A Hindu priest prayers near his cows that he brought to the site of a protest in New Delhi in March where a 'cow vigilante' group Gau Seva Dal meeting. Cows are considered holy by orthodox Hindus and their slaughter is banned in several Indian states. (Photo by BijayKumarMinj)
Church leaders have condemned the stripping and beating of four Dalit youths by Hindu vigilantes in India's western Gujarat state and have expressed concern over diminishing law and order in the country.
The attack happened on July 11 in the state's Gir Somnath district. The four were alleged to have been illegally trading cowhides. The vigilantes also uploaded a video of the beating on July 13 to social media site YouTube as a warning to others.
Police have arrested three of the five men, who are part of a local team avowed to protect cows from being slaughtered or ill treated. Cows are considered holy by orthodox Hindus and their slaughter is banned in Gujarat and several other Indian states.
Media reports said the Dalits were transporting carcasses of dead animals, which was part of their job as they worked in a tannery.
"One serious question that has to be asked is whether there is law and order in the country or if anybody is allowed to do what they want," Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the Indian Catholic bishops' conference, told ucanews.com.
The bishop said the blatant attack on Dalit people, who live on the margins of the Indian society "is very frightening."
Dalits, often the target of oppression and persecution, belong to the former untouchable castes within the Hindu caste system.
One of the attackers, Ramesh Goswami, who claims to be a member of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that runs the Gujarat state, told media that they had information that a few people were slaughtering cows and eating beef.
Violence linked with cow protection has increased in the two years since the BJP came to power to form the federal government two years ago. In a few cases people accused of eating beef and transporting cows were killed.
Last September, a Muslim man in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was killed on suspicion that he had eaten and stored beef in his house. The incident led to a national outrage and an investigation later proved the meat was lamb.
Father Z. Devasagayaraj, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops' Office of Dalit and Indigenous People, told ucanews.com that in most cases it is the poor and helpless people who are targeted to stress Hindu hegemony.
"These people are easy targets as they belong to the lower section of the society. There is nobody to stand up for them and they do not have easy access to law and justice," said Father Devasagayaraj.
The priest said that religious sentiments of a person need to be respected but "at the same time their [sentiments] should not be imposed on others."
Echoing the same views, Mary John, president of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement, told ucanews.com that such violence has been occurring with impunity over the past couple of years.
"The government has not come out strongly against such attacks," John said. "Those who indulge in such violent activities know they will get off scot-free."
Cow vigilante group "Gau Seva Dal" protesting at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi on March 1. They were demanding that the government declare cows as the national animal. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj)