The beating that ended Pehlu Khan’s life in April was captured on video.
A group of men hit the 55-year-old man, threw him to the ground and stepped on him in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan. He asked them to stop but they refused.
As the beating continued, people nearby were stealing Khan’s cows. They took the cows to a nearby Hindu-run shelter that accepts stolen cows and sells them. Cow theft and sales have brought money to needy Hindu communities in rural areas.
About 14 percent of the 1.3 billion people living in India are Muslim. Public attacks on the Muslim population have raised concerns about the direction the country is taking. The attackers are mostly nationalistic Hindus who helped Narendra Modi win the office of prime minister in 2014. They are working as private militias in the cow stealing operations.
Modi has worked since becoming prime minister to persuade the world that India is a good place for foreign investment. But, the violent crime clashes with this image. His strongest supporters are now seen as shaping India through violence and religious discrimination. But public demands that Modi stop the crime have gone unanswered. Many wonder if Modi has enough influence over his supporters to make them stop.
States that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, governs are reported to have had a notable increase in the stealing of cows from Muslims.
There is no official record on the number of cows stolen from Muslims since 2014. But Reuters news service says it spoke to two main northern Indian groups of cow thieves, called cow protectors there. Reuters reports they said they had stolen about 190,000 cows since Modi’s election. Sometimes they stole them in the presence of police, the groups’ leadership reportedly said. Reuters reports the groups also said Muslims were the victims in almost every case.
It is difficult to put value on the stolen cows. Prices go as high as $385 for young healthy animals. That is a lot of money in India, where some 270 million people live on less than $2 a day.
Hindus view cows as holy animals. The killing of cows for meat is illegal in most of India. Dinesh Patil is a district head of the Bajrang Dal group in the southwestern state of Maharashtra. The group is closely linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a major nationalist Hindu organization.
Patil told Reuters, “Everyone in this world is born Hindu. They are turned into Muslims when they are circumcised and Christians when they are baptized.”
The RSS argues that foreign intervention by Muslims and then Christians has polluted India’s purity for more than one thousand years. The RSS helped create Modi’s political party. The prime minister first attended the group’s meetings as a child.
Patil said that the Bajrang Dal took almost every one of the 1,700 cows at the center he manages from, in his words, “Muslim slaughterers.”
Sudhanshu Trivedi is a national spokesman for the ruling BJP. He said his party expects anyone with knowledge of illegal acts, such as cow slaughter, to tell the police. He added that in cases where cows were taken, it was because their owners had broken laws.
“It is not redistribution of wealth. It is just stopping of illegal activities,” he said.
Modi’s office directed Reuters to the Home Ministry for comments on this issue. The ministry said it is “not correct” that cow stealing has risen on Modi’s watch. Also, it said it is “preposterous” to suggest that Hindus are organizing to steal and redistribute cattle.
Some people have taken the law into their own hands “in the name of protecting the cows,” the ministry noted in a written statement. But, it said, “the Government is committed to protecting the legal rights of all citizens, including minorities in India.”
The Supreme Court has also dealt with the issue. In September, the court ruled that central and state governments must deploy police to prevent cow theft and related violence.
Some Hindu activists seem to ignore Modi’s calls to end the attacks. One group of cow protectors, known as Bharatiya Gau Raksha Dal, claims 10,000 members mostly in western and northern Indian states. Pawan Pandit, a part-time computer program engineer, is their leader. He said the prime minister’s condemnation of what he called “anti-social activities” did not move the group to stop.
“The cow protection movement totally belonged to the BJP before 2014,” Pandit added. “Now groups like ours have the momentum.”
He said militias operating under his cow protection group captured as many as 60,000 cows in the three years before Modi came to office. Since 2014, Pandit noted, the group has taken more than 100,000 cows, often working with police.
I’m Pete Musto. And I'm Caty Weaver.
Zeba Siddiqui, Krishna N. Das, Tommy Wilkes and Tom Lasseter reported this for the Reuters news service. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Is religious conflict a problem in your country? How does your government deal with unfair treatment of minorities? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
theft – n. the act or crime of stealing
district – n. an area or section of a country, city, or town
circumcise(d) – v. to cut off the skin at the end of the penis of a man or boy, or outer sexual organs of a woman or girl, mainly for religious reasons
baptize(d) – v. to officially make someone a member of a specified Christian church through the ceremony in which a small amount of water is placed on a person's head or in which a person's body is briefly placed under water
slaughterer(s) - n. someone who kills animals for food
redistribution – n. the act of dividing something among a group in a different way
preposterous – adj. very foolish or silly
cattle – n. cows, bulls, or steers that are kept on a farm or ranch for meat or milk
committed – adj. willing to give your time and energy to something
momentum – n. the strength or force that allows something to continue or to grow stronger or faster as time passes