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.
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.
Separately, Reuters surveyed 110 cow shelters or farms, known as “gaushalas,” across six Indian states that were led by BJP chief ministers from before or just after Modi’s 2014 election win. The survey found an increase of 50 percent in their cattle holdings - from about 84,000 head before Modi came to power in 2014 to more than 126,000 today.
The survey, conducted by phone and in person, covered a fraction of the thousands of cow sheds nationwide.
It was not possible to determine how much of the 50 percent increase was due to cow vigilantes, because record-keeping in many cases is non-existent. But of the 110 cattle facilities surveyed, all but 14 said they receive cows from the Hindu vigilante groups. About a third said they sell or give cows away, nearly all to Hindu farmers and households.
In a separate survey, Reuters found that only three of 24 cow facilities in four states not ruled by a BJP chief minister said they sold or gave away cattle - mainly to Hindus - after receiving them. While cattle stock has risen about 40 percent in these gaushalas since Modi took office, only a small part of the increase was due to vigilantes. In many of the cases, cows were donated to the shelters for religious reasons or purchased from cattle markets for fear they would be slaughtered.
It is hard to put a value on the seized cattle because the price of cows ranges from zero for animals near death to 25,000 rupees (about $385), if not more, at cattle markets for healthy milk cows. But taking the average of those two points, just the 190,000 cows captured by the two vigilante groups in northern India would be worth more than $36 million. That is a significant amount of money in India, where some 270 million people live on less than $1.90 a day. In rural areas, home to about 70 percent of the nation’s population, a family’s milk cow is often its most valuable possession.
Cow slaughter is illegal in most of India, while committing cruelty to cattle by transporting them crammed into small spaces is outlawed across the country. Slaughtering buffalo, an animal not considered holy, is allowed, fueling a multi-billion dollar meat export industry that is dominated by Muslims. Penalties for killing a cow differ from state to state, with most ranging from six months to five years in prison.
The fatal assault on Pehlu Khan unfolded among the rolling hills of India’s northwestern Rajasthan state. Travelling with his two adult sons in a rented truck, Khan was headed home to the village of Jaisinghpur in the neighboring state of Haryana. He’d borrowed 40,000 rupees (about $620) to add to cash he’d cobbled together to buy the cows.
His four animals were among 32 other cattle seized on April 1 at makeshift roadblocks near the town of Behror. A day after the attack on Khan and his two sons, police began an investigation against them under a state law barring cow slaughter. On April 3, Khan died.
In its April 18 order following a bail hearing for the sons, a local court noted that the Khan family, found lying injured on the ground, was unable to produce a waybill showing they’d legally purchased the animals. Also, the cows were bound together at the mouth and, the judge noted, “our society does not allow animals to be treated in an inhumane way.”
Khan’s elder son, Irshad, told Reuters that the cows had not been tied together. The receipt they got at the cattle fair where they bought the animals, he said, was snatched by the mob at the start of the violence. The family handed Reuters a copy of the bill that they later retrieved.
A Reuters reporter showed the receipt to clerks and a local official from the office that issues the documents near the fair, in the city of Jaipur. They said the document was authentic and should have ensured safe passage.
The men who delivered the cattle to the local cow shed, with the help of police who rounded up the cows at the scene of the attack, were members of right-wing Hindu organizations, according to the manager of the facility. Survivors said the lynch mob let the driver of the truck, a Hindu, escape.
The shed often receives cattle “taken from Muslims” by Hindu vigilante groups who suspect they’ll use the animals for meat, according to Vijay Singh, its manager. Singh said he sells the best cows to local Hindu farmers and landowners.
Speaking of the men who took the animals from Khan, Singh said they had performed “an act of devotion.”
The cattle shelters range from tiny pastures to large complexes. They have traditionally operated as religiously-motivated charities, taking in cows abandoned by farmers because they no longer produce milk or those dropped off by local government workers who found them wandering the streets.
People involved in snatching cattle from Muslims speak with a triumphant sense that their moment in history has arrived. “Everyone in this world is born Hindu. They are turned into Muslims when they are circumcised and Christians when they are baptized,” said Dinesh Patil, a district head of the Bajrang Dal group in the southwestern state of Maharashtra.
The Bajrang Dal organization is closely linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the nation’s umbrella right-wing Hindu organization. The RSS argues the purity of India was soiled by the foreign intervention of Muslims and then Christians beginning in the 8th century. The RSS helped create Modi’s political party, and the prime minister himself first attended the group’s meetings as a child.
