“It was the second time I had a panic attack in my life. It felt like I was losing something important. I had heard so many wrong things about me and Ahmed. They called me a wh*re and threatened to kill him. I got scared because I thought Ahmed would die because of me. I don’t remember the next 12 hours following the panic attack. My sister tells me that I was acting like a child. I was taken to the hospital and given two bottles of saline. The doctors had to restrain my hands and legs to control me.
Later on, when I walked on the streets, I felt everyone’s eyes were on me. After a few days, I stopped going out. These people still keep an eye on me, and follow me wherever I go. Tell me, where did I go wrong? Is loving somebody wrong? Should I check his bio-data and then fall in love with him?”
Sunita and Ahmed (names changed on request) had been close friends for five years before they got into a relationship. The two would often visit each others’ homes and spend time together. None of their families ever objected to the relationship. Like many other young couples, they posted their pictures on their Instagram accounts, and both of them had public profiles on the photo-sharing app. One fine morning, it all changed.
One day in late May 2023, Sunita received an Instagram message from a stranger, informing her that screenshots of her Instagram account and her pictures with Ahmed were being circulated on social media. Within an hour, her inbox was flooded with abusive messages and threats. The messages questioned her relationship with a Muslim man and wished her dead. Initially, she chose to ignore them, but to her horror, strangers began harassing and threatening her friends and followers online. They even tried to falsely implicate her male Hindu friends, and claimed they were Muslims trying to ‘trap Hindu girls’ in a planned conspiracy. The bullies declared that Sunita would soon be found in a suitcase or a fridge.
“They started commenting on my posts. When I blocked comments, they started sending me messages. When I blocked message requests, they started circulating screenshots of my Instagram posts”, she told Alt News.
Soon, Sunita’s online nightmare spilled into the real world. The news of Sunita’s interfaith with a Muslim man reached local Right-Wing activists. According to her, a few days later days, around 25 Right Wing activists reached her house and hurled abuses at her from outside. Sunita’s father, who was also threatened by the Bajrang Dal workers, pleaded with Sunita to break up with Ahmed for his sake.
Sunita is still rebuilding her life after it was abruptly disrupted six months ago. She now avoids returning to her hometown from college during her vacations.
How was Sunita and Ahmed’s relationship discovered by so many people? Who are these online vigilantes who made her the victim of targeted harassment and bullying? Was Sunita the only victim?
Who are These Vigilantes?
The most alarming aspect of Sunita’s story was the extensive amplification of her personal details. She fell victim to a growing trend of online harassment of inter-faith couples, often consisting of a Hindu woman and a Muslim man. The nature of harassment is quite similar to the trend of Doxxing (a term derived from the phrase ‘dropping dox (documents)’, which refers to the objectionable practice of publication or amplification of a person’s private information and personal details, particularly on social media, by an unauthorized individual with malicious intent. Given the deep communal divide that the Indian society has witnessed in the last decade or so, the online invasion of one’s personal space often has disastrous consequences, specially when the question of one’s religion is involved.
Online vigilantes against ‘Love Jihad’ who engage in this practice believe they are acting in the victims’ best interests. Alt News’s investigation revealed that the Right Wing meme page Squint Neon with over 1,00,000 followers on X plays a leading role in spearheading this vigilantism.
Over the past year, we noticed a pattern in this ‘vigilantism’. The modus operandi for these vigilantes includes looking for inter-faith couples on social media, and amplifying their pictures, often taken from Instagram, on their social media accounts with huge following. Most of the followers of these accounts subscribe to the theory of ‘Love Jihad’, and are against inter-faith relationships, especially involving Muslim men and Hindu women. Once such a relationship is exposed to this audience, the couples are faced with a barrage of online attacks including personal messages. Sometimes, these lead to real-life harassment. If the woman has words or phrases alluding to her religion on her social media bio, these are highlighted and mocked. The female Hindu victims are often dubbed as ‘Honda Shernis’, a possible distortion of ‘Hindu Sherni’.
