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In Modi’s India, cow vigilantes deny Muslim farmers their livelihood

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By Zeba Siddiqui, Krishna N. Das, Tommy Wilkes and Tom Lasseter BEHROR, India Nov 6 (Reuters) – The beating that ended Pehlu Khan’s life was televised nationwide. Cell phone video captured a group of men punching and slinging Khan around the middle of a road in north India, stomping on him and then slamming the 55-year-old farmer down on concrete as he begged for mercy. Khan had been stopped by the lynch mob of right-wing Hindus as he rode home from a market in April with two cows and two calves in the back of a truck.

The crowd was furious at the sight of a Muslim transporting animals held sacred by Hindus, according to the accounts of his sons and two fellow villagers who were also attacked. Before the men beat Khan so badly that he later died, breaking his ribs in multiple places, they screamed that he was planning to slaughter the cattle for beef. Outside the frame of the video, something else was happening: Pehlu Khan’s cows were seized.

They were hauled off to a nearby Hindu-run shelter that takes in cattle snatched from Muslims and sells them. Assaults meted out in broad daylight against India’s Muslim population, some 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people, have sparked concern about the direction the country is taking under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There has been another, less noted dimension to the violence: The theft from Muslims and redistribution to Hindus of cows that provide crucial income in the Indian countryside.

Such scenes clash with India’s image as an investor darling in Asia and the pro-business message Modi broadcasts to foreign investors. But three and a half years after his electoral victory, the cow seizures illustrate how the nation’s right-wing Hindu factions that propelled Modi to power are now shaping India and stirring religious upheaval. Having stoked Hindu nationalist passions in his bid for the highest office, it’s unclear to what extent Modi can now control them.

The bands of right-wing Hindus who seize the cows are operating essentially as private militias. They are undeterred by the prime minister’s public calls on them to end the violence. States governed by Modi’s party have seen a marked increase in cow theft from Muslims as well as funding for cow shelters that in many cases take in the stolen cattle. Interviews with nationalist Hindu leaders and militia members across the country reveal an impatience for Muslims to demonstrate obeisance to the Hindu majority.

There are no official statistics for how many cows have been stolen from Muslims in incidents involving such groups since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to national power in 2014. Reuters’ reporting across India, though, puts actual numbers on the extent of the cow theft. It also provides the first in-depth look at how the actions of cow vigilantes are leading to further economic marginalization of the country’s Muslim minority. VALUABLE POSSESSION In northern India, the leadership of just two of the main organizations of “gau rakshaks” – right-wing Hindu cow vigilantes, or literally “cow protectors” – said they have taken about 190,000 cows since the year of Modi’s election, some in the presence of police and almost every single one of them from Muslims, the reporting shows.

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