At the complex he manages, Patil said that almost every one of the 1,700 cows grazing outside was “rescued by the Bajrang Dal” from “these Muslim slaughterers.” Patil described how a degree of law enforcement sanction is conferred on the cattle seizures: His group takes the cows and hands them over to the police, who then deliver the cattle to his facility. “The entire investigation and catching of the culprits is done by us,” Patil said.
The police, he added, “have to listen to us because the BJP is in power.”
Told of Patil’s comments, Bipin Bihari, second-in-command of police for Maharashtra, said: “In a way their work supports the police. It eases our work. If they have some information on some illegal activities, they can share it with us, and we act on it. But they are not allowed to take the law into their hands.”
A national spokesman for the ruling BJP, Sudhanshu Trivedi, said
his party expects anyone with knowledge of illegal acts, such as cow slaughter, to inform the police. In cases where cows were taken, he added, it was because their owners had broken laws: “It is not redistribution of wealth. It is just stopping of illegal activities,” he said.
Modi's office referred Reuters’ request for comment to the Home Ministry. The ministry said it is "not correct" that cow vigilantism has risen on Modi's watch and "preposterous" to conclude that Hindus are organizing to confiscate and redistribute cattle. Some people have taken the law into their own hands “in the name of protecting the cows,” the ministry noted in a written statement, but "the Government is committed to protect the legal rights of all citizens, including minorities in India." State governments, it said, have been directed to take “prompt action” against such people.
Reuters found no evidence of a formal plan by the BJP to use cow vigilante groups to engineer the seizure and transfer of cows from Muslims to Hindus.
But in states where the BJP has taken power, cow seizures have ramped up. In the absence of official data on the number of cows taken, Reuters reporting and a review of past incidents show that the largest vigilante groups and the cattle seizures are concentrated in BJP-led states.
One organization of cow vigilantes in the northern state of Haryana has a golden cow with crossed swords and two AK-47s beneath it as its logo. The leaders of the Gau Raksha Dal, or cow protection group, say they have captured up to 120,000 across the country since beginning their campaign in 2013. Most of that activity was carried out after Modi’s victory in 2014, which was followed by a BJP chief minister taking office in Haryana later in the year.
Dinesh Arya, state head of the Gau Raksha Dal, acknowledged his group is breaking the law. Arya produced a list of 27 criminal complaints lodged by cattle traders against his members that he said were still pending. “Seizing cattle is not legal and we know that well. We are not authorized to do this, it’s the police department’s work,” Arya said.
But he claims a higher calling: “Our religion has given us the right to stop our mother being butchered,” he said, referring to “gau mata,” or mother cow. “We have forcefully taken that right.”
Outside his office, a truck converted into a “mobile cow ambulance” used to transport seized cattle bore a bullet hole – the aftermath of a recent gun battle with Muslim “cattle smugglers,” Arya said.
Modi has at least twice publicly criticized cow vigilantism. “Do we get the right to kill a human being in the name of cow? Is this ‘gau bhakti’? Is this ‘gau raksha’?” he declared in a speech in June, using the Hindi phrases for cow devotion and cow protection. “Violence is not the solution to any problem,” he added.
The Supreme Court has also addressed the issue. In September, the court ruled that central and state governments must deploy police officers to prevent cow vigilante violence.
On the ground, some Hindu activists aren’t heeding Modi’s calls. The leader of a group of cow vigilantes, which claims 10,000 members concentrated mostly in western and northern Indian states, said they were unmoved by the prime minister’s condemnation of what he called the vigilantes’ “anti-social activities.”
“The cow protection movement totally belonged to the BJP before 2014,” said the group’s leader, Pawan Pandit, a part-time software engineer. “Now groups like ours have the momentum.”
Pandit said networks of vigilantes operating under his Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal – or Indian cow protection group – captured as many as 60,000 cows in the three years before Modi came to office. Since 2014, Pandit said, the group has grabbed more than 100,000 cows, often working with police.
A similar scenario has unfolded in Assam, where the BJP won power last year. Located in the farthest reaches of India’s northeast, the state is in a region where cow vigilante activity was all but unheard of.
The leader of a right-wing Hindu youth organization said he waited a year for the BJP-led government in Assam to crack down on what his group views as illegal cattle trading. Then, said Balen Baishya, head of the Hindu Youth-Students Council of Assam, he decided that local party leadership was not made up of “hardcore believers.”
