Naramari is a densely-populated Muslim-dominated village on the outskirts of Nagaon town, the administrative headquarters of Nagaon district in Assam. Hardly anyone here owns any farming land. The village is so chock-a-block with grim-looking mud and bamboo houses that there is hardly any land left for cultivation. Most people work as daily wage labourers in Nagaon town, or in the rice fields of other nearby villages.

Many of its younger residents have picked up a new skill: driving. Twenty-year-old Riyazuddin Ali was one of them. He used to drive a shared tempo taxi on the Nagaon-Juria route – an approximately 16-km stretch. Ali had got married in 2015, and had a daughter who turned one earlier this year.

On the morning of April 30, Ali did not go to town to ply his taxi. Instead, he went to the house of Abu Hanifa, his next-door neighbour and childhood friend.

Hanifa lived with his parents and four siblings in a two-room, mud-plastered house with a tin roof. He was a vegetable vendor. He would buy vegetables from the wholesale market in Nagaon and sell it in the village.

According to details available from Hanifa’s Aadhaar card, he was not yet legally an adult. He would have turned 18 on November 5.

Abu and Ali were lynched in a neighbouring village later that morning, and branded as cattle thieves. The lynching has prompted several people to question if the incident was yet another instance of cow vigilantism: have the gau rakshaks who have run amok in North India recently reached Assam too?

Not another Sunday morning

Hanifa’s father recalled that the two young men stepped out of the house around 8 am. Neither had told their family where they were headed. No one asked either as Hanifa and Ali often spent time together.

But later that morning, at exactly 10.35 am, Ali’s uncle, Sahidul Islam, said he received a call on his mobile phone from an unidentified number. The caller said: “Your nephew and another boy were trying to steal cows from our village. Come soon, or the people here will kill them.”

The caller told Islam that he was calling from Kasamari, a village some five km from Naramari. By the time, he told his older brother, Ali’s father Raham Ali, news spread that Ali and Hanifa were being taken to the Nagaon Civil Hospital.

When Raham Ali reached the hospital a little past midday, his son was long dead. In fact, he had died at Kasamari itself. Hanifa too did not make it to hospital. He succumbed to his injuries on the way.

Vegetables Hanifa had bought from the wholesale market a day before he was killed.

The owner speaks

At Kasamari, Brojen Nath, an employee with the village panchayat, said that he was tending to his rice field with his brother Mintu Nath on Sunday morning when he saw two men leading his favourite bull – a Red Sindhi with a white spot on its abdomen – across the paddy fields behind his house. Nath said he remembers checking the time. It was 9.15 am.

Nath lives with his mother, wife, and toddler daughter in a concrete house within the panchayat office compound. After computers were stolen from the panchayat office a few years ago, the panchayat decided that the presence of a family round-the-clock would keep thieves at bay.

Kasamari appears to be significantly better off than Naramari. A predominantly Hindu village with a small tribal population, most people here have some farm land of their own. The village does not have the claustrophobic feel of Naramari.

The panchayat compound is on the main road of the village, and the only other building in the vicinity is the village public health clinic a few hundred metres away. Nath’s field, which skirts the road, is right next to the compound. After that begins acres and acres of rice fields stretching to the horizon. On the other side of the fields is another concrete road.

“That’s where they were taking my cow,” said Nath. “A vehicle must have been waiting for them there, and from there the cow would have gone straight to a slaughterhouse.”

Nath said that he gave chase to the two men. When he thought he was close enough to be heard, he screamed, asking them to stop. “When I screamed, they just ran,” said Nath. “I ran behind and cried, ‘thief, thief!’ But they just wouldn’t stop” running.

Nath said that the two men left the animal behind. “I just went and got it back,” he said. “I don’t know what happened after that. It seems people from the other side of the fields heard me screaming and came down heavily upon the boys.”

No amount of probing would make Nath divulge anything more than that. “There is nothing more to say,” he said. “I have nothing to hide. That is exactly what happened. I got my cow back and returned. I don’t know who was in the mob.”

Mintu Nath stands by his older brother’s testimony. “We are simple straightforward people,” he said. “We don’t like getting into controversies.”

‘There will be no cows left in our village’

Almost everyone in Kasamari this reporter spoke to denied having anything to do with the murders. Some, however, admitted to seeing a mob of 300-500 people unleashing their anger on the two young men. “There is very little anyone can do when a mob gets angry,” said one young man. “If I had tried to stop them, they would have beaten me up too.”

Some reluctantly conceded “they shouldn’t have been killed”. But that is because they believe the mob could have made the two “admit to their crime” if they had been left alive. “Cow theft has become a menace,” said Mintu Nath. “Look brother, we are poor people. The cow is our source of livelihood. People have grown sick of their cows being stolen and smuggled to slaughterhouses.”

Even Brojen Nath’s mother, a gentle-looking lady in her seventies, flared up on the subject of cattle theft. “Every day our cows are taken away,” she said. “It happens in broad daylight. At this rate, there will be no cows left in our village.”

