TARANAGAR (India) • A truck screeches to a halt on an Indian highway in the middle of the night and devout young Hindus, armed with sticks, scramble inside, searching for cows they consider sacred.
Almost every night, the vigilantes lie in wait for suspected cattle smugglers in the desert state of Rajasthan, ready to fight to protect the animals, a revered symbol of India's majority Hindu religion.
"Smugglers often open fire or try to run us over. I even get death threats, but nothing bothers me," said Mr Babulal Jangir, 42, a leader of the Gau Raksha Dal (Cow Protection Squad).
Cow slaughter and consumption of beef are banned in Rajasthan and many other states of officially secular India, which has substantial Muslim and Christian populations. But the recent killing by Hindu mobs of at least three Muslims suspected of eating beef or smuggling cows had heightened fears of rising violence against religious minorities.
The deaths have also sparked a wider debate about growing religious intolerance since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government came to power last May. The government has been accused of failing to rein in Hindu hardliners, while its ministers have, at times, appeared to be inflaming the debate. However, Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party suffered a crushing blow in a weekend state election, in part, analysts said, because of its attempts to polarise voters along religious lines.
Mr Jangir said his squad has grown to some 20,000 members, ranging from farmers to lawyers and teachers, along with a fast- growing network of informers prowling Rajasthan's major roads.
Said Mr Zafarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, a leading Muslim body: "They (right-wing groups) have their goons going around saying 'we will dispense justice, there is no need for courts'. What is really sad is that they seem to enjoy police and political patronage."
Mr Jangir, who runs a furniture business, and his team have no qualms about dispensing "rough justice", usually in the form of beatings.