After Sunita was harassed, she went on to receive scores of abusive messages and threats from strangers online. She was told that she would face the same fate as Shraddha Walkar, who was murdered by her Muslim boyfriend Aftab Poonawalla and cut into 32 pieces. Her harassers wished hell upon her for dating a Muslim and said she would be burnt to death. The online attack happened around the time 16-year-old Sakshi was murdered by her Muslim boyfriend in Delhi which had resulted in more surveillance among this circuit. “These people don’t realise that only one share and one comment from their side can ruin a girl’s life”, said Sunita.
Alt News discovered that the Right Wing X handle @_ahania, which has a substantial following on X, was the first major account to target Sunita. @_ahania tweeted screenshots of the victim’s Instagram profile and one of her pictures with her Muslim boyfriend where he was tagged. This was enough for their followers to amplify these details further and throng the victim’s inbox. A user asked in the comments of the tweet if Sunita was still alive, to which @_ahania replied “Till now, yes.”
Squint Neon is also known to be closely associated with @_ahania. Sunita was harassed by Squint Neon two days after @_ahania’s tweet. Her story, however, is just one instance of this atrocious trend. We found that Squint Neon alone has amplified the personal details of approximately eighty women over the past year.
The Squint Neon Saga
Squint Neon is a meme page that was created in 2017 as a parody handle of The Quint after a reporter criticized the nationwide events organized to sing the controversial song ‘Aunty Ki Ghanti. It has been suspended multiple times by social media sites but has returned with different names. A few of the usernames this page has used in the past are @squintneon and @squintnayan, both of which were suspended. But the user resurfaced again, now operating under the fresh alias @thesquind which remains active and is currently one of the most popular Right Wing influencers, mainly owing to its appeal to the urban youth.
Squint Neon’s content is fiercely anti-Muslim. From using the death of photojournalist Danish Siddique as ‘meme material’ to exalting violence against Muslims, the handle consistently posts content which typically warrants the suspension of an account. However, Squint Neon continues to flourish on X even today.
Squint Neon touched another despicable low when it turned the photo of a crying boy from Gaza into meme material and shared several memes with captions like “Tell this to the powder man who has been crying on my timeline for 3 months now”. In one of the tweets, they even announced a ‘meme contest’ and asked their followers to “show their creativity” with the image.
The ‘memefication’ of the war survivor’s photo is part of a larger narrative amplified by the Indian Right Wing at the height of the Israel-Hamas conflict, in which they called into question Palestine’s claims of the human cost of the war on their side. In the same context, #Pallywood started trending on social media which suggested that Palestinians were faking and play-acting injury and death. (Archives- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
In September 2015, after 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched by a mob on suspicion of slaughtering a calf in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, For Squint Neon, Akhlaq’s photo provided another meme opportunity. (Archives- 1, 2, 3)
We also noted that Squint Neon displays a clear bias against Bengalis in several tweets. For instance, the handle targeted a Bengali woman who shared a photo during Durga Puja, stating the festival’s message of unity across religions. Squint Neon’s tweet read, “All cancer patients deserve sympathy except Bengalis,” referencing her short hair. We later found out that she had cut her hair short to express solidarity with cancer patients she works with.
Squint Neon’s verified handle is followed by BJYM national secretary Tajinder Bagga, BJP leader Kapil Mishra and BJP national spokesperson Shehzad Poonawalla.
Online Harassment in the Name of Vigilantism
Alt News monitored Squint Neon’s activities throughout 2023 and discovered that the handle not only regularly harassed interfaith couples, but also retweeted similar posts from other fringe accounts, perhaps with less following, helping those tweets receive increased visibility and traction. We specifically saw an increase in this practice in May, June, July, August, September and October of 2023.
The handle’s first target in May, 2023, was a Hindu woman who was called out for referring to a Muslim man as her ‘love’. Squint Neon sarcastically quoted the phrase ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’ written in her bio. Screenshots of the victim’s private Instagram profile alongside her boyfriend’s were tweeted by the Right Wing troll. The tweet garnered close to 300000 views and approximately 900 retweets.
The victim was later forced to remove her boyfriend’s name from her Instagram bio, possibly after the backlash and bullying she faced. This was made fun of by Squint Neon.
Since June 2023, we saw a significant increase in tweets by Squint Neon wherein they called out several women for being involved with Muslim men. One couple was called out by the Right Wing troll for being involved in a relationship. The woman was a devotee of the Hindu deity Shiva according to her bio, which was used as a taunt by the user. This tweet garnered over 100000 views and close to 1000 retweets.