The villagers complain that more than 10 cattle have disappeared in the last two weeks alone. “This has nothing to do with anyone being Hindu or Muslim, it is about stealing,” they say, when asked if they thought the thefts were the handiwork of a particular community.

Back in Naramari, the families and neighbours of Ali and Hanifa maintained that the two had nothing to do with cattle theft in the area. There is not one criminal case against either of them, they say.

Here too, the villagers say there has been no history of communal tension in the area. “This has never happened before,” said one of them. “We share a friendly relationship with Hindu people in the area. I don’t know what took over people.”

A sense of disbelief looms over the village. “The way they killed my son, you treat even animals better,” said Ali’s father.

Ali's parents at their house in Naramari.

‘When an angry mob gets together’

The photograph of two corpses on the smartphone of Ananta Das, the officer in charge of the Nagaon Sadar police station, makes for grisly viewing. Ali and Hanifa are lying next to each other, half of their bodies covered with a black plastic sheet. There are multiple gashes on their faces. There is not much left of their eyes.

Ali’s father claimed that when he saw his son’s body, it had no eyes. “After beating him to death, it seems they gouged his eyes out too,” he said. The police, however, claim there was not a deliberate attempt to do so.

What explains this brutality?

Das’s explanation seems to echo what residents of Kasamari say. “There have been many cattle thefts in the recent past,” said Das. “And when an angry mob gets together you know how it works. The first guy hits, then the second one thinks he can do better, then the third. It’s like a chain reaction.”

He said that two people have been arrested. “It is a case of murder and we are treating it as such,” said Das.

The Naths of Kasamari filed a complaint of theft in the same police station, which Das confirmed.

Das ruled out any communal angle: “It is a peaceful area,” he said. “The last time any communal incident happened was way back in 1983.”

The communal question

In 1983, a mob went on a rampage in Nellie village in Morigaon district (then in Nagaon), killing at least 2,000 Muslims. Like most villages in the district, Kasamari and Naramari, barely an hour’s drive from Nellie, were affected by the killings

While no major cases of communal violence have been reported in Nagaon district since, tensions have surfaced from time to time, especially in the last couple of years. Last year, a few months before the Assembly elections in Assam, someone allegedly threw a chunk of beef into a temple in the district, putting the residents of the area on tenterhooks.

Local residents claim that there are no vigilante organisations working in the area. Nagaon, however, is home to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s biggest operational set-up in Assam.

Das of the Nagaon Sadar police station insisted that what happened in Kasamari on Sunday morning was not an extension of the cow vigilantism on the rise in other parts of the country. “As I said, it’s a simple case of theft,” he said.

A Nagaon-based human rights activist Reyaz Ahmed said that while the lynching may not be a classic case of cow vigilantism as seen in North India, the extreme brutality could be the result of a new culture of impunity. People may have been under the impression that they could get away with it, as many have in other parts of the country, he said.

“Everyone has a smartphone these days,” said Ahmed. “People know what is happening in the rest of the country. Maybe, a few years ago, they would have just slapped them around and handed them over to the police.”

That is what happened two years ago when villagers apprehended a truck full of stolen cattle at Kasamari. “Initially, the driver denied that he was taking the cows to a slaughterhouse,” said a person who did not want to be identified. “But after we threatened to beat him up, he admitted [to the crime]. We gave him a few slaps and handed him over to the police.”

The law in Assam

Residents of Kasamari claim that the theft of cattle increased as slaughterhouses sprang up in the vicinity. From Nagaon to Kasamari via Naramari there are at least three slaughterhouses, all makeshift structures made of bamboo. They can be identified by the red flags on their roofs.

Assam has a complex and somewhat ambiguous law on cattle slaughter. The Assam Cattle Preservation Act of 1950 allows the slaughter of cattle over 14 years of age or those incapable of work or for use in breeding. The law stipulates that such cattle will be given a “fit-for-slaughter certificate” by a doctor of the state husbandry and animal welfare department. Unlike many other Indian states, the law in Assam does not distinguish between buffaloes and cows or bulls.

However, according to a former deputy director of the department, no such certificates are ever given. The law may say something, but cow slaughter is banned for all practical purposes in Assam except on Eid, said the former bureaucrat, who did not want to identified. “In my over 35 years of service, there was not a single instance when we issued such a certificate,” he said.

That has led to cow slaughter and, to a large extent, beef consumption being a clandestine activity in most parts of the state. “Obviously, the government knows that cows are slaughtered, but it is convenient for everyone to just look the other way,” the retired official said.

He added that there were no designated slaughterhouses in the state either. “Setting up a slaughterhouse and maintaining it is a lot of work that no government wants to do,” he said. “People eat beef in the state, anyway. Why not make the trade organised and reduce petty crimes? Plus, it will lead to the setting up of many ancillary industries.”

A sizable beef-eating population and the lack of a robust legal framework around beef slaughter is a recipe for trouble. Often, stolen cattle make their way to slaughterhouses, said the former bureaucrat. He added that since all of these slaughterhouses are unlicensed, no one ever checks where they are getting their meat from. “You can put checks and balances only when a system exists,” he said. “Here, there is none.”