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“Madam, why are you only asking questions regarding the cow protection issue?” a policeman in India’s Jharkhand state asked me.

He is right, of course. India should be talking about development, lifting millions out of poverty, dealing with social inequality, and delivering justice. But instead Hindu militant groups are shifting the debate to the protection of cows, in an increasingly violent dispute that is making Muslims feel at risk.

Hindu cow-protection groups have waged an aggressive and polarizing campaign to protect cows, which most Hindus consider sacred. They allege, usually incorrectly, that cows are being slaughtered by Muslims, who eat beef. The campaign has even received tacit support from some leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

It is in this context that late last week, a Muslim cattle trader, Mohammed Mazlum Ansari, 35, and a 12-year-old boy, Mohammed Imteyaz Khan, were found hanging from a tree in Jharkhand. Their hands were tied behind their backs and their bodies bore signs of mistreatment. The police have reportedly arrested five men, including a person linked to a local cow-protection group.

Police say they are still investigating whether this was a hate crime against Muslims or a case of loot and murder, but the incident has stoked legitimate fears of further bloodshed.

“We don't kill cows,” Ansari’s brother told me. “But this kind of violence against Muslims is spreading slowly.” If the administration doesn’t act promptly, he said that he fears “more Muslims will die. I will also be hanged like that.”

In many Indian states, including Jharkhand, it is already illegal to slaughter cows, and in some states, eating beef is forbidden. But vigilante groups seem to have little faith in the law. Last year, Hindu mobs killed at least four Muslim men and led several other attacks across the country. A man arrested after one such attack in January declared: “I did what my religion expects me to do. I did that only for the sake of Gaumata (sacred cow mother).”

These attacks come at a time when the central government has abdicated its responsibilities to protect religious minorities in the country. The government should stop being a spectator and publicly condemn as well as prosecute hate attacks, act to reassure marginalized populations and religious minorities, and work with civil society groups to promote tolerance.

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