How to spot “Trads” online? This murky group of Hindutva fundamentalists wants to establish a Hindu Rashtra by visiting violence on Muslims and Dalits. They do not easily give away their presence.
But there are linguistic and visual cues that signal a social media account belongs to a “Trad”, a short form of “traditionalist”. While the group rejects the Indian Constitution as a Western construct, many of its symbols are imported from the West – the white supremacist Alt Right in the United States, to be precise.
For instance, Indian Trads will often post content featuring Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character originally created by Matt Furie in 2005. The once happy-go-lucky frog’s face quickly became an internet meme, morphing into more sinister forms as it was appropriated by the American Alt-Right.
Trads also share the US Alt Right’s penchant for hyper sexualised figures such as Chad Thundercock. Muscular, alpha male figures are used to depict Hindu gods as well as Brahmins, whom the Trads believe should reign supreme. Several accounts use such images as profile pictures.
In the US, the Alt Right came into the limelight after the attack on the Capitol in January 2021. White supremacists stormed the seat of government, convinced that the 2020 US elections had been “stolen” from former President Donald Trump.
In India, Trads shot to fame in January after six people were arrested for allegedly organising mock online auctions of Muslim women on an app called “Bulli Bai”. All six belonged to an online group calling itself the Trad Mahasabha. Apart from one 18-year-old woman, the others were young, upper caste, male. One of the main accused, 25-year-old Aumkareshwar Thakur, was also accused in designing a similar app, called “Sulli Deals”, last year.
Tracking the Trads
Plotting a Hindu Rashtra: Inside the hate-filled world of India’s Trads
After the Capitol Hill attack, both the US Congress and security agencies turned their attention to Alt Right networks. Federal law agencies issued statements where such networks were branded as a threat to the US homeland and the Congress discussed strategies to combat “domestic terror” and hate crimes.
In India, both the Delhi and the Mumbai Police that are investigating the Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai case say they are focusing on the individuals behind the hate crimes rather than larger networks of hate.
In Delhi, KPS Malhotra, deputy commissioner of police, intelligence fusion and strategic operations, is supervising both cases. “The main accused in both cases have been arrested,” he said. “Now if you talk of why and how it happened, those issues are not a part of this investigation.”
He added that the Special Branch tracked online hate.
A senior police official from the Delhi Police’s Special Branch, speaking off the record, said they had a social media centre that monitored “fake news”, misinformation, rumours and hate online. But he said they did not separately monitor hate against minorities.
If they did find objectionable content, he said, they referred it to the “the concerned local police, our seniors and if necessary IFSO [the intelligence fusion and strategic operations department headed by Malhotra]”.
He refused to comment on whether they had tracked the online networks surrounding the “Sulli Deals” and “Bulli Bai”.
What explains the institutional reluctance to tackle communal hate generated by Hindutva fundamentalists online?
Ishaana Aiyanna, who works as a senior analyst at Logically, a technology company that uses advanced artificial intelligence to tackle harmful misinformation, said unless the police investigated the narratives behind individual incidents, it would be hard to contextualise and prevent them in the future.
“It is befuddling to me why Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai had to happen,” she said. “I do not think law enforcement has the time to sensitise itself to the reasons behind it, their priority is to make an arrest on a matter.”
But there may also be a lack of institutional will when it comes to tracking Hindu fundamentalists in the virtual world. Devika Prasad, who has researched police reforms for decades, pointed to other cases where the police had gone soft on hate speech in the real world.
There was the Hindu Mahapanchayat held in Delhi in April, presided over by Hindutva supremacists Yati Narsignhanand and Suresh Chavhanke, where seething crowds were urged to take up arms against Muslims. In the aftermath of the incident, the Delhi Police initially told the Supreme Court that the programme had not been about hate but about “empowering one’s religion”.
Prasad pointed out that Narsinghanand was a repeat offender. Months before the Delhi mahapanchayat, he had been arrested forspeeches made in Haridwar, calling for Muslim genocide. Out on bail soon afterwards, Narsinghanand happily flouted bail conditions, spewing hate at events in Delhi and then Pune. He is yet to be re-arrested.
