By David Barstow and Suhasini Raj
Amid a politically charged national debate over religious intolerance, a Muslim man was beaten to death on Monday by a mob of Hindus who suspected him of stealing a cow, a revered symbol in the Hindu religion. It was the fourth time in six weeks that Hindus had killed Muslims they suspected of slaughtering, stealing or smuggling cows.
The police found the bloodied and battered body of the man, Mohammad Hasmat Ali, early Monday morning in the remote village of Uchekon Moiba Thongkhong in Manipur, a state in northeast India. Mr. Ali, 55, married with three sons, was a leader in the neighboring village of Keirao Makting, where he was headmaster of a madrasa. Police officials said Mr. Ali had no criminal record and no known links to the cattle business.
“What is happening here is completely wrong — people taking the law into their hands,” Naba Kanta, the senior police official leading the investigation into Mr. Ali’s death, said in an interview. “We face the problem of mob justice in this area, and we are trying to do our best to contain it.”
The recent killings are occurring against a backdrop of intensifying political conflict over laws and policies aimed at protecting cows from slaughter and consumption. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., has pushed aggressively to pass state beef bans. The Delhi police, controlled by Mr. Modi’s government, recently descended in force on a canteen after it posted beef on its menu. (It turned out to be buffalo meat.) On Wednesday, the B.J.P. ran campaign ads accusing its opponents of “insulting the holy cow.”
Several recent cases of violence have involved Hindu nationalist vigilante groups dedicated to protecting cows. The groups, including some with ties to the B.J.P., mobilize members to confront those suspected of slaughtering, eating or stealing cows, sometimes with catastrophic results.
On Sept. 28, a Muslim family was attacked in a village outside Delhi by a Hindu mob that suspected the family of eating beef, an accusation the family denied. The father, Mohammed Ikhlaq, was killed, and his son seriously wounded. Weeks later, another Hindu mob in the Kashmir Valley in north India threw a homemade bomb at a truck suspected of carrying beef; a young Muslim trucker, most of his body burned, died days later. Then, on Oct. 14, a Muslim man was killed in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh when he was attacked by a group of Hindu activists who suspected him of smuggling cattle for slaughter.
These and other recent outbreaks of violence by Hindu nationalists have provoked a vigorous cultural and political backlash across India. Dozens of leading authors returned India’s highest literary award in protest. Hundreds of scientists, academics, actors and filmmakers have signed petitions or spoken out. On Tuesday, Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party and Mr. Modi’s longtime political opponent, led a march in Delhi to condemn “the atmosphere of fear, intolerance and intimidation in the country.”
Mr. Modi’s party has struggled to formulate a response, at one point urging party leaders to temper their remarks, at another point ridiculing the spreading protests as a manufactured controversy. On Sunday, Mr. Modi’s finance minister, Arun Jaitley, went even further, asserting in a Facebook post that Mr. Modi was “the worst victim of ideological intolerance” enforced by “Congress, left thinkers and activists.”
“Their strategy is twofold,” Mr. Jaitley wrote. “Firstly, obstruct Parliament and do not permit reforms which will bring credit to Modi government. Secondly, create, by structured and organized propaganda, an environment that there is a social strife in India.”
The events leading to Mr. Ali’s death are still being pieced together by investigators. But according to Mr. Kanta, the police official, a Hindu man known by a single name, Brajendra, heard dogs barking outside his home early Monday morning.
“Brajendra decided to go out and check,” Mr. Kanta said. “He found Mr. Ali huddled in one corner of his barn, shivering. Brajendra assumed he had come to steal his calf and raised an alarm. A crowd gathered and they started beating Mr. Ali. In the pushing and pulling, and being beaten up, Mr. Ali died.”
Mr. Brajendra has been arrested, and police officials said he had acknowledged his involvement in Mr. Ali’s death and helped identify others in the mob.
In the village of Keirao Makting, where Mr. Ali’s family lives, angry villagers this week staged protests at the local police station, blocked the main road to the city of Imphal and formed a citizens committee to conduct an independent investigation. “How can a man whose family consisted of engineers and doctors, and himself a respected headmaster, steal a calf?” asked Mohammad Raza-ud-din, leader of the citizens committee.
“He never picked a fight with anyone in the village,” Mr. Raza-ud-din said. “The children in the madrasa love the gentle Ali.”