PATNA         -         A mob in an Indian village has beaten to death three men suspected of trying to steal cattle in the latest “cow vigilante” attack that highlights hardening Hindu nationalism and provokes alarm among the country’s religious minorities.

The three men were caught by some villagers in Saran district’s Pithauri village in the eastern state of Bihar early on Friday while trying to load cattle on a pick-up truck, police official Har Kishore Rai told a private news agency.

“They were trying to load a buffalo and a calf when some villagers woke up and took the three into their custody and beat them up,” Rai said, adding that the men had died. At least one of the dead was Muslim.

A fourth man was in critical condition in hospital after the attack. As news of the deaths spread, Pithauri residents went to the hospital to stage an angry protest, police said. Relatives of the dead beat up a man from the village.

Police have arrested three people and filed a case of murder against four more from the village, local administrative official Lokesh Mishra told.

LYNCHINGS ON THE RISE

Hinduism, India’s dominant religion, considers cows sacred, and killing them is taboo. Many Indian states ban cow slaughter or eating of beef.

In recent years, Hindu mobs have lynched many people from marginalised groups, especially Muslims and Dalits (the least-privileged caste), often over suspicions of cow slaughter.

Activists have tracked a rise in the number of mob lynchings in the last five years that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power. At least 44 people were killed in cow-related violence between 2015 and 2018, according to the Human Rights Watch. At least three other cases were reported this year before the latest killings in Bihar.

India’s Supreme Court last year recommended making mob lynching a separate offence. Opposition parties in Bihar have demanded a separate law against mob lynching in the state, where they say the problem is growing.

On Friday, the opposition Congress party accused the Bihar government of failing to protect the minorities. The BJP is a member of the ruling coalition in the state.

“Three people were beaten to death and are victims of mob lynching. But the government will give a different version of the incident to save its skin,” Congress legislator Premchand Mishra said in the state assembly.