In 2014, when BJP legislator Hare Krishna Singh allegedly led a mob to raid a truck full of cows and oxen and distributed them among villagers in Jharkhand, local residents hailed him as a hero.
Left leaders and activists said the Manika MLA appeared part of a planned campaign against minorities in the name of cattle trade and beef consumption but their words fell on deaf ears.
Fast forward two years, and the warning seems to be becoming a reality. Once a Maoist bastion, the Latehar region has seen a rise in communal clashes over cattle trade with Muslim communities saying they’re being targeted.
Last Friday, two Muslim traders -- Mazlum Ansari, 32, and Imteyaz Khan, 13, -- were hanged to death in Balumath allegedly by a Hindu mob when they were herding cattle to a fair in the adjacent Chatra district.
Police have arrested five suspects, including a member of a local cow protection group, and is hunting for three more suspects, one of them a Bajrang Dal activist.
Communal passions in the sensitive region have run high since a ‘save cow’ movement was launched two years ago. Beef is banned in BJP-ruled Jharkhand but cattle trade is booming in the state.
Opposition parties say Hindu groups -- especially the Bajrang Dal -- launched a campaign under the banner of the Bharatiya Gau Kranti Manch against cow trafficking to slaughter houses or Bangladesh.
As part of the campaign, Manch members in Latehar allegedly beat up people caught herding or transporting cattle.
They hold public rallies inviting cow protection preachers and reportedly scribble inflammatory messages on walls. Group members are also active on social media.
Manch members concede running campaigns to protect cows ‘democratically’ but deny using any form of violence.
“Among the five suspects arrested in connection with the twin murders, at least three are Jharkhand Vikas Morcha-Prajatantrik (JVM-P) workers,” said Sanjeev Kumar Sinha, state member of the Gau Kranti Manch.
Leaders of the JVM-P led by Babulal Marandi were the first to hold the RSS and the BJP responsible for the murders of the two cattle traders.
Sinha said several Muslims are part of their ‘save cow’ movement and speak at public programmes on why protecting cows is significant scientifically, socially and religiously.
At Arahara,the village of slain cattle trader Imteyaz Khan, Maoist-turned- activist Madan Pal minced no words accusing the saffron leaders of spreading hatred among Hindus and Muslims in the name of cow.
“There is utter anarchy here as MLAs and people in the government are spearheading violent campaigns against a particular community in the name of cow,” Pal said.
Pal said he questioned the Manika legislator on why he took the law in his hands. “The legislator gave no reply and instead cut my phone,” he said.
Singh denied the charges. “The administration had confiscated the cattle from illegal traffickers but had no funds to feed them. The cattle were dying of hunger when we intervened and in consultation with the administration gave them to villagers to save their lives.”