Inside the Hindu IT Cell: The men who went online to protect gods

‘We don’t target people who are good. We target people who are targeting Hindus, targeting Hindutva, targeting India. It’s their fault.’

Inside the Hindu IT Cell: The men who went online to protect gods
Shambhavi Thakur
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In the summer of 2020, with India locked down to slow the spread of the Covid pandemic, the Narendra Modi government decided to switch on some nostalgia: it ordered Doordarshan to replay two popular 1990s TV shows based on the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The minister for information and broadcasting, Prakash Javadekar, declared the state broadcaster was doing so on popular demand.

The replays apparently triggered more than just nostalgia.

Ramesh Solanki, 39, a self-proclaimed “rightwing activist” in Mumbai claims that they led to a “tsunami of social media pages and handles which started abusing Hindu gods and goddesses online”.

So, he and 10 other men decided to come together as “concerned Hindu volunteers” to protect the gods. Through the internet. Using the force of law. In their own style of “activism”. In May 2020, they announced themselves online as the “Hindu IT Cell”.

“Hindu haters won't be spared. We repeat we are not going to spare anyone of them ‘legally’. If you want to teach such offenders a lesson for lifetime by filing a complaint then do contact our volunteers,” their twitter post proclaimed.

They beckoned others to join them: “It doesn’t matter if you are a small account or a big account. If you are ready to go extra length for dharma, you can be our member.”

To join the group, they said, the volunteer should have “strong ideological commitments”. They should have filed at least one legal complaint or case for the “Hindu cause”. They shouldn’t use abusive language online, and they “shouldn’t target other RW”, presumably meaning fellow rightwingers.

Their objective, they claimed, was to file legal complaints and pursue with the police to take action against social media users who they believed had made “anti-Hindu” remarks. To do so, they worked with a team of lawyers and “cyber volunteers”.

In this description, the IT cell’s work sounds innocuous and, whether one likes it or not, within the framework of Indian laws.

In practice, it gets murkier.

Their legal approach is paralleled by a toxic wave of trolling, which is invariably launched against their targets, leading to harassment, threats, doxxing.

The Hindu IT Cell activates its network of cyber volunteers to track down and identify their target. We found evidence that they do so by reaching out in person and through phone to people who know the target personally or professionally, including employers. They cajole, push and troll them into taking “action” against the target. Almost invariably, a wave of systemic, toxic and abusive trolling is triggered.

The cell’s founders keep personal distance from the cyber trolling but the online ecosystem they associate with, foster and shy from discouraging goes after the person they have targeted. Technically, the cell is able to wash its hands off it all.

If the police end up acting on the IT cell’s complaints, as they have in several cases, filing FIRs, the slow pace of legal proceedings ensures the target is buried in years of potential litigation.

Take the case of Sushmita Sinha, 26, a journalist based in Delhi.

On August 20 last year, a few days before the Hindu festival of Teej, which celebrates the acceptance of goddess Parvati by her husband, the god Shiva, Sinha uploaded a video on Instagram.

Sushmita said the festival was quite famous in northern India and that women marked it by keeping a fast for the long lives of their husbands. “During this fast women are not allowed to even drink water. If I say this festival is misogynist and against women rights, then you may abuse me. But I do not need to say anything myself. I shall only read a page from this book and you can decide for yourselves,” she said, holding up a copy of Haritalika Teej Vrat Katha, a booklet by the Delhi-based publisher Kamal Pustakalaya.

She read out from the booklet: it claims that if a woman doesn’t fast on Teej she will turn into a poor, untouchable, quarrelsome, miserly, unhappy woman. She added that the booklet claims a woman will turn into an animal depending on the food she eats on the fasting day.

After reading the extract, she asked her viewers whether they thought it was misogynist or not. She asked if the booklet is useless and worthy only of being used as tissue or toilet paper.

“It was just another way of registering my protest against a book which claims that a woman will turn into an animal if she doesn’t fast for her husband,” Sushmita recalled.

But her video, running into 2 minutes and 20 seconds, was pounced on by the Hindu IT Cell. Its volunteers, followed by a swarm of trolls, shared just a 17-second clip from the video where Sushmita talks about using the booklet as tissue paper. The clip was trimmed to capture just the tissue paper bit out of context. It went viral.

In no time Sushmita had become a victim of vicious trolling that the IT cell and its volunteers can concertedly trigger.

The Hindu IT Cell shared the video clip on its Telegram channel with 3.29K followers on August 26, 2020 asking its volunteers to amplify it. So far, it has received 2,04,832 views and 16.9K comments. Calls were openly made for volunteers to file legal complaints against Sushmita, and even a basic draft of the complaint circulated to assist them. Those who came forward and filed complaints were rewarded with public shoutouts as “warriors” on Twitter and gained followers.

