Hard Drives, YouTube, and Murder: India’s Dark History of Digital Hate

India's next election will be partly decided online. But even before the internet reached the country's rural regions, divisive videos were distributed using hard drives and laptops.
Illustration of a green and orange hard drive offwhite rectangles and a black and white photo of a hectic media conference
Photo-Illustration: WIRED Staff; Getty Images

A crowd had gathered at a village temple in Kesapuri, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, when Vikas Patil plugged a hard drive into his laptop to begin his show.

First, he showed them an explicit video of a cow being killed. The animals are considered sacred to “upper caste” Hindus. In India, the slaughter of cattle for meat is largely the preserve of Muslims, a fact that wasn’t lost on the viewers. As people settled in to watch, Patil then played a couple of videos about “love jihad,” a baseless conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men are systematically wooing Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam. To finish off the session, Patil showed a handful of clips detailing the supposed “bigotry” of Islam.

It was 2012, and most of India’s rural communities were not yet connected to the internet. Penetration was only 12 percent, mostly concentrated in big cities. Misinformation, conspiracy, and hate speech are often perceived as a phenomenon of the social media age, but even before India came online en masse, enterprising groups like Sanatan Sanstha were working at the grassroots level to seed ethnically charged narratives, traveling from village to village with hard drives loaded with propaganda. Since then, the channels available to them have changed profoundly. Today more than half the population of India—759 million people—are online. The country has 467 million active YouTube users—the most in the world. The users are no longer predominantly urban. Nobody has tapped into this proliferation better than right-wing groups dedicated to fostering communal disharmony, moving from hard disks filled with videos and laptops in temples to the vast reach of YouTube and WhatsApp.

What happened after Patil shut his laptop and moved on from Kesapuri is also a chilling lesson in the power of video to shape opinion and the ability of the extreme right to use propaganda and disinformation to stoke division and violence. Sitting in that crowd in Kesapuri, watching Patil’s videos, was Sharad Kalasar, a 19-year old college dropout who cultivated his father’s 7-acre farm in the village. A year and a half later, he allegedly murdered one of the foremost secularists in India.

India’s history of political Hindu nationalism predates the country’s independence in 1947. It was in 1915 that the political organization Hindu Mahasabha was founded to protect the rights of Hindus under British colonial rule. One of its members, Nathuram Godse, went on to kill Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Sanatan Sanstha is a continuation of this extreme manifestation of “Hindutva.” The organization was established in Goa in 1990 by a hypnotist called Jayant Athavle. In 1995, Athavle published a booklet in which he divided society into two parts: people who follow the Hindu religion and the “evil” ones who don’t. The evil ones, he concluded, must be killed to protect the righteous.

Athalve’s followers took his message to heart. Between 2007 and 2009, Sanatan Sanstha members were arrested as suspects in four separate bombings in Maharashtra and Goa, and the group has been named a prime suspect in the murders of at least four prominent progressive thinkers.

Propaganda and misinformation were a major part of Sanatan Sanstha’s operation. In 2006, the group printed pamphlets that appeared to support a slain Muslim militant, Irfan Attar, and distributed them at a temple in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, to try to create the perception that local Muslim communities were “anti-Indian.” This led to a tense standoff that police had to defuse. Later, they began to adopt new technology—like Patil’s digital videos.

Patil’s outreach in 2012 lasted six months. He toured settlements on the periphery of Kesapuri showing his videos, which were unambiguously trying to pit Hindus against Muslims. Kalaskar was drawn to Patil and his narratives. “He inspired me to be loyal to [the] Hindu religion,” Kalaskar told India’s Central Bureau of Investigation in October 2018. “I was excited and inspired to work with Vikas Patil.” By the second half of 2012, Kalaskar had begun to devote more and more time to the cause of Sanatan Sanstha, traveling with Patil and taking the laptop to other villages.

