Death in India: Hindu Vigilantes Are Attacking Muslims in the Name of Protecting Cows

Members of a cow vigilante group pose for a photograph out on a patrol in the hopes of stopping vehicles of cow smugglers November 8, 2015 in Ramgarh, Rajasthan, India. The local 'cow vigilante' group, headed by Nawal Kishore Sharma, is one of dozens of such hard line Hindu cow protection vigilante groups operating across India. The members work various day jobs such as teachers, lawyers, marble sculptors, politicians and by night they patrol on watch for smugglers illegally transporting cows for sale and slaughter. Many also work at the cow shelters where the rescued cows are taken. Allison Joyce/Getty

In a barn in Haryana, a state in northwest India, more than a dozen men are preparing for a night they might not survive. Around them stand injured heifers, many with gaping wounds and broken limbs. The air reeks of urine and feces, and in a bowl on the ground, maggots writhe amid rotting flesh a vet has cut from one of the animal's wounds.

The men, however, are unfazed. They call themselves the Gau Putra Sena, or the Son of Cow army, and their life's mission is to protect cows. In front of them stands their leader, a Hindu militant named Sampat Singh. Tonight, he's dressed in white and showing me two snub-nosed pistols under the dim lights. Soon he and his group will cluster along the nearby highways, stopping and inspecting trucks that might be carrying cows to slaughter. If the drivers refuse to cooperate, the vigilantes will chase them down and force them to stop—even if it means opening fire.

Doing so, Singh says, is simply a matter of upholding the law. In Haryana, as in most of India, it's illegal to kill cows, an animal sacred in Hinduism. The state even forbids drivers from transporting cows to legal slaughterhouses elsewhere in the country. Singh won't tell me whether his men have ever shot anyone, but he says smugglers have deliberately run over and killed five of his men.

As the sky blackens, Singh and his men head for their cars. They're ready to combat the smugglers. "Jai shri Ram," they chant. "Victory to the god Rama."

High Steaks

In June, a data journalism organization called IndiaSpend reported that vigilantes had killed at least 28 people since 2015. Many of the victims, the mobs claimed, were planning on killing or eating cows. Two months after IndiaSpend published its findings, a crowd killed two Muslim men who were transporting the sacred animals.

Of all the victims killed by the vigilantes, more than 80 percent are Muslim. Unlike Hinduism, Islam doesn't prohibit eating cows, and among Hindu extremists, rumors have spread that Muslims are secretly killing the animals. Because Muslims dominate India's buffalo meat industry, the largest in the world, Hindu extremists say they are using the facilities to slaughter cows—something the slaughterhouses deny.

Decades of bloodshed between followers of the two religions have only added to the tension. And as the cow-related violence has increased, organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned India's government, saying it has encouraged the vigilantes by overlooking some of their crimes. The groups allege that some officials within the ruling, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) condone and support what the vigilantes do.

Members of a 'cow vigilante' group look into the back of a truck that the group group chased down on November 8, 2015 in Ramgarh, Rajasthan, India. The driver fled and disappeared into the forest and around a dozen cows were found in the back of the truck. The local 'cow vigilante' group, headed by Nawal Kishore Sharma, is one of dozens of such hard line Hindu cow protection vigilante groups operating across India. The members work various day jobs such as teachers, lawyers, marble sculptors, politicians and by night they patrol on watch for smugglers illegally transporting cows for sale and slaughter. Many also work at the cow shelters where the rescued cows are taken. Allison Joyce/Getty

The BJP swept to victory in 2014, under the leadership of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who erroneously accused the previous government of ruining India's dairy industry by providing subsidies to people who slaughtered cows. He promised to protect the country's beloved bovines, and his rhetoric seemed to resonate with some voters. A year after his victory, the vigilante killings began, and they've worsened.

One of the most brutal came on April 1, when a Muslim dairy farmer named Pehlu Khan was driving home to Haryana with two milking cows in tow. Vigilantes stopped him and accused him of taking the animals to slaughter. Ignoring his papers, which showed he had permission to transport the animals, they attacked Khan and his two sons. Armed with belts and hockey sticks, they beat him so badly they broke 12 of his ribs. Footage taken by witnesses during the assault appears to show one of the attackers repeatedly kicking Khan in the head as he lay on the ground. Some of the vigilantes grabbed a can of gasoline and prepared to set him on fire before police arrived and prevented a public burning.

Two days later, Khan died in hospital.

