Hindu Janjagruti Samiti and Sanatan Sanstha continue to stoke sectarian tensions using Facebook pages and groups
By Ayushman Kaul (DFR Lab)
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?
Hindu Janajagruti Samiti and the Sanstha are religious-nationalist cults that seek to overturn the secular nature of the modern Indian state and its constitution in favor of a Hindu Rashtra, or a religious-nationalist state. This desire to overturn the socialist and syncretic nature of India’s political culture forms a central tenet of the Hindu nationalist Hindutva extremist political ideology adopted by large sections of India’s right wing, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing paramilitary organization, as well as the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
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.”
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.
To better understand the on-platform behavior of the network on Facebook, the DFRLab analyzed the activity of all the pages we identified in the network over a period of two years starting from January 2019 to April 2021 using CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analysis tool. The query revealed that a network of 46 Facebook pages garnered over 9,622,477 interactions over the examined timeframe, averaging 209,000 interactions per page. The network had access to a combined audience of 2,623,475 user accounts at the time of analysis, though it is likely that some of these accounts followed more than one page, thus inflating the total.
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.
On multiple occasions, the same content was posted across several of the pages within minutes, suggesting coordination between the page operators.
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.
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.
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.
The DFRLab also used CrowdTangle to analyze the on-platform activity of 75 Facebook groups over a period of two years, from January 2019 to April 2021. The query revealed that the linked groups gained 635,799,739 interactions over the examined timeframe, averaging 8,477,330 interactions per group across the network. The combined follower account across all of the groups was 7,279,460 accounts at the time of analysis.
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.
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.
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.
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 Kaulis a Research Assistant, South Asia, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.