Violent religious-nationalist cult targets India’s minorities on Facebook

Hindu Janjagruti Samiti and Sanatan Sanstha continue to stoke sectarian tensions using Facebook pages and groups

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@DFRLab
Jun 10 · 7 min read
(Source: @oddbench)

By Ayushman Kaul

Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS), a subsidiary of the Sanatan Sanstha (SS), a violent and right-wing religious-nationalist cult based in India but operating internationally, developed a network on Facebook comprised of at least 46 pages and 75 groups to promote hostile narratives targeting the country’s religious minority populations. Leveraging a potential reach of as many as 9.8 million Facebook users, the organization has published written posts, professionally edited graphics, and video clippings from right-wing and state-affiliated media outlets to demonize India’s religious minorities and stoke fear and misperception among India’s majority Hindu community.

While 35 of the 46 page have been removed from the platform, all 75 groups remain active at the time of publishing.

Who are HJS and SS?

In March 2020, the DFRLab highlighted a network of right-wing pages on Facebook that sought to leverage disparate incidents of sexual violence around the country as a means of stoking sectarian tensions between the Hindu, Christian, and Muslim communities in India. Further scrutiny of the same network revealed that the pages identified in the previous investigation formed part of a larger network of regionally focused Facebook pages and linked Facebook groups used by HJS and SS to broadcast hostile narratives demonizing the country’s religious minorities.

The two groups have been the subject of numerous investigations by state and local police services in the country for their suspected involvement in a series of domestic terror attacks from 2007 through 2009, as well as the targeted killings of prominent intellectuals and journalists, including Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh between 2013 and 2015. In December 2018, the Times of India reported on Karnataka’s Anti-Terrorism Squad indictment of 12 members belonging to both groups for their involvement in another attempted attack targeting the Sunburn electronic musical festival held in Pune the same year.

In December 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that HJS were named alongside SS, Sri Ram Sena, and the Bajrang Dal, as right-wing groups being investigated by Facebook for potentially violating the platform’s policy on Dangerous Individuals and Organizations. The same article revealed how the company’s human rights staff had internally designated India a “Tier One” country, meaning it was at the highest risk of societal violence, necessitating heightened efforts to protect vulnerable populations on the platform.

According to a press release issued in the Sanatan Prabhat, a newsletter published by the SS on its website, the group claimed that on September 4, 2020, Facebook took action against four of its pages as part of the platform’s attempts to ban those “engaged in terrorism and organized criminal activity” alongside “groups containing content that expresses support for these organizations, leaders and their violent activities.”

Screenshot of a press release uploaded on the Sanatan Sanstha website in response to Facebook’s takedown of four pages controlled by the organization. (Source: Sanatanprabhat/archive)

Despite these efforts at moderation by Facebook’s security team, at the time of this analysis, SS continues to leverage its access to its HJS affiliates network on Facebook as a means of broadcasting its extremist ideology to a large audience of Indian users across the country.

Facebook pages

HJS uses its network of pages to cherry-pick incidents of violent or sexual crime allegedly involving members of the country’s minority religious communities. The DFRLab’s previous investigation highlighted this dissemination strategy across the three largest pages in the network: Hindu Adhiveshan, HJS-Hindi, and Forum for Hindu Awakening.

Examples of various Facebook pages that formed part of the HJS network on the platform. (Source: HinduAdiveshan/archive, top left; HJSHindi/archive, top right; ForumforHinduAwakening/archive, bottom left; HJSBengaluru, bottom right)

On multiple occasions, the same content was posted across several of the pages within minutes, suggesting coordination between the page operators.

Examples of identical posts cherry-picking incidents of sexual violence to stoke communal tensions. (Source: HinduAdhiveshan/archive, left; ForumforHinduAwakening/archive, center left; HJSSangli/archive, center right; HJS Gujrat/archive, right)

HJS also uses the network to amplify right-wing social causes and public and online events conducted by the organization. These events are often centered around providing a right-wing interpretation of ongoing political developments and protest movements in the country. The invited keynote speakers usually include members of the SS, local BJP politicians, and right-wing media personalities.