On July 2, Baishya said, he and his men seized three vehicles carrying cows. Video of the incident posted to the Internet shows a mob surrounding one of the drivers as a man beat him with a baton while he writhed on the ground and tried to shield himself.
This lawlessness extends beyond the 18 states Modi’s BJP now controls directly or with coalition partners. In the southern state of Telangana, one of 11 states where the BJP is not in power, a man named Purushottam Gupta was arrested shortly after Modi gave a speech in August last year condemning cow vigilantes. Gupta had refused a court order to hand back 20 cattle seized by cow vigilantes and kept them with some 5,000 other cows at a facility next to the ashram where he is the de facto deputy head. Gupta said he was released the same day he was arrested and that the cows have yet to be returned to their Muslim owners.
India’s laws against cow slaughter predate Modi’s administration, and cow vigilantes were operating in India before Modi came to power. At the federal level, the BJP’s predecessor, the relatively liberal Congress party, funded the cow sheds via a federal animal welfare association at higher levels than Modi. Spending from the association’s four main gaushala grants, the primary source of federal funding for the facilities, was about 150 million rupees for the 2010-11 fiscal year, compared with some 58 million for 2015-16, the most recent period available.
But at the state level, BJP politicians have in many cases sharply increased funding for the cattle shed facilities through government bodies. In Haryana, the state where Pehlu Khan lived, the Gau Seva Aayog, or cow protection commission, went from allotting 18.5 million rupees to cow sheds in the 2014-15 fiscal year, when a BJP chief minister took over, to more than 37 million for 2016-17. In Rajasthan, the state where Khan was killed, funding doubled from about one billion rupees in 2013-14, as the BJP captured the state, to more than 2.3 billion rupees in 2016-17, according to a state official.
Officials in two of the states surveyed by Reuters that are not governed by a BJP chief minister, said the government provides no funding for gaushala facilities. A third state does not make payments annually and a fourth, Karnataka in the south, began increasing its grants because of droughts that caused farmers to abandon their cows, increasing the burden on gaushalas, according to the state’s animal husbandry department.
Police completed their formal court charge sheet in May for Pehlu Khan’s death, naming 15 alleged attackers as taking part in the killing. The charge sheet included a statement Khan gave from the intensive care unit at 11:50 p.m. on the night of the April 1 assault. He said of the men who assaulted him: “They were calling themselves workers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal” – both founded by members of the RSS, the nationalist organization that Modi joined as a youngster.
Surendra Jain, joint general secretary for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, parent organization of the Bajrang Dal, said that “not a single person from VHP was involved” in the attack on Pehlu Khan. Asked whether he was certain, Jain said: “I can’t say. We have not looked in detail into these cases.”
“If the sentiments of the majority community are respected, there would be no such incidents,” said Jain. “Can we demand pork in any Gulf country?”
Manmohan Vaidya, national spokesman for the RSS, said his group doesn’t “support any act of violence or people taking the law into their hands.”
Another senior RSS official, speaking on condition he not be named, was more pointed: “Hindus never had the courage to stand up for their religion and now they are standing up,” he said. “The cow issue has led to an awakening.”
In Jaisinghpur, the small, poor village that Pehlu Khan called home, his name is still in a fat, red notebook listing loans given out to villagers by a local dairy operation. Entries on the front and back of a faded page for Khan reaching back to 2006 show that he borrowed money and paid back the loans in milk.
Mohammed Yunus, the 58-year-old patriarch of the Muslim family that runs the dairy, shook his head. He said he had suggested to Pehlu Khan that he make the trip that ended his life, the one to the city of Jaipur to buy cows with his two adult sons. The cattle fair there has better milk cows than the local markets, Yunus explained.
At the district police station, the head constable took out his book of criminal records for the village and searched for the names of Pehlu Khan, the Yunus family, and others interviewed in the area. None of them had been arrested for anything related to cow smuggling or slaughter, according to the records. There were two notations for one of Pehlu Khan’s sons when he was a teenager, one for being found with a dead cow and the other for travelling with animals stuffed in a vehicle.
The son, Irshad, said one case involved a buffalo that was later returned by police, and the other was rooted in a dispute with a distant relative.
In the weeks after the murder of Pehlu Khan, a leader of a small opposition party visited the family home to pay his respects. He gave the Khans something to help pay back the 40,000 rupees they still owed the Yunus family from the loan Pehlu Khan took – something to give Khan’s widow and children hope.
It was a cow.