Rightwing websites soon picked up the IT cell’s tweets and launched clickbait articles about Sushmita, often doxxing her personal images, address and relationships. This was followed by a Hindi TV channel running a one-hour debate show on her without airing her full video or clarification.

The trolling escalated over the days. She was threatened with rape, murder, and acid attacks. Her family was socially boycotted by their acquaintances. Her employers were also called out.

“The Hindu IT Cell volunteers called my friend, forcing him to divulge my address. They told him that they wanted to counsel me in person,” Sushmita said. “I felt so threatened by these fringe elements that I left my home in Delhi.”

The cell’s campaign against Sushmita was amplified and supported by Sambit Patra, a national spokesperson of Bharatiya Janata Party. He also called her out on Twitter after which #ArrestSushmitaSinha began trending on Twitter India.

“After that twitter trend my heart sank. I was sure that I would get arrested,” Sushimita recalled. “I was desolate. What was happening was blown out of proportion.”

The toxic trolling continued until the cell found its next target on September 7: Armin Navabi of the Atheist Republic group, which expresses atheism openly.

Navabi had shared a tweet with a caricature of a Hindu goddess describing her as “sexy”. Complaints were promptly filed against him in a similar pattern.

The complaints filed against Sushmita did not go far. Six months on, the police haven’t registered an FIR.

“But that episode tattered my confidence,” she said in a bleak voice over a phone call. “Even today I am scared. It has scarred me for life.”

Sushmita’s is not an isolated case.

The IT cell has filed over 500 complaints since May 2020, according to its founders. It is now a registered organisation under the Indian Trusts Act. Founded by 11 volunteers it now boasts over 200 active volunteers across India.

Their targets have included journalists, lawyers and activists.

(Disclosure: One of the writers of this story is among the journalists who have been targeted by the Hindu IT Cell, for a tweet. This is her story.)

The founders

The Hindu IT Cell is the brainchild of Ramesh Solanki and Vikas Pandey.

Ramesh describes himself in his Twitter bio as a “very proud Hindu nationalist”. He also runs a blog called Indian Rajput whose tagline drips with irony, “The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is courage."

Ramesh joined the Shiv Sena in 1998 and was associated with its IT cell for years. He left in 2019 when the Sena allied with their onetime ideological rivals, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, to form the government in Maharashtra. He couldn’t abandon the goal of Hindutva, Ramesh explained in a joint interview with Vikas. Read their full interview.

In a Twitter thread explaining his exit from the Shiv Sena, he quoted a Hindi proverb: “Mice are the first to jump off a sinking ship.” It’s hard to say if he was referring to himself as one.

Vikas, based in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, was associated with the BJP IT Cell, and helped run its social media campaigns in the 2014 general election. On November 17, 2020, he posted a picture on Facebook of his son being held by prime minister Modi. Vikas often boasts on social media of his personal relationship with Modi and BJP ministers.

Apart from the Hindu IT Cell, he also runs a twitter handle in support of Modi.

Vikas Pandey with Narendra Modi. Picture via Facebook

Vikas Pandey with Narendra Modi. Picture via Facebook

In an online interview, Ramesh recollected how it all began. “During lockdown there was a surge in abuses of our Hindu Gods online after retelecasts of Mahabharat and Ramayan. After that Vikas called me and said we should do something about it,” he claimed. “I knew that people expect a lot out of me, but I also have my limitations. I have already filed over a hundred complaints against those who speak against our religion. After deliberation Vikas and I decided that we will bring like-minded people together to fight for our Dharma through legal means. That’s how Hindu IT Cell was born.”

Ramesh has registered several FIRs against TikTok users, Netflix India, and actors over what he denounces as “anti-Hindu content”.

He recalled his targeting of Netflix, "My target was to trend Boycott Netflix in India with 2,500 tweets in one day. I started at 8 am and within an hour I got around 70-80,000 tweets and it was trending world over."

Modus operandi

Ramesh explained how their network works. “They come and tag us whenever they see anything Hinduphobic,” he said, referring to the volunteers. “We take those posts to our core team and that is when we start research. Is the post from a verified handle? What agenda did the person have? The IT cell checks if there are any other posts by the handle which are anti-Hindu or anti-National. Once the core team decides that they want to pursue the case then we try to find the whereabouts of that person. We ask people to send us addresses, workplace and other details, etc on social media.”

