A Hindu religious leader has welcomed the murders of five men accused by a mob of killing a cow, India’s most sacred animal, claiming that the life of the creature is more important than that of a human. The victims in the north Indian state of Haryana hailed from the downtrodden Dalit caste, called “untouchables”.
Police claim a 4,000-strong mob, incensed by the cow skins carried in the men’s truck, attacked the Dalits and killed them. Other witnesses, however, insist the police killed them because they had refused to pay a bribe. Officers then allegedly spread the word that the Dalits had killed a cow to induce a vengeful mob.
To compound suspicions of a cover-up, the officer in charge of the case carried out a postmortem late last week – on the cow. And police have yet to make any arrests.
The case touches on several themes in modern Indian society: police unaccountability; the rise of violent Hindu extremism; and the persistence of India’s ancient caste system.
It also raises the question: can a cow’s life be worth more than that of a human? The answer, says Giriraj Kishore, a leader of the extremist religious Hindu group, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, is yes. Respected Hindu papers such as the Indian Express called it horrific.
Ratan Singh, whose 27-year-old son was burned to death, said the families had been skinning cows for generations, that they had been working on council contracts, and that their truck would never have carried a carcass.
He said that one man was so seriously beaten that police had “to spread the story that they were killing a cow”.
The men’s bodies – “half-burned, their eyes gouged out”, were found in hospital.
“Untouchability” survives in many Indian villages, despite laws designed to protect Dalits, and to reserve jobs for them in the civil service.
Although Dalits are at the bottom of the caste heap, some point out that the cows’ lot in India is not always a happy one either – thousands die each year after ingesting plastic bags from rubbish heaps.