Cow slaughter and consumption of beef are banned in many states of India.
TARANAGAR, India (AFP) – As a truck screeches to a halt on an Indian highway in the middle of the night, devout young Hindus armed with sticks scramble inside, searching for cows they consider sacred.
Almost every night, the vigilantes lie in wait for suspected cattle smugglers in the desert state of Rajasthan, ready to fight to protect the animals, a revered symbol of India s majority Hindu religion.
“Smugglers often open fire or try to run us over. I even get death threats but nothing bothers me,” said Babulal Jangir, a leader of the Gau Raksha Dal (Cow Protection Squad).
“My heart beats only for my dear cow mother.”
Cow slaughter and consumption of beef are banned in Rajasthan and many other states of officially secular India, which has substantial Muslim and Christian populations.
But the recent killing of at least three Muslims suspected of eating beef or smuggling cows by Hindu mobs have heightened fears of rising violence against India s religious minorities.
The deaths have also sparked a wider debate about growing religious intolerance since Prime Minister Narendra Modi s Hindu nationalist government came to power at general elections last May.
Dozens of authors have returned India s highest literary award in protest over the rise in violence, which they fear includes the recent murder of a secular intellectual, while petitions demanding government action have attracted signature from scientists, actors and filmmakers.
The government has been accused of failing to rein in Hindu hardliners, while its ministers have at times appeared to be inflaming the debate.
Modi s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered a crushing blow in a weekend state election, in part, analysts say, because of its attempts to polarise voters along religious lines.