He added, “After that our lawyers take the next step. They discuss and draft the complaint. That draft is shared with a secondary group of volunteers who file the complaints. We pass them contacts of the cyber cell of the home ministry and the address of the person. After 20 or 30 volunteers file the complaints either online or physically, we upload those screenshots on our Twitter. We ask our followers to follow the volunteers who filed the complaints.”

“After that stage, the legal process begins. From the cybercrime website the complaint reaches the local police station. Then the police call our volunteers for statements. Our volunteers push the police to register an FIR,” Ramesh said. “From the first tweet to the FIR, our volunteers are on their toes. We make sure that the person is arrested and at least goes to the jail.”

The victims

In July 2020, the stand-up comedian Agrima Joshua was viciously trolled for an old video about a proposed statue of the medieval Maratha ruler Shivaji. It was the Hindu IT Cell which flagged her video.

Deepika Rajawat, the lawyer who briefly appeared in the infamous Kathua rape and murder case, was labeled “Hinduphobic” by the IT cell in October 2020. A poster about rape awareness shared by her was misrepresented as an insult to the Hindu festival of Navtratri. Rajawat had to appeal for help on social media after a mob assembled outside her house on the night of October 21, 2020. The mob, incited by the IT cell’s trolling, shouted, “Deepika, your grave will be dug.”

Recounting the harrowing experience, Rajawat said, “I am willing to state this on record that the local police officer who registered an FIR against me explicitly said he was doing so under pressure from the IT cell.” We could not confirm this independently.

Saket Kumar, a Delhi-based journalist who speaks about problems faced by the Dalit community, was trolled by the IT cell for remarks on the Hindu god Hanuman.

“That targeted hate campaign went on for a week. It was no less than a nightmare,” he said. “They didn’t just come after me but my girlfriend as well. They targeted my workplace, my personal relationships, everything they could find. I am still recovering from that trauma.”

Agrima, who got explicit rape threats, likened the trolling to a swarm of locusts.

Trolling is a way of life on social media. But the targeted and concerted trolling that the Hindu IT Cell starts is frightening.

A YouTuber called Hanuman ManMohan, for example, creates videos trolling and abusing whoever is targeted by the IT cell.

Ramesh, questioned about the trolling that follows their targeting of an individual, distanced himself and his organisation from it. But justified it.

“We condemn this trolling but these people play victim cards,” he said. Speaking specifically about Agrima’s case, he added, “She was very well aware of what she was doing, despite that she went ahead and played victim card and politics.”

Asked specifically how he viewed the trolling that follows the Hindu IT Cell’s targeting of an individual, he said, “When they abuse Hindus, they should keep in mind that every action will have a reaction. Not everyone will follow the path of Mahatma Gandhi, somebody is going to follow Bhagat Singh also. This is what happened with Munawar Faruqui also.”

Faruqui, a stand-up comedian, was arrested in Madhya Pradesh’s Indore on New Year’s Day supposedly for insulting Hindu gods at a show where he hadn’t even performed. He spent over a month in jail before being released on bail by the Supreme Court.

Ramesh, interestingly, had filed a police complaint against Munawar in April 2020, eight months before he was arrested.

“If you think you can hurt someone’s sentiments and people will clap, that is not right. When you are insulting and mocking you should remember that there will be consequences. If you don’t abuse [our gods] you won’t be trolled. It’s as simple as that,” Ramesh warned. “It’s their own doing that they’re abused or trolled, not because of us. We don’t target people who are good. We target people who are targeting Hindus, targeting Hindutva, targeting India.

“It’s their fault,” he insisted, justifying the trolling. “We can’t help.”

Legal failure

The contrary impulses of right to free speech and restrictions put on it to not hurt religious sentiments have played out in this country for decades. Groups and individuals claiming to protect one or the other religion have used public spaces as well as the courts to restrain free speech.

India’s constitution provides for the right to free speech. But it also allows the government to impose “reasonable restrictions” on free speech. These restrictions take the shape of two specific provisions in the Indian Penal Code that are ostensibly meant to prevent insult to religious beliefs and punish anyone who promotes enmity based on religion, race, or language.

The Hindu IT Cell’s targeting of people through legal means hinges mostly on these two provisions – sections 153A and 295A of the penal code. The IT cell’s volunteers often cite these provisions in their police complaints.

Gautum Bhatia, a lawyer, explains that section 295A of the Indian Penal Code “is a variant of a ‘blasphemy law’. Section 295A penalises insulting the religion or religious beliefs of any class of citizens, if such insult is offered with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of that class”.

It is a cognizable offence which means the police can arrest the accused without a court warrant.

Section 153A punishes a person found guilty of “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony”. This provision is also evoked to prevent hate speech.

