On February 16, police in Haryana, a state in northern India, said they had found a blackened, burned SUV in a deserted rural district. The remains of two bodies were found inside the car. It could have been an accident, the police said, as they announced that forensic teams had been dispatched to the site. It could also have been murder.

As it turned out, it was murder. But this was no gangland killing, no drug deal gone sour or any other cinematic cliche. 

The bodies found in the car were those of two Muslim men, Nasir and Junaid, from the neighboring state of Rajasthan. Their families had reported both men as missing and, after their bodies had been found, alleged that they had been kidnapped and burned alive by activists from the militant Hindu supremacist group Bajrang Dal. One of the murdered men had been accused previously of so-called “cow smuggling.” 

In India, transporting cattle across state lines is restricted because, in several states, cattle slaughter is illegal. Many Hindus consider cows to be holy — symbolic of Mother Earth, of nature and its bounties. While cow slaughter is taboo in much of India, beef is still a part of the diet for many Indians, including Hindus. Much of this “beef” is water buffalo meat, and its export has made India one of the world’s largest beef-exporting countries alongside Brazil, Australia and the United States. 

But since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, a cottage industry of vigilantes has mushroomed, claiming that they are protecting cows from being transported for slaughter. These vigilantes, almost always Hindu, beat up, torture and even kill men, almost always Muslim, who they claim are cattle smugglers. Sometimes they film these actions for their followers on social media.

The violence of these cow protectors, gau rakshaks as they are called in Hindi, are a bloody reminder of India’s divisions under Modi. For all his talk of a resurgent India, an India defined by its world-beating economic growth, its geopolitical maturity and its superpower ambitions, Modi’s legacy might yet be tainted by the actions of militant Hindu groups.

Several men have been identified as suspects in the kidnapping and murder of Nasir and Junaid last week, though only one has been arrested. Chief among these suspects is Monu Manesar, a man widely reported to be a local Bajrang Dal ringleader. He remains at large. And while he has yet to speak to the police, he has protested his innocence through video messages posted on social media. Manesar is so popular on social media that he has received a YouTube Creator Award, the Silver Play Button, for amassing over 100,000 followers. (At the time of writing, he has over 200,000.)

Indian fact checker Mohammed Zubair posted these images of Monu Manesar, holding his YouTube award (left) and receiving a memento from the Haryana police (right).

And so influential is Manesar in the state of Haryana that at a local meeting attended by hundreds of villagers and right-wing activists, the Rajasthan police were openly threatened with violence if they dared to search for Manesar or speak to his family. The leader of one right-wing Hindu group said the “inhuman” behavior of the Rajasthan police — asking questions — “would not be tolerated.” 

These groups, including the Bajrang Dal in which Manesar is prominent, are not part of some ragtag fringe. They are the footsoldiers of the “Sangh parivar,” the broad family of right-wing organizations, which includes the Bharatiya Janata Party that forms India’s federal government led by Modi. 

According to one study, 97% of attacks connected to cow smuggling between 2010 to 2017 occurred once Modi came to power in 2014, and 24 of the 28 people killed in these attacks were Muslim. Another study finds that just four cow-related hate crimes were reported by the Indian media between 2010 and 2014, compared to 71 between 2015 and 2018. 

Human Rights Watch, in April 2017, called on the Indian authorities to “promptly investigate and prosecute self-appointed ‘cow protectors.’” These vigilantes, said HRW South Asia director, Meenakshi Ganguly, “driven by irresponsible populism are killing people and terrorizing minority communities.” In the Kolkata-based Telegraph newspaper, Indian academic and writer Mukul Kesavan observed acidly that the “cow is so totemic for the BJP that the murder of human beings in this animal’s cause makes responsible leaders resort to silence, deflection, denial, defensiveness or arguments in mitigation that would shame the moral sense of a three-year-old.”  

In June 2017, a young Muslim man was beaten and stabbed to death by a mob on a train. What began as a fight over seats descended into insults about “beef-eating,” said the young man’s brother, and then violence. Modi, as if shamed by the scrutiny of cow vigilantes — scrutiny that was going global and had the potential to embarrass a prime minister not yet halfway into his first five-year term — publicly denounced cow vigilantes. “Killing in the name of a cow is unacceptable,” Modi said. “We belong to a land of non-violence.” 

