Rakbar Khan, 28, was walking home with two cows he had bought when he was accosted and beaten last month by a group of suspected cow vigilantes in India’s Rajasthan state. He later died in the hospital of the injuries he sustained.
Three weeks later, it appears to be just another quiet day in Khan’s village which lies in neighboring Haryana state – children play, cows and buffaloes lie languidly. But both old and young are huddled in small groups as anxiety and anger grow in Kolgaon.
The latest assault by so-called “cow protection” groups on those they suspect of taking cows for slaughter or of eating beef has raised fears in his Muslim-dominated village that their traditional occupation – dairy farming, is under threat.
Such deadly incidents have surged since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) rise to power emboldened fringe Hindu groups. Hindus consider the cow a holy animal.
The victim’s family says Khan took a loan to buy the cows so that he could supplement his meager income as a laborer and look after his seven children – a common practice in his village where nearly every family has reared animals for generations.
“He had five cows which have stopped giving milk,” says his cousin Mohammad Akbar. “He thought two more cows would provide milk for his kids and he could also sell some in the market to support his family.”
Poorer residents in this economically backward village prefer to purchase cows because they cost less than a quarter of the price of buffaloes. “Four cows give 60 kilograms of milk. People sell it and the money looks after their daily needs,” said 60-year-old Fazruddin Khan.
There are about 1,500 heads of cattle in this village of 5,000 people. But village elders say residents here will no longer add to their stock, even though cows are their economic lifeblood. “This incident has shocked us and we will not venture out to buy cows anymore. We will leave this occupation if we have to,” said Khan.
Three people have been arrested in connection with the attack. But that has not eased fears and the young in the village also worry that the cow has become a lethal purchase. Their concerns are exacerbated because Kolgaon village borders the state of Rajasthan where Rakbar Khan was attacked and cow vigilantes have been active. “With the atmosphere around, the incidents that are happening, we don’t feel like rearing cows. We are scared,” said Hasim Khan, who grew up helping his family rear cows.
While attacks by cow vigilantes have taken place across the country, more have been reported in northern India. According IndiaSpend, a data journalism website, almost all the 60 attacks involving cow-related violence since 2010 were recorded after the BJP came to power in 2014.
The report said 24 out of the 28 people killed were Muslims. Besides Muslims, low caste Hindus have also been targeted by cow protection groups. These groups patrol highways, stop trucks transporting animals, or accost those like Khan with cows.
The BJP has distanced itself from such groups and condemned the attacks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has publicly criticized cow vigilantism, saying that most of them were anti-socials masquerading as cow protectors and called on state governments to crack down on those who incite violence “in the name of cow protection.” And in a recent interview to the Times of India newspaper, he said that “there should be no shade of doubt” that his government is committed to protecting the life and liberty of every citizen.
But as Khan’s village suffers the deadly consequences of such attacks, there is bewilderment here as to why the cow has become a polarizing animal since the BJP’s rise to power.
Rakbar Khan’s distraught mother in law, Kareeman Khan, who has come to console her daughter, points out that the cow is a much-loved animal in such villages -- it helped take care of her daughter’s large family. “We rear these cows with even more love than our children, we bathe them, give them water, feed them, we nurture them longer than our own kids,” she laments.
Khan’s death has shocked both Hindus and Muslims in a village known for the harmony in which its residents have lived for generations. “The atmosphere here is very cordial. We neither shout slogans for Hindus or for Muslims. We are like brothers,” said Har Lal, the former village council head.
Political analysts also question why authorities are not doing more to rein in the cow vigilantes, which they say are fostering a sense of insecurity in the country’s Muslims, who number about 14 percent of India’s population.
“There is a certain climate that has been created, that certain kinds of crime, people will get away with,” said independent political analyst Neerja Chowdhury in New Delhi. “It is not A episode, B episode, which could be anti-social elements taking the law into their own hands. It is a message that has gone that this is where we are not going to be hauled up.”
In Rakbar Khan’s case, for example, police action has come under scrutiny after it came to light that they took nearly three hours to take the injured man to the hospital because they first took the cows to a shelter.