Examples of various events held by the HJS. (Source: HinduAdhiveshan/archive, left; HJSSangli/archive, center; HJSKeralam/archive, right)

In particular, Kapil Mishra, a BJP member of the legislative assembly (MLA) from New Delhi, appeared as a keynote speaker at multiple events organized by HJS and broadcast via their Facebook network. The politician also recorded a promotional video for an All-India Social Media Conclave on Hindu Rashtra organized by HJS on June 2, 2019.

Promotional video made by a local politician for the “social media conclave” organized by HJS. (Source: ForumforHinduAwakening/archive)

Finally, the network of Facebook pages is also used to broadcast joint events held by the HJS and SS. Multiple posts on pages overtly tied to the HJS and amplified across the wider network utilize graphics sourced from the SS. These posts also amplify links to SS-run pages, helping the right-wing extremist cult continue to broadcast its teachings to millions of users, and evade efforts at moderation from the platform.

Examples of HJS using its network of pages to amplify content, events, and other online content associated with the SS. (Source: HinduAdhiveshan/archive, left; HJSBengaluru/archive, center left; HinduAdhiveshan/archive, center right; HinduAdhiveshan/archive, right)

Facebook groups

In contrast to the HJS-controlled Facebook pages, which were focused on the organization’s various regional chapters across the country, the network of linked groups is dedicated to a diverse variety of right-wing social, political, religious, and cultural causes. The network includes fan pages for local religious figures, pro-BJP fan groups, groups promoting the RSS, as well as other interest groups dedicated to promoting a Hindutva political ideology and establishing a Hindu Rashtra.

Examples of Facebook groups dedicated to BJP politicians alongside a variety of other right-wing social causes. (Source: NaMoFor2024/archive, top left; हिंदू राष्ट्र/archive, top right; JagoHinduSolapur/archive, bottom left; MahakalDailyDarshan/archive, bottom right)

Moreover, the linked groups are replete with abusive posts that incorporate graphic imagery, racial slurs, misogynistic language, and other types of abusive content. These posts often target religious minorities and public figures in domestic media and politics who are publicly critical of right-wing politics in India.

Examples of various posts posted to the “Discussion” page of the linked groups using racial slurs and misogynistic language to target religious minorities and public figures critical of right-wing politics. (Source: हिन्दु राष्ट्र/archive, left; హైందవశక్తి (Add అవగానే 100 మందిని invite చేయండి)/archive, center left; हिन्दू एकता/archive, center right; हिन्दु राष्ट्र/archive, right)

Despite representing a diverse variety of right-wing religious, cultural, and political causes, these groups do not hide their affiliation with HJS and SS, with posts from their pages consistently amplified by a small group of user accounts across the various Facebook groups.

Examples of posts, events, and graphics associated with HJS and SS disseminated through the network of linked Facebook groups. (Source: नृसिंहवाडी-कारंजा-गाणगापूर/archive, left; राम नाम के हीरे मोती/archive, center left; अशक्य ही शक्य करतील स्वामी/archive, center right; श्री दत्त भक्त मंडळी/archive, right)

At the time of publishing, 35 of the 46 pages have been suspended by Facebook, while all 75 groups remain active. The DFRLab has reached out to Facebook for comment.

Proponents of the right-wing extremist Hindutva ideology in India have built a large following on Facebook by stoking communal tensions online and attacking their political opponents using racial and ethnic slurs. These ideologies have not been completely relegated to the political fringes in India; on the contrary, some officeholders in the current BJP ruling government have co-opted and legitimized some of their sectarian messaging, often for political gain.

Ayushman Kaul is a Research Assistant, South Asia, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Cite this case study:

Ayushman Kaul, “Violent Hindu nationalist cult targets Indian minorities on Facebook,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), June 8, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/violent-hindu-nationalist-cult-targets-indian-minorities-on-facebook-b6be61bd5084.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

@DFRLab

Written by

@DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.

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