Buffalo Soldiers

On our way to the checkpoint in Haryana, Singh, the vigilante leader, receives a call from another member of his group. They'd seen a truck, the man says, that appeared off balance, a sign that it might have been carrying animal cargo. The vigilantes tried to wave the vehicle down, but the driver had sped past, causing Singh's men to chase after him and then block his path. Singh orders his driver to head toward the truck, which is parked by the side of the road near the checkpoint.

Within minutes, we arrive to see the sweating driver standing in front of it, sweating, surrounded by the vigilantes. They shine their flashlights inside the truck. Seven buffaloes peer back—four adults and three calves crammed in between the van's walls.

Singh walks over to the driver and questions him about the animals, asking for his identification papers. After a few minutes, Singh lets him go. "Next time you load them, do it carefully," Singh adds, gesturing to the crowded truck. "We wouldn't want to have to react."

The driver gets away, but others haven't been so lucky. Cow vigilantes have beaten up people for legally taking buffaloes to slaughter, and even stolen the animals. Others have allegedly demanded bribes to allow drivers to pass. The repeated assaults have led to a reduction in trade at India's buffalo markets, because drivers are afraid of vigilante violence.

Despite the threat they pose to this multibillion-dollar industry, India's cow vigilantes often continue to act with impunity. In Haryana, where Singh operates, his men carry out their searches with official approval.

At a second checkpoint we visit, two policemen wait alongside the vigilantes, the blue lights of their patrol car flashing. They don't seem bothered that the vigilantes are armed, and they do nothing to interrupt their work. "All the checkpoints are designed with the help of police," Singh says. "The Haryana police department completely supports us in this."

Protesters hold placards as they take part in a sit-in over a spate of assaults against Muslims and low-caste Dalits by Hindu vigilantes, on July 18, 2017 in New Delhi, India. Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times/Getty

Sometimes the authorities play an even more active role. Immediately after the attack on Khan, police charged him and his two sons with illegally transporting cows and causing them harm. (Later, officers filed charges against Khan's attackers, arresting seven men, five of whom are out on bail.) A senior BJP official even tried to place some blame on the dead man. Gulab Chand Kataria, the home minister for Rajasthan—the state where Khan died—falsely accused him of being a cow smuggler and described the vigilantes' actions as mere "manhandling." After heavy criticism, Kataria said that the vigilantes were wrong to use violence but had good intentions.

Prime Minister Modi has criticized the cow-related violence. But he has been careful not to mention the high number of Muslims targeted in the attacks. His opponents say this omission is reminiscent of the Gujarat riots when Modi was chief minister of that state. On February 27, 2002, a train fire killed 57 Hindus, which Modi blamed on Pakistan's security services. Soon Hindu mobs rampaged through the state, attacking Muslims. Around 1,000 people died in the violence, for which many said Modi bore some responsibility. (The U.S. State Department banned him from entering the U.S. in 2005 because of his alleged role in the riots.) In 2013, Modi gave a controversial interview to Reuters in which he said he felt saddened by the attacks in the same way one would if he was in the passenger seat of a car that ran over a puppy.

Now that he is prime minister, Modi might be choosing his words more cautiously, but critics say his antipathy toward Muslims is apparent. (Modi did not respond to requests for comment.) In May, the government declared a nationwide ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter—a definition that includes cows, buffaloes and camels. (Opponents of the ban say the latter two animals were included so the BJP wasn't accused of passing a religious law.) Two months later, the country's Supreme Court blocked the legislation, saying it would affect the livelihoods of too many people—most of them Muslim. In response, the BJP announced it would redraft the bill and try to pass it again.

Critics of the ban say the government wrote it to appease its hard-line Hindu supporters who would like to see the destruction of India's meat industry and the Muslims who profit from it. These Hindu nationalists helped Modi to victory in 2014, when his party won 272 of the 543 available parliamentary seats. Now rumors are spreading among local media that Modi might hold India's next general election in 2018, bringing it forward a year to capitalize on his strong approval ratings. If he does, he'll be relying on his conservative base to carry him to another victory.

In Haryana, Modi can count on one man's support. It's 3 a.m., and Singh remains at the checkpoint, waiting with his men as the trucks continue to roll past. He'll stay out for another hour before returning home to his wife and his 4-year-old daughter. Of all of India's political parties, Singh believes only the BJP understands why he stays out till dawn. They are the only ones who will protect their sacred cows, and the people who defend them.

Mirren Gidda reported from India for Channel 4's documentary series Unreported World. The episode on India's cow vigilantes airs on October 20.