In the comments, we found that a user had messaged the woman, attempting to ‘warn’ her of the consequences of dating a Muslim. “Don’t love a Muslim person or else you’ll be found in a suitcase”, the user said.
In another case, a woman was targeted by Squint Neon and their army for having the phrase ‘Big Fan of Mahakal’ on her bio and yet being involved with a Muslim man. A screenshot of her private Instagram profile, showing her bio, was tweeted along with another image of her wearing a hijab with her boyfriend’s picture imposed at the bottom. This tweet has close to 200000 views and almost 500 retweets.
A user commented ‘Suticase diya jae tayari Karli isne’ (Translation: Give her a suitcase to get her prepared).
In yet another case, a victim was targeted as she had two images on her Instagram timeline — one where she is seen praying to Hindu deity Shiva and one where she is seen donning a Hijab. Squint Neon sarcastically captioned the tweet, “Mahakal ki Diwani”.
A woman with the word ‘Sanatani’ in her bio was attacked simply for tagging a Muslim person in the comments under a post. Although the nature of their relationship is not clear from the comment, this did not stop Squint Neon from targeting her publicly and amplifying her Instagram username.
After Squint Neon’s tweet, a user commented that the victim had removed the word Sanatani from her bio.
Yet another woman, who calls herself a devotee of Lord Shiva on her Instagram bio, was bullied and harassed. A screenshot of her Instagram bio with her username visible was tweeted alongside two images — a screenshot of a comment by the lady where she declared that she was in a relationship with a Muslim man and an image of the couple.
A woman who was seen donning saffron clothing in her Facebook display picture was publicly called out by Squint Neon for being involved with a Muslim man. A screenshot of her Facebook profile photo was tweeted alongside a screenshot of her relationship update on Facebook, with the caption ‘Har Har Mahadev in dp’.
Squint Neon publicly shamed a woman for having the phrase ‘Mahadev Ki Diwani’ on her bio and yet posting an image on Instagram with a Muslim man, where he is tagged. The Right Wing troll also tweeted an image of the victim where she is seen wearing a hijab and praying. “Inko temple me decent kapde pehenene bol do to apne rights ke upar 2 KM essay likh degi”, they wrote. This particular tweet garnered close to 500000 views on Twitter and 2500 retweets.
In another tweet which garnered over 300000 views and 2300 retweets, Squint Neon tweeted several pictures of a Hindu woman and slammed her for celebrating Navami (the ninth day of Durga Puja) with her Muslim boyfriend (who is tagged in the picture) and wearing a hijab, as seen in another picture.
Two individuals, a Hindu woman and a Muslim man, were harassed by Squint Neon for being romantically involved. The two had mentioned their relationship using each other’s usernames in their Instagram bios. The comments on the tweet included GIFs of suitcases and users speculating whether the victims’ parents were aware of the relationship.
In another incident, Squint Neon targeted a 22-year-old Hindu woman for sharing a picture with a Muslim man. Although the nature of their relationship was not specified, the comments ranged from “XXX (the Muslim guy’s name) alag hai until suitcase comes in picture” to “let them rest in suitcase or into 32 pieces”.
Below is a compilation of several other similar tweets where the administrator of Squint Neon had publicly named and shamed Hindu women for being involved in interfaith relationships with Muslim men. We have blurred out the Instagram usernames of the victims.
Stalking and Targeting Minors
This practice takes an even darker turn when the self-proclaimed vigilantes harass minors. For instance, in September 2023, a fringe account, @Raka440, posted screenshots of a 16-year-old girl’s Instagram handle, claiming that she was in a relationship with a Muslim boy. The screenshots included images of the alleged couple and their respective Instagram profiles. @Raka440 also mentioned the girl’s hometown and school in the caption. Needless to say, the tweet was retweeted by Squint Neon, and it garnered thousands of views.
In another case of targeting a teenager, Squint Neon posted several images of the victim, including one where she is dressed as Lord Krishna and one where she poses for a selfie donning a Hijab alongside her Muslim boyfriend. The tweet garnered half a million views. A user shared a screenshot of the victim’s Instagram story in the comments where she pleads with her harassers to stop sending her abusive messages. “Guys, please stop abusing me about Hindu-Muslim issues. Before you write, don’t you think about what impact it might have on the person reading it?”, she wrote. She also posted screenshots of some comments and message requests that were sent to her. One of them read, “Your body won’t even be found.”