“These cases show the lack of will to investigate not only instances of hate speech, but also the larger networks working through a seemingly coordinated architecture,” said Prasad. “Why not go after Hindu extremist groups or even label them a security threat? While investigating the world of social media may pose a different challenge, this cannot prevent real efforts to tackle hate crimes.”
It is not that Indian authorities have shied away from trying to punish or regulate online content. Last year, the Indian government had several confrontations with Twitter. During the farmer protests, when the social media company initially refused to take down tweets critical of the government, its employees were threatened with jail time. The Delhi Police raided the Twitter offices after BJP propaganda was tagged as “manipulated content” on the site. The Uttar Pradesh police booked the Twitter India chief for rioting and criminal conspiracy and tried to summon him for questioning. This was after a video of an elderly Muslim man being beaten up had gone viral on the social media platform.
India routinely ranks among the countries with the most takedown requests as well as legal requests for information from social media companies.
The Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai investigations did have the effect of pushing some Trad accounts underground on Twitter. Some handles have been taken down by the social media platform while others left of their own accord. Audio discussions on Twitter Spaces that were earlier open to the public are now “invite only”.
But their disappearance on Twitter does not mean the Trad networks no longer exist. There are more permissive platforms such as Reddit, where violent content targeting Muslim women is still available to the general public. There is also Clubhouse, where there are open discussions on Brahmin superiority and how to establish a Hindu Rashtra. However, these forums have also grown more cautious – the replays feature, which allows for the recording of conversations, is often disabled.
Some users have also migrated to more secure platforms with better privacy. In the weeks after the arrests in January 2022, when a number of Trad accounts were taken down on Twitter, many seemed to migrate to alternative online spaces.
One of them is Kutumb, an app created in July 2020 by three young entrepreneurs based in Bangalore. “You need to secure an invite to be a part of a community within Kutumbh,” explained Aiyanna. “Kutumbh works in silos. It is not like you are on an application and can see everything.”
The app advertises that it helps build hyperlocal communities in local languages. The homepage displays videos featuring the heads of various organisations, urging people to get on the app.
It seems to be favoured by several Hindutva groups. Ashutosh Vishwakarma, who leads the Shree Vishwakarma Sena, said in an endorsement video that the app is “swadeshi” – made in India – and “the data on it is kept secret”.
Each closed group has an administrator, a separate channel and a feature where people within the group can message each other privately. “This is something that I feel like will become a challenge going forward,” said Aiyanna. “Number one, there is no regulation on Kutumbh. Within close groups, it makes it difficult for anyone [who subscribes to] that ideology to report and raise an alarm.”
Like Kutumb, Koo, a social media network that was launched in March 2020, also has little regulation and is touted as an “indigenous” app. “Everybody uses Koo, the government of India too,” said Aiyanna. “The entire Hindu right wing moved to Koo during the farmers’ protest.”
The farmers’ protest, which had lasted for a year before they ended in November 2021, was directed at bills passed by the government. In response, much of the Hindu Right trolled the protestors. As Twitter cracked down on the trolls, they migrated to Koo.
Scroll.in sent questions to Kutumbh and Koo asking about their rules for regulating hate speech. This article will be updated if there is a response.
As Trad conversations disappear into protected communities, the undercurrents of online hate have become harder to detect. “This is dangerous for us as now we do not even know what they are up to,” said Aiyanna. “These are new hurdles that we must look at immediately.”
Police officials in both Delhi and Mumbai said the anonymity offered by online platforms and services also makes Trad accounts hard to track.
“Anonymous accounts are used, the Twitter IDs are based on fake information, the email IDs used are fake,” said a Delhi Police official who has been involved in investigating the Bulli Bai and Sulli Deals cases but chose to speak off the record.
A Maharashtra Police official investigating the Bulli Bai case also concurred that they had not summoned any of the anonymous members of the Trad Mahasabha. The group had been deleted from Twitter anyway. If the group has re-emerged on another platform or under a different name, the official is not aware of it. “To be very frank, my investigation is regarding the Bulli Bai app, not the Trad Mahasabha,” the official said, explaining why she had limited interest in the wider Trad network.