According to Kalaskar’s statement to the CBI, in January 2013 he was put in contact with another Sanatan Sanstha devotee, Virendra Tawde, a former doctor who had given up his profession to work full time for the organization in 2001. Tawde echoed Athavle’s credo—that people who “insulted” the faith needed to be “finished off.” Within a month, Kalaskar had been summoned to a forested area 15 miles from Aurangabad to learn how to shoot a pistol. A couple of weeks after that, Tawde revealed the target: a 69-year-old activist, Narendra Dabholkar, who had exposed several religious figures for spreading medical misinformation and pseudoscience and campaigned in favor of intercommunity marriages.

On August 20, 2013, while he was out for a morning walk in the city of Pune, two gunmen shot Dabholkar four times before fleeing on a motorcycle. Sanatan Sanstha denied any involvement, but a day later the group’s newsletter ran a front-page statement calling Dabholkar’s death a blessing.

It was the beginning of a spree of killings. In February 2015, the 81-year-old author and politician Govind Pansare was shot at his home in Maharashtra. Six months later, university professor MM Kalburgi, who spoke out against religious superstition and blind faith, was shot dead in Karnataka state. A year later, in September 2017, secular journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead in the same state. Sanatan is a prime suspect in all of them. In 2018, two men were finally arrested for Dabholkar’s murder. One of them was Kalaskar. The trial is ongoing.

The motifs that drove Kalaskar’s radicalization—cow slaughter, love jihad, and the “otherness” of India’s Muslim population—are still the core narratives of far-right propaganda today. But they’re no longer distributed by pamphlets or at temple show-and-tell sessions. Instead, they are broadcast to millions of people in a constant flow of disinformation over WhatsApp. On the messaging app, far-right groups have created a vastly magnified version of Sanatan Sanstha’s outreach program.

WhatsApp’s growth has mirrored that of the internet in India. The expansion of mobile internet access across the country happened in parallel with the adoption of the platform, and today it’s almost ubiquitous across society—used for messaging friends and family, sharing news, and conducting business. Its power as a political tool was obvious from the start.

“When we did research about WhatsApp, we realized that people look at it as a source of news,” says Osama Manzar, founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, an NGO. “They believe what they get on WhatsApp because it is forwarded by someone they know.”

By the time of the 2014 general elections, which brought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to power, around 21 percent of Indians owned a smartphone. That had almost doubled by the time of the next vote, in 2019, which the media dubbed “the WhatsApp Election.” The BJP embraced the platform in a big way. According to reporting in the Hindustan Times, the party set up three WhatsApp groups for every polling station in the country, each with 256 members (at that time, the maximum number of members allowed in a group). With 900,000 polling stations in the country, that meant their WhatsApp network potentially extended to more than 690 million people.

Manzar says that the growth of WhatsApp and the proliferation of smartphones was also a boon for people looking to spread misinformation, who realized that they could bypass the institutions of mass communication and create a parallel information space. “The right-wingers very intelligently adopted digital media as mass media,” he said. “They tapped into the masses that weren’t exposed to any kind of media at all.”

Fake news, misleading pictures, and hate videos circulated via social media have been influential in shaping public opinion and have cost lives. In September 2015, photos were circulated via WhatsApp across the small town of Dadri in Western Uttar Pradesh, alleging that a Muslim man had slaughtered a cow. The man was lynched.

In April 2020, messages went viral in the district of Palghar in Maharashtra—weeks after Covid-19 broke out in India—claiming that “500 Muslims with coronavirus” had been “let loose” to roam the country in disguise, targeting other religious groups and stealing children. Petrified locals started guarding their villages at night. On 16 April, two Hindu seers were lynched after a mob stopped their car and mistook them for Muslims.

On March 31 of this year, the northern state of Bihar was rocked by violence ahead of Ram Navami, a Hindu festival marking the birth of mythological figure Lord Ram. One person died in the clashes and several others were injured. The police later declared that the violence was planned by a leader of the Bajrang Dal, a far-right radical organization close to the ruling BJP, over a WhatsApp group that had 456 members. “In the WhatsApp group, a conspiracy was plotted to spread violence, and fake and misleading posts targeting one community were shared,” the police told reporters, saying that the group was also being used to instigate people to spread fake videos targeting Muslims.