Just to be sure that questions about cow vigilante violence wouldn’t continue to crop up, the BJP simply stopped tracking hate crimes after 2017. As recently as last year, the BJP informed the parliament that the data “was unreliable,” which was why they had stopped collecting it.  

While Modi has gone on the record more than once to condemn cow vigilantes, the violence itself has not stopped. In fact, it could be argued that the authorities enable the violence. In 2021, the Haryana government appointed “special cow protection task force” teams, which were staffed by several vigilantes, including Monu Manesar. 

Since Manesar was named as a suspect in the murders of Nasir and Junaid, a couple of Indian newspapers and fact checking organizations have revealed just how connected he was not just to BJP officials in Haryana but to the top brass in Delhi. 

Asaduddin Owaisi, one of India’s few Muslim members of parliament — fewer than 5% of MPs in India are Muslim, though Muslims comprise about 15% of the population — told me that Haryana’s special task force gave “arbitrary powers to vigilante groups that circumvent the police and the rule of law.” He said the BJP wants to “create an atmosphere of fear and establish Muslims as anti-Hindu and anti-national, which benefits its politics.” 

Apoorvanand, a professor at Delhi University and prolific commentator on politics and culture, says that the special task force is an exercise in “parallel policing.” He argued that Modi’s previous condemnations of vigilante violence should be taken with a large pinch of salt because the BJP has “normalized a culture of impunity in which vigilantes like Manesar thrive.” What was once a crime, he told me, “is now posted on social media and treated as if it is in service of the greater good.”     

The links between cow protection vigilantes and the Haryana authorities are so tangled that, in the course of my reporting, I discovered that the car in which the Rajasthan police said Nasir and Junaid were abducted once belonged to the Haryana government. It is a car that has appeared in at least two videos posted on social media by cow vigilantes that show them assaulting people and pointing guns at them.

As I interviewed people, I learned that Manesar and his fellow cow protectors terrorized whole neighborhoods, all the while filming their high-speed car chases, their victims with bruised and swollen faces and their guns. Owaisi said more scrutiny should be directed at social media platforms that allow such footage to be posted. In one video Manesar posted to Instagram, men can be seen beating a Muslim ragpicker with bamboo sticks. These are the men, Manesar captioned his video, “who throw stones at our soldiers and Hindutva supporters.”

Monu Manesar posted pictures and videos of his victims, the alleged “cow smugglers” who were detained and beaten up by vigilantes, on his Instagram.

Last month, Manesar was involved in another suspicious death. He posted footage of three young Muslim men with facial injuries. Off camera, a man was aggressively asking for names. One of those men, Waris Khan, died hours later in hospital. His cousin told me that he believes the violent video was shot by the same gang of cow protection vigilantes who killed Nasir and Junaid. Manesar admitted that he shot the footage to the Indian press but denied beating the men who appear in the video. He had just happened upon some men who had been in an accident. The Haryana police, too, said the men had been in an accident.    

The Indian government is notorious for the volume of its requests to take down Tweets, often by verified journalists, for resorting to internet blackouts and for seeking to ban YouTube channels. Big Tech platforms usually comply with these demands. Strangely though, the ugly, brutal videos posted by Manesar and other vigilantes are rarely taken down, even though they violate all reasonable rules of conduct.

When I put the question to Meta, owners of Facebook and Instagram, they bargained for time, claiming to be “investigating the issue” and asking for “specific links/pages that you can share with us,” though links had been shared and the videos widely reported. YouTube did not respond to my numerous questions. “How can these companies be allowed to fund violence,” Owaisi, the member of parliament, asked. “How can they be giving silver buttons to people accused of lynching and mob violence?” 

It’s a question that, more importantly, should be put to the authorities, at both state and federal levels. Why are people still being killed in the name of cow protection on your watch?

UPDATE (2/28/23): After this story was published, YouTube reached out to me to say Monu Manesar has been “indefinitely suspended” from its “YouTube Partner Program,” which means he can no longer make money from the videos he posts. YouTube has also taken down nine videos from his channel for violating “Community Guidelines” and put age restrictions on two others.