Alishan Jafri and Naomi Barton
In the past few years, a significant number of young men and women in India have been attracted to a dangerous alt-right digital ecosystem called ‘trad-wing’, in which they serve as self-styled civilisational warriors.
New Delhi: On January 4, the Mumbai police booked the alleged perpetrators of the ‘Bulli Bai’ app. The two persons arrested – an 18-year-old young woman, Shweta Singh, and her friend, 21-year-old Vishal Jha – are symptomatic of a larger disease: a new kind of extremist alt-right majoritarian radicalisation. As in the case of the young man from IIT who posted rape threats against Virat Kohli’s daughter, they are not isolated cases of young people gone astray. These individuals are a product of a radical ecosystem that is inspired by the propaganda of a ‘Hindu rashtra’ but which is suspicious of the official purveyors of Hindutva for their ‘pragmatism’ and supposed ‘softness’ towards Muslims and Dalits.
In the past few years, a significant number of young men and women in India have been attracted to this dangerous alt-right digital ecosystem called ‘trad-wing’, in which they serve as self-styled civilisational warriors. Trads view other right-wingers as too liberal and call them ‘raitas’. Unlike the trads, the raitas – whose name stems from the phonetic pronunciation of right-wing and a play on the idiom ‘raita failana’ or to botch up – supposedly believe in a Hindu nationalism that is more symbolic than theological. For them, the political leadership Narendra Modi provides is enough to further the Hindutva agenda. And as the more ‘mainstream’ of Hindu nationalists, they’re more visible in the public sphere.
Conversely, trads believe in a narrow religious supremacy within which there is very little scope to bend the rules to suit political convenience. Raitas are perceived by them as moderates, with little to mark them out from leftists and liberals.
The fault lines between these two subcultural movements within Hindutva became visible during the post-poll Bengal violence, and after Modi succumbed to the farmers’ protest and repealed the controversial farm laws. Even as the raitas praised his pragmatism, he was viciously attacked by the trads for what they say was his moderate response.
What distinguishes this alt-right movement from the organised hate crime nexus is its self-sustaining and organic nature. This is a movement in which people willingly participate for association, irrespective of what they may gain or lose. In that sense, it is an online army of individuals deeply committed to the movement, with their political engagement expressing itself in twisted forms of “humour”.
The vocabulary is borrowed from the Western ‘alt-right’ – the neo-Nazi online ecosystem which is vocally opposed to affirmative action, minority advocacy and liberal values. A section of generally educated ‘upper’ caste Hindus have appropriated the symbols of the Western alt-right, like Pepe the Frog. The meme originated from a politically unaffiliated cartoon in 2005, burgeoning to cult status by 2015, before being co-opted by white-supremacists in the US.
While these spaces do not contain rigid structural organisation, they work as a subculture, developing a visual language that is simultaneously new yet draws on a historic tradition of hateful iconography.
For instance, Shweta Singh, the alleged perpetrator in the Bulli Deals case, shot to notoriety after she posted a Hindutva propaganda poster which directly reconfigured a Nazi propaganda poster exhorting ‘Aryans’ to have more children. Niraj Bishnoi, the young man arrested in the case allegedly tried to mislead the investigation through his account @giyu44 by constantly sharing false information about the Sulli Deals case.
Doge memes, Wojak face memes and Pepe the Frog are now malleable symbols, and as such, are edited by the right wing to suit the Indian context. The green frog with a skull cap is used to mock Muslims while the blue frog mocks “Bhimtas” (a slur for Dalit Ambedkarites). The Liberal Doge YouTuber, Ritesh Jha, for instance, uses Doge meme videos to demonise Muslims.
Who are trads, and what do they stand for?
Trads are that subculture of the right wing which defends the indefensible. Unlike the trads in the US who love Donald Trump, Indian trads have two major problems with Narendra Modi. First, his OBC caste and second, they feel that he’s just too soft on Muslims. They even refer to Modi as ‘Maulana Modi’ when he greets people on Eid or Christmas.
Their rage is against reservation and the supposed suppression of the Savarnas, especially Brahmins.
Some trads go on to glorify Sati, open defecation and even caste slavery. This is why even extreme BJP supporters stay away from them, even though they may agree with the trads partly on certain issues. They feel that offence is the best defence and that the BJP is hypocritical in disowning its heroes: Nathuram Godse, Dara Singh, Shambhu Lal Regar and Babu Bajrangi. They adopt new icons depending on their crimes. For instance, the Jamia shooter was lauded after his actions, and Yati Narsinghanand after his aides assaulted a Muslim child for trespassing inside a temple, although trads also mock Arya Samajis as Arya Namazis.
How does one recognise a trad in the wild?
Profile photos commonly used by trads are furious pictures of Lord Ram, the iconic “angry Hanuman picture”, and Parshuram, or the popular Chad guy meme. They portray Savarna Hindus as a race with the purest blood. While the conundrum of Hindu unity at the cost of caste supremacy may be a question for a ‘raita’ follower of the Sangh, it means nothing to a trad. They share memes and posts depicting others as impure cockroaches and termites.
Trad ‘humour’ is deliberately provocative, and designed to ‘trigger’ marginalised communities with shockingly violent ‘humour’. They include memes depicting the beheading of Muslims, caricatures of Muslims being mowed under their cars, Dalit “cockroaches” being gassed, Muslims being murdered inside concentration camps, or rape victims (Muslims/ Dalits) being urinated upon by a saffronised Pepe the Frog. Their anti-Ambedkarite activities are based on the idea that Savarnas are persecuted by Ambedkarites, and their hateful responses are therefore justified resistance. While they claim that trads also include Dalit members, the raitas accuse trads of casteism and overt fascism, implying that they represent a conspiracy by the opposition to destabilise Hindu unity. However, Hindu right sources told The Wire that some prominent right-wing accounts also promote their content. For instance, Ajeet Bharti, the former editor of OpIndia, had promoted the Sulli Deals app. “Someone has created an App called Sulli deals. It’s open source. They claim that you’ll get your favourite ‘Sulli’ here. They have done this for the benefit of society…” Then he shared the app’s link. In another tweet, he said that his goal is to mentally hurt them [Muslims]. “Inshallah, we are with you, full support,” Liberal Doge replied.
