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BISADA, INDIA: The vigilantes from Save the Cow sprang into action the moment they heard a rumor that a cow’s slaughtered remains had been found near an electrical transformer looming over the heart of this village. They quickly raised the alarm through text messages and phone calls. A local Hindu priest was asked to alert villagers from his temple loudspeaker.
Soon, about 1,000 men had gathered by the transformer. There was no sign that a cow, a holy symbol for Hindus, had been slaughtered. Nonetheless, the men proceeded through zigzagging alleys to the home of the suspected cow killer, Mohammed Ikhlaq, one of the few Muslims living in this village about 30 miles east of New Delhi.
Ikhlaq and his wife, Ikraman, were on their second-floor patio, dozing after dinner and prayers. Suddenly their home was swarming with men. Ikraman Ikhlaq heard someone shout, “Kill them.” She, her husband and their son Danish, 20, retreated inside, behind a thick wooden door. The mob shattered the door.
“What’s the matter?” Ikraman Ikhlaq cried out. An incredulous voice replied from the dark, “After slaughtering a cow, you are asking us what’s the matter?”
Men began to paw at Ikraman Ikhlaq, so she bit hard into a sweaty hand, broke free and fled downstairs, “too scared to even breathe,” she said in an interview. Upstairs, the mob bludgeoned her husband with her sewing machine and smashed her son’s head with a brick. Then they dragged Mohammed Ikhlaq down 14 cement steps and out to the main road by the transformer, where he was left for all to see.
Mohammed Ikhlaq was declared dead early Tuesday morning, hours after the attack; his son remains in critical condition. But in interviews last week, more than a half-dozen members of Save the Cow expressed little remorse for what happened at the Ikhlaqs’ home.
“It was not our intention to kill him,” said Vichitra Kumar Tomar, a leader of Save the Cow who was not among those charged. “Our intention was to punish him, to slap him or beat him. Just a few slaps. But not to leave him dead.”
Members of Save the Cow said they were motivated to raise the alarm last Monday because of their religious devotion.
“We are more attached to the cow than our own children,” Inder Nagar said.
There is also a powerful political motivation behind their activism.
Many leaders of Save the Cow here are also prominent local organizers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which is vying to oust the socialist party that leads Uttar Pradesh, a vast northern state with more than 200 million residents, including the 20,000 in this village. Tomar, 24, for example, is the general secretary of the local BJP youth wing. Nagar, 33, is the state secretary of the BJP youth wing.
By week’s end, they and many other BJP leaders were blaming the governing party in Uttar Pradesh for the attack in Bisada. The state’s BJP president, Lakshmikant Bajpayee, said in a telephone interview that although he “most definitely” disagreed with mob violence, “the blame for this incident lies squarely with the state’s administration and the law and order machinery, its police.” The failure by the police to respond quickly and forcefully to rumors of a cow’s slaughter understandably enraged Bisada’s Hindu residents, he said.
“This is a fight between the cow caretaker and the cow murderer in the state,” he said.
Save the Cow and BJP leaders here have also roundly condemned the decision by the police to bring murder charges. In their view, the death of Mohammed Ikhlaq was at most the unintended byproduct of a chaotic, highly charged situation of his own making. “He slipped and his head hit the road and he died,” Tomar said, adding: “These things happen. It’s a mob.”
Modi’s culture minister, Mahesh Sharma, who represents this area in the Indian Parliament, went so far as to tell The Indian Express that Mohammed Ikhlaq’s death “should be considered as an accident.”
Beef consumption has long been a subject of controversy in India. It is not hard to find graffiti in rural villages calling for those who slaughter cows to be hanged. Yet the debate about cows has if anything intensified in the past year. At least two states have adopted or tightened bans on the slaughter and consumption of beef since Modi was elected in 2014.
Some trace this shift to Modi, who warned during his campaign that his opponents in the Congress Party would seek a “pink revolution” to vastly expand the slaughter of cows. In speeches, he angrily condemned “the widespread murder of our cows.”
As of Sunday morning, Modi had yet to make any public comment about the attack on the Ikhlaq family – an uncharacteristic silence for a leader who makes frequent use of Twitter. Indeed, Asaduddin Owaisi, a prominent Muslim leader, pointed out that Modi took time last week to send condolences on Twitter to a celebrated Indian singer on the death of her son.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research, a top Indian think tank, accused Modi of tacitly encouraging intolerance and Hindu mob violence by failing to speak out against it.
“The blame for this has to fall entirely on Modi,” he wrote in The Indian Express. “Those who spread this poison enjoy his patronage.”
Cow slaughter has long been banned in Uttar Pradesh. But many BJP officials here insist that instances of cow slaughter are on the rise. They accuse Muslims of stealing cows at night, herding them into trucks and taking them to secret slaughterhouses. The police, they say, turn a blind eye because the state’s governing party is desperate for Muslim votes.
“We have constantly been complaining to local authorities, but we have not got results because the Muslims are a big vote bank for the ruling party,” said Nagar, leader of the state’s BJP youth wing.
Members of Save the Cow said their group was meant to fill the enforcement void. They are ever watchful for cow thieves. To catch smugglers, they look for telltale signs of cow manure spilling from trucks. They follow suspicious trucks to see if they can find hidden slaughterhouses. They raise the alarm any time a dead cow is discovered.
Other vigilante groups have cropped up in this region. A video surfaced in June showing Hindu men in another Uttar Pradesh village beating a Muslim man they accused of being a “cow murderer” and warning that the same fate awaited anyone caught killing cows.
“We have to tackle this problem our way, amongst ourselves,” Tomar said.
Whether their vigilantism found the wrong target last Monday night is simply not open for debate, they say. How did they know Mohammed Ikhlaq slaughtered a cow? A trail of cow blood led from the transformer to the Ikhlaq home, they insisted. (No such trail was found, police officials said.) How could they be sure the Ikhlaq family even eats beef, which itself is not illegal here? They pointed to meat found in the Ikhlaq family refrigerator. (Investigators said the meat appears to be from a goat, although forensic tests were still being done.)
In the meantime, the group is focused on lending moral and political support to the 10 men who have been accused of murder. According to The Times of India, one of the 10 is the son of a local BJP leader.
“They are totally innocent,” Tomar said.
Days after the killing, the Ikhlaq family was still too shocked and overwhelmed to even begin picking up the broken furniture or repairing the shattered doors. Scores of police officers protected their home on all sides, and a steady parade of journalists made their way down the alley to ask the same basic question: Why were the Ikhlaqs singled out?
“We have been living in this village for decades and never picked as much as a fight with anyone,” Ikraman Ikhlaq said quietly. Her daughter, Shaista, 18, was reeling from having recognized several neighbors in the mob that attacked them so relentlessly.
“If they suspected we had slaughtered a cow, why did they not file a police complaint against us?” Shaista Ikhlaq asked.
“Who gave them the right to kill my father?”