km from Vinupriya’s house. They charged him with uploading obscene content and abetment to suicide. The cop who had asked for a bribe was suspended.

The family accepted her body after the accused was arrested. He was released on bail soon after.

“I lost my Vinupriya. There might be another Vinupriya, or a Mythili or any other girl elsewhere. Somebody can do this to them, right?" asks Annadurai.

This is why he wants the culprit to be punished severely. “Soon," he adds, clutching a picture of Vinupriya in her pink half sari, which he burnt on Vinupriya’s pyre.

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The 2015 judgement in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India has changed the landscape on dealing with online harassment.

Earlier, under Section 79A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, intermediaries had to take down offensive content within 36 hours of notice once notified by an affected individual.

Now, they are compelled to remove content only after either a court order or a government order.

Since this judgement, there has been a significant drop in blocking content.

As per Facebook’s government requests report, the website restricted access to 15,155 pieces of content in January-June 2015 and 14,971 pieces in July-December 2015. Following the judgement, during January-June 2016, this number dropped to 2,034. It fell even further to 719 during July-December 2016.

Unlike Vinupriya, Subudhi received great support from the police from the beginning. Until the politicians began meddling in the case.

Besides Subudhi, FactorDaily has spoken to Chadha, Subudhi’s mentor and child rights activist, who corroborated the account. FactorDaily has also reviewed emails and SMS messages which Subudhi sent regularly to update Bhoi, the Bhubaneshwar DCP.

The day after she filed the FIR, Subudhi was travelling to Puri, when she got a call from a party colleague. He wanted to meet her urgently and pleaded with her to come to his office.

Once she reached there, he handed over his phone to Subudhi. It was a call from a former minister from her party. Subudhi says he began talking about a nephew of his.

Unlike Vinupriya, Subudhi received great support from the police from the beginning. Until the politicians began meddling in the case.

Initially, Subudhi was confused. She asked him who was he talking about.

“Suryanarayan," he told her.

That’s when she realised that he was referring to the Surya that the DCP had shown a picture of. “I told him that I was unwilling to compromise," she says.

Local media has widely reported that “Surya" is the nephew of Sanjay Das Burma, a former state government minister. Subudhi also named him in a press conference on 3 June.

Burma has not responded to a request for comment from FactorDaily at the time of publishing.

Subudhi was unwilling to compromise but the pressure on her to drop the case continued with calls from many party workers and a girl, who claimed to be Surya’s sister.

With the calls persisting, Subudhi complained about the political pressure to Odisha’s State Commission for Women on 2 June and later in the day met chief minister Patnaik.

“The CM was friendly and sympathetic. He said he had spoken to the police and they were taking action. ‘Very soon you’ll get a response’," she says. Odia media widely reported the meeting.

During the meeting, she missed a few calls from the DCP. When she called back, the DCP said they had nabbed the culprit. The first thing that struck Subudhi odd on meeting the culprit was that this was not the person whose photo the DCP had shown her. This was Mithun Sahoo, not Surya.

“Do you know me?" asked Chadha, well known in Odisha as a social activist, who’d accompanied Subudhi.

Sahoo said yes.

When asked if he knew Subudhi, he said he didn’t.

Chadha began asking questions to Sahoo to catch him in a lie. “First, he says he knows nothing about this case. Then, on the police officials’ cue, he says, ‘Yes, I have confessed’," says Subudhi.

A clue about Sahoo knowing former minister Burma came out when Chadha asked him which party his family votes for. In the flow of conversation, Sahoo said he voted for Burma.

Subudhi asked him how he got her picture. He was unable to answer. “An officer in the room prodded him ‘Did you get it from the net? Did you get it from Google Search’," she recalls.

Yes, he said.

“Whatever they were feeding at that point, giving clues to him, he was answering that," says Subudhi.

After some time, Subudhi told Bhoi, “Sir, this is not the guy." A day later, she said as much at a press conference in Bhubaneswar. (Calls and messages FactorDaily sent to the DCP were not responded to.) Sahoo was out on bail on 29 June as the police had not submitted a report. Subudhi’s appeal in the Odisha high court is yet to be heard.

But, she insists she already sees some change. “In Odisha, more women are now coming forward to complain and file FIRs in similar cases," she says.

“That’s progress." FactorDaily

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