Trads believe that the Indian constitution should be replaced with the Manusmriti and that Dalits are an inferior race. They use code to exhort Muslim genocide, for example “Cauliflower farmer” is used as a codeword to refer to the Bhagalpur Pogrom of 1989, where the mass graves of victims were covered in cauliflower plants to keep them from being discovered. Trad accounts are filled with words like Potassium Oxide (K2O or Katuwon) and Ola Uber (Allah Ho Akbar). Social media algorithms designed to filter hate speech are bypassed in this way.
Right after the Sulli Deals conspiracy, Article 14 reported on an online nexus of sexual violence against Muslim women by Hindu fundamentalists. During the investigation, it was found that there were a slew of accounts on social media that denigrated Muslim women as sex objects for Hindu men. The nature and content of these posts indicate a well-coordinated but vulgar and unlawful effort by Hindutva supporters. Interestingly, the investigation found accounts demeaning Hindu women as well. Speaking to The Wire on the condition of anonymity, a BJP IT cell worker said that some Hindutva trad accounts morph pictures of Hindu women and BJP supporters too and later frame Muslims. This is what they tried to do in the Sulli Deals case.
A cursory glance at these accounts revealed a common pattern of content. Many of these accounts follow each other and interact and amplify each other’s content. And on both occasions, the response of the supporters of the Liberal Doge, the account which was primarily associated with the ‘Sulli Deals’ case, was, “We only retaliated.”
While it is important for us to know the diversity of hatred in the right-wing ecosystem, both online and offline, we need to focus on the enormous criminality of the ecosystem and how young Hindu youths, especially from ‘upper’ caste communities, are being radicalised to hate Muslims and Dalits en masse.
Similar ‘digital hate communities’, where hatred works as the basis for a social identity, have been noted in the West in the case of 4chan in the US, and its New Zealand equivalent 8chan. Neither space was considered to host activities more dangerous than ‘trolling’, but both built up to horrendous real-world terrorist acts. In the US, the alt-right movement took responsibility for the attack on the Capitol and continued to use the event for further recruitment. In New Zealand, it led to the Christchurch attack by Brendon Tarant, who issued a digital manifesto marked with references to right-wing meme culture, saying, “I have provided links to my writings below, please do your part by spreading my message, making memes and shitposting as you usually do.” In the case of the deadly El Paso shooting, a hate-filled racist manifesto linked with the shooting surfaced on popular messaging forum 8chan minutes before the event. The four-page manifesto had chilling messages including: “I’m probably going to die today.”
Closer home, we saw young men open fire at Jamia and Shaheen Bagh, and at former JNU student leader Umar Khalid. One of them broadcast similar suicidal messages on his social media right before the attack. He was live-streaming before the attack. One of his posts read: “Shaheen Bagh, the game is over.” When The Wire investigated the men and women involved in the North East Delhi communal violence of 2020, it found the social media handle of Ankit Tiwari – one of the youngest men who confessed to brutally attacking Muslim during the riots in a chat with an undercover reporter – filled with similar messages for Kashmiris and Muslims.
Elliot Higgins, founder of the Bellingcat website, and one of those who has analysed Tarrant’s manifesto, noted, “We have this alternative media ecosystem that is driving a lot of disinformation.” “It is not understood by journalists or anyone really beyond a very small group of people who are really engaged with it. I doubt that even the alt-media ecosystem really understands its own nature and how it grows organically rather than being an organized space.” Tarrant’s final words before he began the shooting spree were: “Subscribe to Pewdiepie” leaving journalists clueless as to how to interpret it.
The propensity for physical violence is also something the Indian trad has in common with their Western counterpart, with online Hindutva communities regularly putting out calls to purchase weaponry, and setting up WhatsApp and Telegram channels by which to purchase arms. Here, the pages push out memes, religious iconography, political speech and commercial calls to purchase arms with equal regularity. This becomes particularly concerning when viewed within the context of the calls made by larger clutch of Hindutva leaders to mobilise to violence – ‘to kill or be killed’.
Hindutva trad accounts, just like the western neo-Nazi alt-right, operate in packs, unafraid to attack even right-wing Hindus who defend Muslims. Even many prominent right-wing accounts distance themselves from the trads. We found that many raita accounts were celebrating the arrest of trads whom they described as a hurdle to the Hindutva cause. Right-wing accounts often complain about abuse and hate by trads.
When Alt News and The Wire monitored raita right-wing groups to see their reactions to trads, they described trads as neo-Nazis.
This is a loose ecosystem, an organic pipeline directing ordinary Hindu youth into radical hate speech. They could be much more dangerous than the organised lynch mobs and militant Hindutva groups, because fundamentally, for these groups, hatred and genocidal calls to action are considered fun. In her paper ‘The Nationalism in the Digital Age: Fun as a Meta Practice of Extreme Speech’, Sahana Udupa, foregrounds “fun” as a salient aspect of right-wing mobilisation, positing that this sort of activity develops into “group identification and collective (if at times anonymous) celebration of aggression”.
Trads are therefore not just an extreme fringe to be ignored – they are simultaneously the byproduct of and contribute to the normalisation of extreme hate speech, genocidal jokes and a social camaraderie built around hate, for no other purpose than hate itself.
Courtesy The Wire