In the early dawn of Feb. 15, 2023, two Muslim men, Junaid and Nasir, took a white Jeep and left their homes in the hamlet of Ghatmeeka—located on the border of the North Indian state of Rajasthan—to visit relatives.
Their bodies were found charred to death the next morning, burnt alongside the truck, in the neighboring state of Haryana.
Even as the families of both men struggle to come to terms with their deaths, old wounds have been opened up in the region, as multiple family members and locals pin the blame of these killings on a notorious group of cow vigilantes.
What sets these vigilantes apart is that their actions are marked by a growing online presence, the real-life crimes escalating as rapidly as their rabid social media fan bases.
One of their most controversial cow vigilantes, Mohit Yadav—known as Monu Manesar—had over 210,000 subscribers on YouTube and 83,000 followers on Facebook.
He acquired such a significant audience for his content that he received YouTube’s Gold Play button for gaining over 100,000 subscribers.
He’s also a suspect in the murders of the two men and has been accused of previously killing another Muslim man.
While YouTube finally took action against his account in response to the Daily Dot’s questions, dozens of social media users and YouTube creators have uploaded and shared similar acts of vigilantism and violence.
This includes videos showing themselves and others chasing down alleged “cow smugglers” and running “rescue operations” to release cows, force-feeding dung to people, and organizing raids in the homes of Muslim men accused of cow smuggling.
The cow has traditionally been considered a sacred figure in Hinduism, but vigilantism over the animal has increased as the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asserts more power in the nation.
According to a 2019 report by Human Rights Watch, these cow vigilantes have killed at least 44 persons—including 36 Muslims—and injured nearly 300 in over 100 attacks the past three years.
Organized by far-right Hindu groups such as the Bajrang Dal, these vigilantes track down purported “cow smugglers” (mostly Muslim men), and humiliate, harass, and torture with impunity.
Then they revel in it on the internet.
While Manesar is the most infamous, he’s far from alone.
Video creators such as Raju Buhana, Jay Patel Nagraj, Sonu Hindu, and others run a digital subculture where they use YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook to share their videos celebrating acts of brutality.
On March 20. 2023, Sonu, a self-proclaimed “cow lover” uploaded a video on Facebook and YouTube with the caption “Today again captured six vehicles with cows.”
In the video, Sonu and his accomplices can be seen chasing trucks allegedly filled with cows, finally catching hold of the drivers in another town.
Cow vigilante teams such as “Team Sonu Hindu Palwal,” “Team Shiva Dahiya Ballabgarh,” “Team Parveen Vashishth Faridabad”—often named after a locality’s prominent individual member —have sprouted up, with similar social media presence glorifying violence.
With cow slaughter illegal in several states across India, transportation has become a new battleground for Hindu nationalist outfits, who launched vigilante campaigns against the sale or trade of cattle.
And despite the massive views, police seem powerless.
Last September, one video—with over 4.5 million views on Facebook—involved Manesar and his aides chasing down a truck driven by a Muslim man, where they forcibly stopped the vehicle and then went on to beat the men in the truck.
In another video from 2016, Manesar and his associate coerce supposed “cow smugglers,” two Muslim men, into eating cow dung.
Ismail Mev, a resident of Ghatmeeka village and cousin of the bereaved, told the Daily Dot that police have failed to act against Manesar.
“As of this week, the cops told us that three other men have been arrested but not Monu Manesar. We have been demanding that all the accused named in the complaint be arrested, that includes Monu,” said Mev. He added that both he and the other family members of Junaid and Nasir have since been asking for justice from the police, from state authorities, and even filed a writ before the high court of Rajasthan.
“We have been saying this repeatedly, the man has a big presence online,” Mev said. “He kept uploading YouTube videos, had hundreds of thousands of followers, these videos show how he would harass Muslims, but for some reason the police still can’t find him? There are videos where he is seen carrying weapons, how is he not in jail?”
Despite being on the run, on April 21, 2023, nearly two months after the murders of Nasir and Junaid, Monu Manesar posted a YouTube video making fun of the police and roaming freely.
While police in two states continue to search for Manesar, the deaths of Junaid and Nasir have brought to attention this trend of cow vigilantes posting violent videos, with social media companies beginning to crack down.
On February 28, 2023, YouTube reportedly “indefinitely suspended” Manesar from its Partner Program, took down nine videos from his channel for violating “Community Guidelines,” and put age restrictions on two others.