In June, Squint Neon called out a minor Hindu girl for being pictured with a Muslim man. The girl, who claimed to be a ‘Sanatani Hindu’ in her bio, had the religious phrase ‘Radhe Radhe’ in her Instagram bio. Squint Neon accused the man of grooming the girl and tagged the Twitter handles of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, chairperson of NCPCR Priyank Kanoongo, and the local police. In a further attempt at moral policing, Squint Neon tweeted that they also reached out to the victim’s father and asked him to ‘begin the practice of Hindutva should begin at home’.
We reached out to an 18-year-old victim who was harassed last year for posting images with a Muslim man. The victim, who has a minor at the time of the vicious online harassment, told us that approximately 80 accounts had sent her abusive messages after her images were amplified. “They told me, ‘Muslim ke saath mat reh, fridge mein dal dega’, ‘Love Jihad kar dega tere saath’ (Translation: Don’t stay with a Muslim, he will put you in the fridge. He will commit Love Jihad with you).” The tweet where she was targeted was retweeted and amplified by Squint Neon.
Targets Not just Interfaith Couples
We discovered that the range of people that these vigilantes harassed extended beyond interfaith couples. For instance, Squint Neon called out a Hindu woman, apparently a devotee of Hindu deity Shiva, for merely wishing a Muslim man on Eid.
In May 2023, several Hindu women were called out by Squint Neon on X for following 16-year-old Sakshi’s murderer Sahil Khan on Instagram. The tweet garnered over 700000 views. The women who were targeted had religious phrases on their bios, which Squint Neon used as sarcastic taunts.
After being ‘called out’ by Squint Neon, one of the women condemned Sahil’s actions on her Instagram story and requested Squint Neon to stop troubling her. “Sahil will be punished for his actions. Why are you bothering us? We never asked him to harm that girl. We are also crying for that girl. Sahil should face severe consequences…..Please don’t trouble us..”, she wrote. Squint Neon proceeded to share a screenshot of the woman’s Instagram story, along with her handle, further escalating her trauma.
In another case in June, the Right Wing troll tweeted the Instagram bio of a Hindu woman for having the word ‘Alhamdulilah’ on her bio. She was later forced to remove it.
An Abject Failure of X’s Community Guidelines
Most of Squint Neon’s tweets are blatantly Islamophobic and they clearly defy community guidelines of the social media platform. As a result, the handle created in 2017 was taken down by various social media sites. However, Squint Neon continues to be revived using different usernames and thriving among the Right Wing ecosystem.
According to the Targeted Harassment sub-clause of X’s Abuse and Harassment Policy, sharing of multiple posts over a short period or continuously posting replies with malicious content to target an individual is prohibited. This includes accounts dedicated to harassing an individual or multiple individuals. It also prohibits mentioning or tagging users with malicious content.
As is evident from our above documentation, Squint Neon cleverly bypasses these guidelines while still attacking and harassing individuals on X. Firstly, the handle seldom uses abuses or slurs. Instead, it amplifies screenshots of the victims’ Instagram profiles without mentioning their usernames or actual names. This is, however, enough for its followers to find the victims on social media and hound them. Needless to say, the effect of this on the victim is traumatizing. What it also means is that an apparently innocuous image — in most cases a screenshot of an Instagram profile — is weaponized by the harasser, which is less likely to run into the policy parameters than, say for example, some abusive text. By capitalizing on these loopholes in X’s community guidelines and harassment policy, users likes Squint Neon unleash targeted harassment on their targets with impunity.
Besides, Twitter’s private information and media policy clearly states that if any media is shared without consent, potentially causing harm, only the individuals depicted or their authorized representative can report the violation. This would mean that only the victims of online harassment (or their legal representatives or their guardians) can report the tweets. Most of the victims that Squint Neon targets are active on Instagram and Facebook, and hence it is quite natural for these victims to not know who is responsible for the harassment they are facing.
With inputs from Oishani Bhattacharya.
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