Unlike YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter, there is no algorithm-boosting content on WhatsApp, says Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom Foundation, an NGO. “That is solely dependent on the ability to build a human distribution mechanism through a network of hundreds of thousands of WhatsApp groups that can spread the desired narrative.”

Far-right groups have done this very effectively, using WhatsApp forwards to spread fake news and pass on content that they’ve seeded on other platforms.

Feeding the mill of disinformation is a proliferation of video content that supports right-wing narratives. Political groups have embraced YouTube, using it to build massive followings on the platform and to distribute videos from it on other social media and messaging apps. Backers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which has pursued Hindu nationalist policies, are among those who have used YouTube to broadcast anti-Muslim content. First Draft News, a nonprofit that counters hate speech and misinformation, has identified several Islamophobic channels on YouTube, all with over a million subscribers.

Individually, YouTube and WhatsApp are powerful tools for extremist groups. Together, they’re even more dangerous. “The convincing power that video has certainly exceeds text,” Waghre says. “What’s more important is that the things floating around in WhatsApp groups are often seen in YouTube videos.”

Sectarian content on social media has proliferated because the laws against hate speech have been used selectively by those in power. While the Modi government was quick to force social media platforms to block clips of a controversial BBC documentary about Modi’s alleged involvement in intercommunal violence in 2002, there has been a proliferation of channels that broadcast extreme nationalist rhetoric because, human rights groups say, the polarization suits the BJP, which runs on a majoritarian, Hindu nationalist platform.

One of the more alarming facets of this cycle, the Digital Empowerment Foundation’s Manzar says, is that the mainstream media is now beginning to mirror narratives seen on social media. “The mainstream media has begun producing content based on what is selling on social media,” he says. “That is how the entire pro-establishment and anti-Muslim media has come up. When ‘a dog bites the man’ makes news, the news starts to make the dog bite the man. Earlier, there used to be news publication. With the proliferation of social media, there is news creation.”

India is rolling toward another election in 2024. Modi will be seeking a third term. His government has shown no signs that it will try to rein in the divisive rhetoric that has become its stock-in-trade over the past decade.

Sanatan Sanstha is still operating. Since mid-2022, the group joined Bajrang Dal and a few other far-right radical organizations to form an amorphous group called the Sakal Hindu Samaj, which has been organizing multiple rallies across the state of Maharashtra, where speakers have called for the extermination of Muslims and an economic boycott on their communities. Several BJP functionaries have attended the rallies.

Maharashtra has been increasingly split by religious conflict, which has played out online and offline. Right-wing groups have created a system of lateral surveillance, policing social media for posts that they can claim are offensive to Hindus—sometimes resulting in violence. As the election looms, people fear the sectarianism could spiral further out of control.

In August and September, four social media posts went viral in the Maharashtra district of Satara. All abused Hindu gods and the warrior king Shivaji; all seemed to come from accounts run by Muslims. In one case, Maharashtra police proved that a Muslim minor’s account had been hacked by a Hindu man. The other three alleged posters said their accounts had been hacked too, though that has yet to be proved.

Those three accounts belonged to young Muslim men from the village of Pusesavali. On September 9, a Hindu mob went on the rampage, torching Muslim shops and vehicles.

The attackers lynched a 31-year old Muslim civil engineer, Nurul Hasan, inside a mosque while he offered his evening prayers. He had nothing to do with the social media post. “He is survived by old parents and a pregnant wife,” says a senior community member in the village, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals. “It has become so easy to frame Muslims. I have told the Muslim youth in my village to disable their Instagram and Facebook accounts. The situation has gotten out of hand. And with the elections less than a year away, it is only going to get worse.”