Section 295A has been validated by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court. This means its constitutional validity can only be reviewed by a seven-judge bench, a daunting prospect, Bhatia explains.

Since the five-bench decision in 1957, however, the courts haven’t shown consistency in adjudicating on this Indian version of the blasphemy law.

There have been some orders of the Supreme Court that put restraints on how these provisions are deployed.

Reiterating the constitutional protection to the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19A of the constitution, the court has on multiple occasions outlined the abuse of these two penal provisions. Ruling on a plea by cricketer MS Dhoni challenging criminal proceedings against him under 295A for hurting religious sentiments, the top court said that unwitting or careless “insults“ to religion shouldn’t be prosecuted as this would amount to misuse of the law. Dhoni had been booked for being portrayed as Lord Vishnu on the cover of a business magazine in 2013.

Regarding 153A, the court ruled in December last year that establishing deliberate and malicious intention is necessary for registering a complaint under this law.

But it isn’t the judicial interpretation of the law alone that hurts the victims of the Hindu IT Cell. It’s the slow grinding wheels of India’s criminal justice system and the trolling, which sometimes leads to serious threats.

As Abhinav Sekhri, an advocate working on free speech litigation along with the Internet Freedom Foundation, explains, “In these hate crimes, it is alleged that conduct has hurt religious sentiments. Just on the basis of that untested and unproven allegation, a person can be arrested without a right to bail because these offences are cognizable and non-bailable. This is where the mischief is and the abuse begins. That is why people like MS Dhoni run to the Supreme Court for protection, because our legal system allows for one to be jailed even on the basis of allegations, and the slow grinding wheels of justice ensure unnecessary and unfair incarceration. How the police investigate the mental element of the crime and whether it is ever proven at trial is secondary at this initial stage.”

In Saket Kumar’s case, the Hindu IT Cell filed at least six complaints, although none translated into an FIR. In several other cases too, the complaints have failed legal tests.

Mukesh Sharma, a Delhi High Court lawyer who serves as the IT cell’s legal advisor, confirmed as much. “There are 50-60 complaints that are pending in police stations where they are not converting them into FIRs," he said. “In that case, we consult their superior authority, either concerned SHO or DCP, and urge them to take cognisance. If they fail to do so we file appeals in local courts under section 156(3) of CRPC.”

Section 156(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code empowers a magistrate to order the police to investigate a complaint.

He elaborated, "A similar thing happened in the case of Sushmita Sinha. Delhi police failed to take cognizance after which I filed an application in the Saket court.”

Sushmita recalled, “Hindu IT Cell filed a complaint against me in the Govindpuri police station but the SHO refused to file an FIR. Later they approached the Saket court and complained against me. The court asked the police to file an action taken report in the case. The police said no case was made out against me. The Hindu IT Cell then challenged that as well but did not appear in the hearing which was scheduled in October.”

‘For Dharma’

The Hindu IT Cell’s founders denied connection with any political party, insisting they are here for "nationalism and Hindu Dharma” only. Yet, they frequently associate with leaders of the BJP. Last year, they joined Kapil Mishra, the BJP leader blamed for inciting the 2020 Delhi carnage, to launch a campaign for celebrating Diwali with Hindu refugees waiting for citizenship under the new citizenship law.

Interestingly, the home ministry in August 2019 invited "Cyber Crime Volunteers in the role of Unlawful Content Flaggers” – like the IT cell’s members – to flag “terrorism, radicalisation, anti-national activities” online, and report them on the National Cybercrime Reporting Portal.

“How much can the government achieve alone?” Ramesh demanded to know, seeking to justify the home ministry’s move. “As alert citizens we also have certain responsibilities. Although we are not associated with the home ministry, we complain to them,” he said. He confirmed that his cell has been using the National Cybercrime Reporting Portal to file complaints.

In November 2020, the ministry wrote to states to examine and register FIRs based on the complaints received on the National Cybercrime Reporting Portal. As per data available with the ministry, only 2.5 percent of the complaints registered on the portal have been converted into FIRs.

Justifying his own actions, Ramesh said, "Ye kisi ke baap ka bagicha thori na hai jo app ghum ke chale jao. Agar app apman karoge, kisi ko ungali kroge, toh then you have to face it.

Roughly translated, it means, “It is not your father’s garden that you roam and leave. If you insult, point fingers, then you will have to face the consequences.”

He added, speaking in Hindi, “There is freedom of expression in our country, it is also written in the constitution, but there is a limit. If I slap you, is that freedom of expression?

“There is a thin line. Once you cross it then it’s a crime,” he declared.

“Anyway we are doing this legally.”

Srishti Jaswal and Shreegireesh Jalihal are with the Reporters’ Collective.

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