A cow rests next to an empty market lit by the headlights of an approaching truck in Ramgarh, Rajasthan, on Oct. 24. (Enrico Fabian/For The Washington Post)

Dozens of men spread across the moonlit farm, hiding behind trees and wielding long-handled machetes and hockey sticks. They are devout Hindus, ready to fight for their religion.

They are lying in wait for smugglers’ trucks carrying cows.

“I am a Hindu. It is my duty to protect the cows,” said Rajendra Prasad, 35, who makes religious statues. “I will not allow anyone to smuggle cows for slaughtering.”

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

Almost 80 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion is Hindu, and many Hindus avoid beef because they believe cows are sacred. Eating beef and slaughtering cows are banned in many states and always have been hot-button political issues in the country.

But the mob killing last month of a man wrongly suspected of eating beef has prompted a national debate and calls for tolerance from India’s civil and political leaders, as beef-related clashes have escalated.

Prasad and Singh are members of one of dozens of cow protection squads or “beef vigilante” groups operating across India. These aggressive Hindu squads patrol the streets for smugglers by night and work at charitable shelters for elderly cows by day.


Armed vigilantes wait for trucks in the hopes of stopping vehicles of cow smugglers in Marakpur, Rajasthan, on Oct. 25. (Enrico Fabian/For The Washington Post)

Vigilantes keep their weapons close by while they wait for trucks to pass in the hopes of stopping cow smugglers in Marakpur, Rajasthan, on Oct. 25. (Enrico Fabian/For The Washington Post)

India’s secular constitution directs the government to protect cows, and states that ban their slaughter impose varied punishments for violations. But many Hindu activists say they must step in because authorities are not enforcing the laws.

“Our gods and goddesses reside inside the body of the cow,” said Satya Pal Acharya, a Sanskrit school teacher and a cow protector. “As long as our cows are healthy and alive, our civilization will thrive. Sometimes we have to strengthen the hands of the government to implement the laws.”

The recent violence began in September, when an angry Hindu mob broke down a door and dragged a 50-year-old Muslim man from his home outside New Delhi, following rumors that he had eaten beef. The mob then kicked him and beat him with bricks until he died. When the police sent the meat stored in his refrigerator for forensic testing, it turned out to be goat.

Two weeks ago, another vigilante group fatally beat a truck driver transporting cows in the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh. In Kashmir, a mob burned a Muslim teenager over rumors of cow slaughter. When a Muslim lawmaker in Kashmir held a “beef party” in protest, he was assaulted by lawmakers from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the floor of the statehouse, as cameras rolled.


A woman works at a shelter for cows that were seized by vigilantes or during police raids in Ramgarh, Rajasthan, on Oct. 24. (Enrico Fabian/For The Washington Post)

Unidentified men, working at a shelter for cows, take a break in Ramgarh, Rajasthan, on Oct. 24. (Enrico Fabian/For The Washington Post)

Cows that were seized by vigilantes or during police raids stand in a shelter in Ramgarh, Rajasthan, on Oct. 24. (Enrico Fabian/For The Washington Post)

A recent poll published in the news magazine Outlook said that 62 percent of respondents said that the beef-related killings have tarnished the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP.

“The narrow politics propelling the cow agenda and ethnic vigilantism puts roadblocks on Prime Minister Modi’s drive on development,” India Today magazine said in an editorial this month. It added that the mandate given to Modi last year was for economic growth, not for “Hindu revivalism.”

But cow protection groups across India say they feel energized whenever a BJP government comes to power.

“When there is a BJP government, our work gets easier,” said Nawal Kishore Sharma, the bearded chief of the cow protection squad in Ramgarh town in Rajasthan. He is also a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), an affiliate of the BJP.

“When we call the police to complain about cow smuggling, they take us seriously.”

Sharma’s squad has a wide network of secret informers, including students and shopkeepers, who watch traffic on highways. Some smugglers are armed with illegal guns as they transport cows in buses, trucks and even ambulances. Sharma said that makes their work risky. He has been charged in 19 cases for causing religious discord and is a state witness against cow smugglers in 10 other cases.

In July, the squad leaders received a call that a pickup truck packed with cows was passing through town.


Nawal Kishore Sharma, 40, checks the load of a truck forced to stop under the suspicion of cow smuggling in Bilaspur, Rajasthan, on Oct. 25. (Enrico Fabian/For The Washington Post)

A vigilante shows a self-made bed of nails used to stop a truck under the suspicion of cow smuggling in Saman Bas, Rajasthan, on Oct. 25. (Enrico Fabian/For The Washington Post)

At midnight, the men combed the highway and village routes. They placed improvised wooden planks with nails on the road to burst the truck’s tires. But the smuggler kept changing his route. Sharma grew impatient and called the police.

After an hour-long chase, police finally stopped the truck, which was camouflaged in plantain leaves.

“Eight cows were cramped inside, no space to breathe,” Sharma said. “They had tied their neck and legs. Such cruelty to our cow mothers.”

Police arrested two men, sent the cows to a shelter and seized the truck. Local police have registered six cases of cow smuggling this year, police said.

In phone interviews, owners of meat factories in the nearby states of Haryana denied they were selling beef. “It is all a propaganda to defame Muslims,” said one factory manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the controversial nature of the issue.

Others said that beef is a poor man’s meal in some villages.

“Poor Muslim families eat beef because chicken or mutton is more expensive,” said Younus Alvi, who runs a social welfare group in Haryana. “But of late, Muslim religious leaders here have begun telling people that eating beef hurts Hindus and is avoidable under Islam because the cows are illegally obtained.”


Unidentified vigilantes ride armed with sticks and other self-made weapons on their motorbikes in the hopes of finding and stopping vehicles of cow smugglers in Yadavnagar, Rajasthan, on Oct. 25. (Enrico Fabian/For The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, Prasad, Singh and other cow protectors waited all night. No cow truck came. At dawn, an informer called to say that the smugglers had found out about their patrol and stayed away that night.

But it was still a success, the men said.

“Even to smuggle one cow, they have to risk their life,” said Babulal Prajapati, a television store owner and beef vigilante. “That is how strong we are today.”

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