The social media red tape
Law enforcement agencies say they face regulatory hurdles when cracking down on Trads online.
To access more information on Trad accounts, the police are dependent on social media platforms. Experts point out American security agencies have an advantage over their Indian counterparts when it comes to getting information from international social media companies. Most of these companies are based in the United States and are bound by that country’s laws. In India, asking social media companies to crack down on Trad accounts involves complicated red tape.
As the Maharashtra police official explained, even though social media companies have representatives in India, their servers were in other countries, which made getting information difficult.
“They ask us to follow this lengthy procedure which could take two years,” she said. “By then everything will be cold and we would have got transferred. Even if we get the information one year later, it would be meaningless.”
At present, getting information from social media companies that are not based in India is a circuitous process. First, the police must send a formal request for help under a mutual legal assistance treaty to the ministry of home affairs. This is followed by a letter rogatory under the treaty, asking for data. The request is transferred by the home ministry to the relevant department at the ministry of external affairs, which will then pass the request on to the concerned social media company.
A senior official who did not want to be named said that this process takes six to seven months, generally. The delay this entails is evident in the Sulli Deals case, which was registered in July 2021, but for seven months, the police could not make an arrest and failed to crack down on the Trad Mahasabha Twitter group. This lack of police action reportedly encouraged Bishnoi to create the Bulli Bai app months later.
According to the Delhi Police official, in the “Sulli Deals” case, the request and the letter were sent to GitHub in July 2021. According to the Delhi Police official, they still have not got the requisite details from GitHub that would help them track down more people involved in the “Sulli Deals” app – and there is no official time frame within which the social media company needs to send a response.
In the Bulli Bai case, the officer said, they were still waiting for permissions from senior government officials to send the letter of rogatory.
GitHub is yet to respond to questions from Scroll.in.
When contacted, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Twitter has dedicated contact channels for law enforcement and we respond to legal requests issued in compliance with applicable law. We have clear rules in place to address abuse and harassment, hateful conduct and take action when we identify accounts that violate these Rules.”
When asked about the “Sulli Deals” and “Bulli Bai” cases, the spokesperson added, “In context to the referenced incident, we have actioned several Tweets and accounts, in line with our range of enforcement options, that were engaging in targeted harassment and attempting to harass and intimidate women.”
The question of jurisdiction
However, the processes of extracting information from social media companies exist in a regulatory wilderness, a no man’s land between the jurisdiction of two countries. According to the Delhi officer, information from Github was stuck because the company said it was bound by United States law, which had different procedures from Indian law.
“If people in India are using non-Indian tools and entities which are not governed by their own law, then it becomes much harder [to track them down],” explained Pranesh Prakash, co-founder of the Centre for Internet and Society.
Prakash added that instances such as this made a strong case for data localisation – making it mandatory for social media companies headquartered in other countries to store data within India’s borders. This would ensure faster and legitimate access. But he had a word of warning: “With that you also need robust laws for procedural privacy to ensure that such avenues are not misused by the police and other investigative agencies.”
But there are alternatives that do not require lengthy processes like a letter of rogatory or involve the privacy dilemmas of data localisation. “You can also create artificial jurisdiction over varied entities that do business in India without requiring data localisation,” said Prakash. “Also, under the US Cloud Act, there is a mechanism that India can work on to get quicker access to US-based companies.”
The Cloud Act, or the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act, was passed in 2018 to “speed access to electronic information held by US-based global providers”. It was meant to cut the procedural delays of the mutual legal assistance treaties. The law provided for bilateral agreements between the US and foreign partners that have “robust protections for privacy and civil liberties”. India and the US do not have an agreement under the Cloud Act at present.
“Getting information from foreign companies is not so much in the hands of the police and courts,” Prakash pointed out. “The solution lies with the ministry of external affairs and the way internet governance at large exists.”
This is the second of a two-part series on the Trad group of Hindutva supporters. Read the first part here.