A spokesperson for the platform said YouTube has “well-established Community Guidelines” that detail the type of content that isn’t allowed on our platform, including policies that prohibit hate speech, harassment, and harmful or dangerous content, adding that they “quickly remove violating content when flagged.”
However, at the onset of reporting this story, Manesar’s YouTube account was still active. His account was since removed.
A spokesperson for Meta noted it has “clear rules prohibiting particularly violent or graphic material on our platform. We remove content that breaks those rules and disable accounts for repeated violations, as we’ve done here,” referencing its removal of Manesar’s account.
Instagram, however, reportedly gave a blue verified badge to Manesar’s account almost two months after the killings of Junaid and Nasir, before also finally taking his profile down in April 2023.
But whenever an account is removed, dozens appear to sprout in its place.
Sajida Begum (Junaid’s wife) and Parveena (Nasir’s wife) are currently observing their iddat (period of mourning), but Sajida told the Daily Dot that her husband was their family’s sole breadwinner and she is now struggling to make ends meet, even as Ismail and other family members have stepped up to help her and her six children.
“My husband and Nasir were innocent, what was their crime? Why did these people [cow vigilantes] kill them?”
While social networks have begun to take action against cow vigilantes like Manesar, they are only part of the country’s burgeoning network of content creators garnering a following out of hate and violence.
In the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, a popular content creator named Radha Semwal Dhoni is gaining traction on Meta.
Dhoni is a far-right Hindu nationalist who films herself and her aides destroying Islamic graves known as mazaars, as well as uploading videos inciting hate speech and violence against religious minorities. In late January, she posted a video of herself attacking local Christians, accusing them of making money by forcefully converting people.
Dhoni also went on to slap and physically abuse two of them. In another video, she is seen accosting village locals paying obeisance to a mazaar, yelling at them for being “fake Hindus.”
Renu Chaudhary, a local leader of the ruling BJP’s Mahila Morcha (women’s wing), told the Daily Dot that Dhoni had not even spared people from her party.
“I am from the BJP Mahila Morcha of my area, but she attacked me and my brother. She even went on to share my personal cellphone number on her Facebook with over 13,000 followers. I kept on getting calls from unknown numbers and was harassed thanks to this,” Chaudhary said.
Dhoni’s native state of Uttarakhand is also home to far-right Hindu seers, some of whom have posted virulent sermons to Meta and YouTube.
Among these is Swami Jitendranand Saraswati, a militant monk with over 145,000 subscribers on YouTube and 50,000 followers on his verified Facebook page.
Known for his anti-Muslim speeches delivered in Hindi, Saraswati uploaded a video to YouTube on February 17, 2022, in which he called for tearing apart the wombs of “anti-national” women.
Prateek Waghre, policy director at Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), an Indian nonprofit working for digital rights, said that the “detection of hate speech on online platforms is difficult but these companies should put more efforts to detect and take action against hate content on their platforms as they have policies against hate speech.”
But given the popularity of the nationalist movement in India right now, there isn’t a strong motivation to quickly pull these popular videos.
“It has engagement. The companies look at engagement and business, so they want to delay the action as much as possible,” he said.
One of the early inspirations for this crop of content creators was Rambhakt Gopal, a Hindu extremist who made headlines in January 2020 after he shot at students of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia (a central university of India) He went live on his Facebook minutes before he opened fire.
Meta removed the account after public outrage.
After coming out on bail, Gopal became a social-media hero for the Indian far-right. In May 2021, he used Facebook Live on a new account to give an incendiary speech against Muslims in the Indian state of Haryana, calling upon Hindus to assemble in support of those accused of murdering a Muslim man.
“We won’t even spare your [Muslims’] unborn if our sisters’ honor is touched. We will set the area on fire,” Gopal said.
Despite his repeated posts calling for violence, Instagram only suspended his account when his content created wide public outrage and he was arrested for a second time in July 2021.
He was out on bail two months later. Soon, he started posting violent videos in the name of cow protection.
In April 2022, he shared a video on his new Instagram account in which men with pistols were dragging and taking away a man forcibly in their vehicle.
Gopal captioned this video, “taking away the cow smuggler.”
Gopal is active again on Instagram with his 18th account, highlighting just how frequently these violent voices can evade detection.
But social media crackdowns, even when effective, can only do so much against hate speech.
Waghre, of the IFF, believes the importance of moderation is overstated in the face of a deeper social rot.
“The acceptance of hate speech needs to be reduced at the societal level because tech companies cannot solve this problem completely,” he said.
But as a nationalist movement in India continues its rise, that prospect seems distant.