In the early hours of Sunday morning, at around 3am, Akbar Khan was laid to rest in his village in northern Indian Haryana state.
The previous evening, Akbar’s family and villagers had placed his lifeless body out on a road near the Alwar-Delhi highway to protest against his brutal killing.
Akbar, a 28-year-old Muslim man, was beaten to death by a group of so-called cow vigilantes on Saturday in Lalawandi village in western Rajasthan state while transporting cattle, local police said.
His relatives refused to bury him until they had assurances that the government would act against the perpetrators.
Hindu vigilantes often roam the roads in northern India to protect cows, which they believe to be sacred, frequently resulting in assaults against India’s Muslim population – some 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
This is not the first case of anti-Muslim hate crime in Rajasthan state.
Last year, a Muslim dairy farmer called Pehlu Khan was attacked and killed by scores of Hindu cow vigilantes on a highway in Rajasthan, while in June two Muslim men were lynched in eastern Jharkhand state on charges of cattle theft.
According to local media, an autopsy report following Akbar’s death said the beating had broken his ribs, causing water to fill his lungs.
Akbar’s friend, 30-year-old Aslam Khan, was travelling with him at the time of the attack.
Still shaken, Aslam said they were returning home on Saturday night after buying two cows, when they were accosted by a group of men. Aslam ran and hid in a nearby field while Akbar was clubbed to death.
“Me and Akbar had gone to buy cows on July 19 to Khanpur village in Alwar. We bought a dairy cow and a calf for 60,000 rupees ($873). On the night of the 20th, we left Khanpur to head home to Kolgaon,” Aslam told Al Jazeera.
“Akbar was holding the ropes we had tied to the cow and I was walking behind him. Suddenly, we heard the roar of a motorcycle and some firing in the air. Immediately both of us let go of the cows and ran. I hid in the cotton fields while those men caught up with Akbar and started thrashing him. I could hear him screaming but I fled to save my life,” he said.
|Aslam Khan was with Akbar at the time of the attack [Mohammed Younus Alvi/Al Jazeera]|
Anil Beniwal, a senior police official in Alwar, Rajasthan, confirmed that the state police have arrested three people and are looking for two more suspects.
“The charges filed against the accused include that of murder, wrongful restraint, voluntarily causing hurt,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We have recorded the statement of the second person who ran away from the scene,” said Beniwal, referring to Khan. “Our probe is ongoing,” he added.
“There was no dying statement. But as we were moving [Akbar] to the hospital before he died, he told us his name and the place from where he bought the cows.”
‘Growing climate of hate’
Cow slaughter is a contentious issue in India with many states, including Rajasthan, outlawing the practice. Some have also banned the sale or transport of beef products.
But cows provide crucial income to many in the Indian countryside. According to his family, Akbar used to sell milk from the cows he owned to dairy owners.
“Who will take care of my seven children, all minors, now that their father has been killed?,” asked Asmina, Akbar’s wife.
“The guilty should be punished, my husband’s killers must be hanged. The government must give me and my family justice,” she said.
Akbar’s eldest daughter is 14 while his youngest child is just two years old.
|Cows provide income to many in India’s rural communities, such as Kolgaon village, where Akbar lived [Mohammed Younus Alvi/Al Jazeera]|
“When will this madness stop? How many widows, how many orphans will satisfy your [cow vigilantes] bloodlust?” Zakir Nambardar, a resident of Kolgaon village, said.
A “Meo Panchayat”, local village council comprising of members of the Meo Muslim community, held an emergency meeting on Sunday afternoon in Alwar district where Akbar was killed to demand justice.
Activists say Hindu far-right groups have been emboldened by n Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise to power in 2014. Leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have openly declared India a nation of Hindus, posing a challenge to its multi-faith constitutional commitment.
Earlier this month, Jayant Sinha, a Minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government honoured seven men convicted of killing a meat trader in the name of cow protection in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.
The ruling party has denied allegations of stoking communal tensions.
Thirty-four people have been killed in cow-related violence in India in the past four years since 2014 when the Hindu nationalist BJP came to power, according to data portal IndiaSpend.
According to activist and former bureaucrat Harsh Mander, there is a “growing climate of hate” in India against Muslims.
“These mobs are acting out their hate and prejudice through these hate crimes,” he told Al Jazeera.
“There is no simple solution to it, there has to be a political push-back. The role of the police in many cases is frightening, the police is either allowing the mob to act or sometimes they are part of the mob. Often, they have registered cases against the victims rather than the lynchers.”
About a fifth of India’s 1.27 billion people identify as belonging to faiths other than Hinduism.