The beating that ended Pehlu Khan’s life was televised nationwide. Cell phone video captured a group of men punching and slinging Khan around the middle of a road in north India, stomping on him and then slamming the 55-year-old farmer down on concrete as he begged for mercy.
Khan had been stopped by the lynch mob of right-wing Hindus as he rode home from a market in April with two cows and two calves in the back of a truck. The crowd was furious at the sight of a Muslim transporting animals held sacred by Hindus, according to the accounts of his sons and two fellow villagers who were also attacked. Before the men beat Khan so badly that he later died, breaking his ribs in multiple places, they screamed that he was planning to slaughter the cattle for beef.
Outside the frame of the video, something else was happening: Pehlu Khan’s cows were seized. They were hauled off to a nearby Hindu-run shelter that takes in cattle snatched from Muslims and sells them.
Assaults meted out in broad daylight against India’s Muslim population, some 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people, have sparked concern about the direction the country is taking under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There has been another, less noted dimension to the violence: The theft from Muslims and redistribution to Hindus of cows that provide crucial income in the Indian countryside.
Such scenes clash with India’s image as an investor darling in Asia and the pro-business message Modi broadcasts to foreign investors. But three and a half years after his electoral victory, the cow seizures illustrate how the nation’s right-wing Hindu factions that propelled Modi to power are now shaping India and stirring religious upheaval.