In India, Hindu nationalists have swept recent elections, and flush from victory, stand accused of using vigilantism to promote a Hindu way of life for all Indians.
At a buffalo market outside the town of Nasirabad in central Rajasthan, transporters say Hindu vigilantes have targeted them on rumors that they have sold, bought, or killed cows for beef.
Mohammad Salim is a driver at this market with its forlorn-looking animals corralled beneath a canopy, twitching in the scorching heat. Salim is a Muslim, like many of the men who work at this hardscrabble market. He was carrying buffalo to slaughter two weeks ago when he says he was stopped outside New Delhi, the Indian capital.
“A car intercepted me,” Salim says. “And a girl got out and said – ‘what’s in your truck?'”
Soon some 15 men were on him — self-appointed cow protectors, according to Salim, who insisted he was transporting cows. They beat him and stole his money. The police who came to the scene extorted more, he says. He is paid less than $40 a run.
“I have been doing this for seven years, and I was never attacked before,” says the bruised 32-year-old Salim. “Now it is happening. And we’re scared.” Older drivers have quit.
Salim Qureshi, the secretary of the market, says even farmers have stopped bringing their old buffalo to sell for fear of falling afoul of the cow protection outfits lying in wait. Business is down 75 percent, he says.
Traders and transporters in Nasiarabad blame Yogi Adityanath, the newly elected chief administrator in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he’s a self-avowed Hindu nationalist. The creation of a Hindu Rastra, or state, is a central tenet for this Hindu priest. In a new report, Human Rights Watch cited his devotion to protecting the cow as contributing to the recent vigilante violence.
Earlier this month, a mob in Rajasthan lynched a 55-year-old driver, alleging he was illegally carrying cows. The state of Gujarat, meanwhile, made slaughtering a cow punishable by life in prison. Other states have strengthened cow welfare rules, which are multiplying.
Most parts of India ban the slaughter of cows, an animal many Hindus, who are the majority, consider holy. For Sadhvi Kamal Didi, it’s a “giver of life.” The president of the women’s wing of the National Cow Protection Group, she says her members will take the law into their own hands when the police don’t.
“We are not going to allow cow smuggling. And we won’t allow them to be slaughtered. Whoever wants to stay here in India, they stay here as a Hindu. This is our country, we should dominate, and things should happen according to us.”
“Anyone who doesn’t like it,” she says, “can go to Pakistan.”
Yogi Adityanath founded a group to advance, critics say violently, a Hindu way of life. The Hindu Yuva Vahini– or Hindu Youth Brigade— recently enlisted police to disrupt a Good Friday church service alleging that Christians were converting Hindus. Police found the claim baseless. Nagendra Tomar is a leader of the Brigade and makes similar charges against Muslims.
Speaking through an interpreter he told NPR, “In Muslim-dominated areas of India Hindu girls are lured into having sexual relations” with Muslim men, “and then they convert them.”
Historian Romila Thapar says the lack of outright condemnation by either Narendra Modi or Yogi Adityanath of the growing zealotry may have emboldened it. Thapar says the two leaders who rely on the allegiance of Hindu nationalists may feel no need to discourage it.
“Now there is a much greater perception that the majority is in power and the majority therefore can do what it pleases.”
But author and historian D.N. Jha says Hindu nationalism cannot succeed in a country whose population is nearly 15 percent Muslim.
“Will we throw them out into the Bay of Bengal?” he says of Muslim Indians. “Why don’t these jokers realize this?”
Thapur sees a larger significance in the current vigilantism that goes beyond acting outside the law.
“It’s an alternate claim to being legal,” she says. “You defy the laws of the state and you do it on the base of having community support, which you have carefully built up. And that is what gives it, in their eyes, legitimacy.”
Cow protection advocate Sadhvi Kamal Didi is in no doubt about where India is heading. And in Narendra Modi she believes man and moment have met.
“For the first time we’ve got a very good ruler in Modi,” she says, “and between the prime minister and Yogi Adtiyanath, we will regain our greatness.”