NEW DELHI (AFP) - Life for 42-year-old Ashok Malik, a hardline Hindu activist who lives on the outskirts of New Delhi, is dedicated to one cause: stopping the slaughter of cows.
Malik's cow protection team of 30 men is trained to chase trucks transporting cows and raid slaughter houses with the police to nab those selling beef in the Indian capital.
Over the years, a majority of Indian states, including the New Delhi area, have passed controversial slaughter laws which make killing local cows illegal.
The animal is known by Hindus as "Kamdhenu", that which fulfils human needs, and it has a central place in religious rituals as well as free rein to roam in streets — scenes familiar to anyone who has visited India.
"I have saved over 7,000 cows in the last 15 years from being butchered," Malik told AFP proudly.
He and his fellow activists are affiliated to India's main opposition, the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the driving force behind the spread and hardening of cow rights legislation across the country.
Critics say the law deliberately targets Muslims, who tend to be the butchers, fuelling religious tensions that explode periodically in India with deadly consequences.
Early this year, violence erupted in the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh when a Muslim butcher killed a cow in a fit of rage after it had failed to give milk for more than three years.
|Indian Hindu pilgrims feed a cow at Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers, in Allahabad. AFP
Hindu protesters damaged two mosques in response, setting the doors of one of them on fire.
The law allows police to search houses, shops and warehouses and arrest anyone who stores, sells or consumes beef from Indian cows. Offenders face jail terms of up to seven years and fines of 50,000 rupees (1,000 US dollars).
In March this year, the BJP-dominated assembly in the southern state of Karnataka, home to the modern tech-hub of Bangalore, became the latest to pass the cow protection bill despite strong opposition, particularly from Muslims.
The bill awaits the assent of the governor, the head of the state, before it becomes law.
At the end of July, the central state of Madhya Pradesh passed an amendment to a Cow Slaughter Act passed in 2004, so that offenders now face a jail term rather than just a fine.
The issue of cow care and protection has often dominated state politics owing to patronage from the BJP, which relies on the votes of Hindus for its main support. "Over the years, the BJP has pushed cow protection as an integral part of their political agenda by including it in their manifesto," said B.K. Gandhi, a political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.
"They use the cow issue to garner their Hindu vote bank. It is their way of appeasing the Hindus," he said.
The ruling left-leaning Congress, however, rejects the BJP pitch for votes via cow politics. "We are not an enemy of the animal, but we do not use the cow to woo voters. Religion and politics should not be combined," a senior Congress leader, R. V. Deshapande of the southern state of Karnataka, told AFP.
Activist Malik's commitment to guarding the animal is backed by scores of influential Hindu groups, spiritual leaders, gurus and political parties.
Every year, young BJP workers are chosen to be a part of the Gau Raksha Samiti (Cow Protection Committee), where they are trained to gather information about butcheries and conduct surprise raids.
The biggest losers in this mix of politics, religion and animal rights are India's 300 million Muslims, one of the country's most economically deprived groups.
Official reports frequently put Muslims at the bottom of India's social and economic ladder -- beneath even low-caste "untouchable" Hindus.
They tend to be the butchers, meat traders and leather workers for whom the ban has the biggest impact.
"Most butcheries are run by Muslims and they want us to run in losses and shut down forever," says Zamir Pasha, a meat trader in Bangalore.
Members of the Muslim Butchers Association in New Delhi say that while Islam forbids Muslims from consuming pork, the community does not advocate a blanket ban over the sale of the meat.
"People have forgotten that in a democracy, everybody has a right to choose what they should eat," says Zafar Shams Iqbal, secretary of the association.
In a book published a few years ago on India's dietary traditions, historian D.N. Jha revealed historical evidence of beef-eating practices in ancient India.
Some groups of scholars cite historical records that many Hindus were free to consume beef as they needed extra calories to carry out strenuous work.
At a later stage the concept of worshipping the cow was introduced by several rulers and temples to save the animals, which were vital to provide milk for communities.
Despite the ban on slaughter, beef is still available to those with the right contacts and it can be eaten legally if it is imported from abroad from a previously slaughtered animal.