In a barn in Haryana, a state in northwest India, more than a dozen men are preparing for a night they might not survive. Around them stand injured heifers, many with gaping wounds and broken limbs.
The air reeks of urine and feces, and in a bowl on the ground, maggots writhe amid rotting flesh a vet has cut from one of the animal’s wounds.
The men, however, are unfazed. They call themselves the Gau Putra Sena, or the Son of Cow army, and their life’s mission is to protect cows. In front of them stands their leader, a Hindu militant named Sampat Singh.
Tonight, he’s dressed in white and showing me two snub-nosed pistols under the dim lights. Soon he and his group will cluster along the nearby highways, stopping and inspecting trucks that might be carrying cows to slaughter.
If the drivers refuse to cooperate, the vigilantes will chase them down and force them to stop—even if it means opening fire.
Doing so, Singh says, is simply a matter of upholding the law. In Haryana, as in most of India, it’s illegal to kill cows, an animal sacred in Hinduism. The state even forbids drivers from transporting cows to legal slaughterhouses elsewhere in the country.
In June, reported that vigilantes had killed at least 28 people since 2015. Unlike Hinduism, Islam doesn’t prohibit eating cows, and among Hindu extremists, rumors have spread that Muslims are secretly killing the animals. Because Muslims dominate India’s buffalo meat industry, the largest in the world, Hindu extremists say they are using the facilities to slaughter cows—something the slaughterhouses deny.
One of the most brutal came on April 1, when a Muslim dairy farmer named Pehlu Khan was driving home to Haryana with two milking cows in tow. Vigilantes stopped him and accused him of taking the animals to slaughter.
Ignoring his papers, which showed he had permission to transport the animals, they attacked Khan and his two sons. Armed with belts and hockey sticks, they beat him so badly they broke 12 of his ribs. Footage taken by witnesses during the assault appears to show one of the attackers repeatedly kicking Khan in the head as he lay on the ground. Some of the vigilantes grabbed a can of gasoline and prepared to set him on fire before police arrived and prevented a public burning.
Two days later, Khan died in hospital.
Prime Minister Modi has criticized the cow-related violence. But he has been careful not to mention the high number of Muslims targeted in the attacks.
On February 27, 2002, Hindu mobs rampaged through the state, attacking Muslims. Around 1,000 people died in the violence.(The U.S. State Department banned him from entering the U.S. in 2005 because of his alleged role in the riots.)
In 2013, Modi gave a controversial interview to Reuters in which he said he felt saddened by the attacks in the same way one would if he was in the passenger seat of a car that ran over a puppy.