NEW DELHI • 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, Mr Mohammad Hasmat Ali, early on Monday morning in the remote village of Uchekon Moiba Thongkhong in Manipur, a state in north-east India. The 55-year-old was married with three sons and was a leader in the neighbouring village of Keirao Makting, where he was headmaster of a madrasah.
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 are taking the law into their hands," Mr Naba Kanta, the senior police official leading the investigation into Mr Ali's death. "We face the problem of mob justice in this area and we are trying to do our best to contain it."
The events leading to Mr Ali's death are still being pieced together by investigators. But, according to Mr Kanta, a Hindu man known by a single name - Brajendra - heard dogs barking outside his home early on 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."
Brajendra has been arrested, and police officials said he had acknowledged his involvement in Mr Ali's death and had helped to identify others in the mob.
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 (BJP) has pushed aggressively to pass beef bans.
On Wednesday, the BJP 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 violence has provoked a vigorous cultural and political backlash across India. Dozens of leading authors returned India's highest literary award in protest. And hundreds of scientists, academics, actors and film-makers have signed petitions or spoken out.
On Tuesday, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party and Mr Modi's long-time political opponent, led a march in Delhi to condemn "the atmosphere of fear, intolerance and intimidation in the country".
NEW YORK TIMES