Akbar Khan was injured but still alive when police in India’s western Rajasthan state found him early on Saturday morning.
The 28-year-old and his friend Aslam, both members of India’s minority Muslim community, were transporting cattle when they were attacked by a group of Hindu men in the state’s Alwar district.
The attackers suspected the two of being cow smugglers taking the animals, considered sacred by many Hindus, to slaughter.
Akbar’s father disputes this: Akbar, he told CNN, was a dairy farmer who had bought the cows and was transporting them home.
Aslam escaped. Akbar was beaten and left in a rural field when local police arrived at around 1 a.m. in the morning.
Yet the local officers took more than three hours to transport the critically-injured man to a local medical center just six kilometers from the site of the attack.
By then, he was dead – the latest victim of a majoritarian mob in an increasingly polarized India.
Ever since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, many Indian liberals have worried about the rise of religious intolerance in the world’s largest democracy.
The 2015 lynching of a Muslim man by Hindu villagers accusing him of cow slaughter in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state prompted national outrage.
A string of similar attacks in the years since have sharpened fears about the spread of Hindu nationalism in a country that is home to more than 170 million Muslims.
This month, alarmed by a spate of mob attacks, India’s top court called for new laws to fight what it called such “horrendous acts of mobocracy.”
The “recurrent pattern of violence,” it warned, “cannot be allowed to become the new normal.”
This worry – about the rise of majoritarion violence – is once again being debated in this country as new details emerge about the circumstances of Akbar’s killing in Rajasathan, a state ruled by
Modi’s BJP, with questions being asked about why the police took so long to bring the victim to the local medical center.
NRK Reddy, a senior police official from Rajasthan’s capital Jaipur, who is now leading an investigation into the conduct of the local officers, said there had been an “error of judgment” on the part of the local team in Alwar.
Reddy refused to comment on unconfirmed media reports that the police officers allegedly cared for the cow first, transporting it to a nearby rescue shelter, before treating the injured man.
He did, however, confirm that the officers in question transported cows to a rescue center on the night of the attack. When asked about the timings he said, “Same night. More or less at the same time.”
Reddy confirmed the delay between when Akbar was found by the officers and when he was taken to hospital, and said four officers had been suspended or transferred out of the area.
Police have not released the names of the officers involved to CNN.
Dr. Hasan Ali Khan, a medical officer at the hospital, also confirmed to CNN that Akbar was only brought in at around 4 a.m – an estimated three hours after the police arrived at the scene of the attack at approximately 1 a.m. The original complaint was made at 12:40 a.m.
Reddy said three people have been arrested for attacking Akbar and his friend, Aslam.
Rajasthan’s top elected official, chief minister Vasundhara Raje, has also condemned the attack, tweeting that the “strictest possible action shall be taken against the perpetrators.”
The case has been covered extensively in local media where reports regarding the conduct of the police officers has sparked outrage among many Indians. Rajasthan is governed by the BJP, which maintains a majority in the regional legislature.
Criticism of Modi mounts
Alwar district has seen such violence before. In April 2017, Pehlu Khan, also a dairy farmer, was attacked by cow vigilantes while coming back from a cattle fair in the state capital of Jaipur. He later died of his injuries.
The latest attack has prompted fresh criticism of Modi and his allies by opposition politicians.
Rahul Gandhi, the leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, said the attack and allegations of police misconduct revealed “Modi’s brutal “New India” where humanity is replaced with hatred and people are crushed and left to die.”
On Sunday, another prominent Congress politician and outspoken BJP critic Shashi Tharoor, writing in the local outlet The Print, said that it was now safer “to be a cow than a Muslim” in many places in India.
In response, Modi’s allies have accused opposition parties of trying to politicize the issue.
“Stop jumping with joy every time a crime happens, Mr Rahul Gandhi. The state has already assured strict & prompt action. You divide the society in every manner possible for electoral gains & then shed crocodile tears,” tweeted Piyush Goyal, among the most prominent members of Modi’s cabinet.
Additional reporting by CNN’s Aayushmaan Thakur and Vinayak Dewan