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India’s prime minister breaks silence on Hindu cow protectors, calling them ‘fake’

The weapons of unidentified and armed vigilantes can be seen while they are waiting for trucks and transporters to pass by in the hope to stop vehicles of cow smugglers on Oct. 25, 2015, in Marakpur, Rajasthan. (Photo by Enrico Fabian for The Washington Post)
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Hindu extremists beat a group from a lower caste and tied them to a car for skinning a cow, which is considered sacred by the faith. Protests then erupted in the streets, with the lower caste group, known as Dalits, throwing cow carcasses at a government office. The issue stalled India's Parliament last week.

After days of silence, India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, finally joined the fray, decrying attacks by Hindu "cow protection" squads and vowing to investigate those engaged in violence.

“These fake cow protectors, who have nothing to do with cows, are just trying to create strain on our society,” Modi said Sunday. He earlier said he was angered by the “anti-social activities” of such groups.

The prime minister’s remarks have caused a stir in India, where critics have long lambasted the prime minister for not doing more to curb the extremist elements of the Hindu nationalist movement.

Modi urged state authorities to address the problem, and police in the state of Punjab filed a criminal complaint against a cow protection gang leader, Satish Kumar. He grumbled to reporters Monday that he was the victim of politicking before state elections to be held early next year.

But others expressed displeasure.

“There is a lot of opposition among cow protection groups,” one activist, Nawal Kishore Sharma, said Monday. “Today [Modi] is calling us thugs. But our work and night patrol will continue.”

In India, devout Hindus worship cows as sacred beings, and lower caste Dalit and Muslims who run the country’s slaughter and tannery industries have long been prey for extremist attacks. Nearly 80 percent of India’s 1.25 billion people are Hindus.

Many states ban cow consumption and slaughter and impose various violations, but Hindu activists claim they step in because authorities aren’t doing enough.

But since the high-profile beating death of a man accused of eating beef last September, vigilante groups have flourished. At least five more people have been killed and dozens more wounded in attacks, according to an estimate by the Indian Express.

In December, members of a cow protection group in Rajasthan demonstrated to The Washington Post how they arm themselves with rusty machetes and hockey sticks and lie in wait on dark roads, looking to intercept trucks they think are illegally smuggling cattle.

“Either we die or they die. But we won’t let anyone eat beef here,” a 22-year-old farmer, Vijendra Singh, told The Post.