By Rama Lakshmi
YADAVNAGAR, India — Dozens of men spread across the moonlit farm, hiding behind trees and wielding long-handled machetes and hockey sticks. They are devout Hindus, ready to fight for their religion.
They are lying in wait for smugglers’ trucks carrying cows.
“I am a Hindu. It is my duty to protect the cows,” said Rajendra Prasad, 35, who makes religious statues. “I will not allow anyone to smuggle cows for slaughtering.”
“Either we die or they die. But we won’t let anyone eat beef here,” said Vijendra Singh, a 22-year-old farmer.
Almost 80 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion is Hindu, and many Hindus avoid beef because they believe cows are sacred. Eating beef and slaughtering cows are banned in many states and always have been hot-button political issues in the country.
But the mob killing last month of a man wrongly suspected of eating beef has prompted a national debate and calls for tolerance from India’s civil and political leaders, as beef-related clashes have escalated.
Prasad and Singh are members of one of dozens of cow protection squads or “beef vigilante” groups operating across India. These aggressive Hindu squads patrol the streets for smugglers by night and work at charitable shelters for elderly cows by day.
India’s secular constitution directs the government to protect cows, and states that ban their slaughter impose varied punishments for violations. But many Hindu activists say they must step in because authorities are not enforcing the laws.
“Our gods and goddesses reside inside the body of the cow,” said Satya Pal Acharya, a Sanskrit school teacher and a cow protector. “As long as our cows are healthy and alive, our civilization will thrive. Sometimes we have to strengthen the hands of the government to implement the laws.”
The recent violence began in September, when an angry Hindu mob broke down a door and dragged a 50-year-old Muslim man from his home outside New Delhi, following rumors that he had eaten beef. The mob then kicked him and beat him with bricks until he died. When the police sent the meat stored in his refrigerator for forensic testing, it turned out to be goat.
Two weeks ago, another vigilante group fatally beat a truck driver transporting cows in the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh. In Kashmir, a mob burned a Muslim teenager over rumors of cow slaughter. When a Muslim lawmaker in Kashmir held a “beef party” in protest, he was assaulted by lawmakers from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the floor of the statehouse, as cameras rolled.
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