On a cold morning in January, a car smashed into a van in Tauru, a small town in the northern Indian state of Haryana.
Inside the car were three young Muslim men: Waris, Nafiz and Shaukeen.
Waris is now dead. Nafiz is in jail. And Shaukeen is yet to come to terms with the horrors of the night.
Shaukeen alleges that his friend was beaten to death by a group of Hindu men after they spotted a cow trussed up in the back of the car.
The 26-year-old claims the cow belonged to Nafiz, who was taking it back to his home in Haryana from Bhiwadi district in neighbouring Rajasthan state. Shaukeen and Waris were accompanying him when they were chased by a group of cow vigilantes. These are Hindu men – mostly armed with sticks and other weapons – who keep a watch for vehicles transporting cattle to prevent cow slaughter, which is illegal in many Indian states.
The police, however, say that there were no visible injury marks on Waris’s body.
“We were informed about the road accident by a truck driver and some gau rakshaks [cow protectors]. When we reached the spot, the three men were inside the car. We took them to a nearby hospital. One of them died of his injuries later,” said Varun Singla, superintendent of police in Haryana’s Nuh district, where Tauru is located.
He added that the van, which was carrying vegetables, had also been damaged. “The driver was unscathed but his son, who was on the passenger seat, suffered minor injuries.”
Police arrested Nafiz and Shaukeen on cow smuggling charges because they “found a cow in the car”, Mr Singla says.
But Shaukeen, who is now out on bail, says that their car hit the van only because they were being chased by a vehicle which belonged to the cow vigilantes.
The BBC has accessed CCTV footage of the crash in Tauru. It shows a four-by-four with a siren on its roof approaching the car moments after the accident.
Then, according to a video filmed by a local man who was at the spot, a group of men who appeared to be armed with weapons, including guns, pulled out the cow from the car’s boot and bundled the three Muslim men into the four-by-four.
Shaukeen alleges he and his companions were then beaten up by the gang, who later took them to hospital and that Waris died on the way.
“Waris did not die in the accident. There was not a single injury from the crash,” he says, adding that it was a “targeted killing” against Muslims.
The cow is worshipped by millions of Hindus, who are the majority of India’s population. While cow slaughter was already a sensitive topic and banned in some states, it has become a hotly debated issue since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power nationally in 2014.
The BJP-led state governments have cracked down heavily on cow slaughter. Sale and consumption of beef is now illegal in about two-thirds of India’s 28 states, most of them governed by the BJP, including Haryana. Cow vigilante groups have been accused of enforcing this ban through violence, often leading to assaults and even lynchings of mostly Muslim meat sellers and cattle traders.
Mr Modi has criticised these groups in the past but several high-profile assaults have occurred even after that.
At Waris’s home in Nuh, his family is still grappling with the shock of his death.
“If someone is committing a crime, any crime, the police should punish them,” says Imran, Waris’ elder brother.
He questions why vigilante groups in the state were “given the right to take the law in their own hands”.
But Ravi Kiran, an inspector general of Haryana police, told the BBC that a post mortem report confirmed that Waris’s death had been caused by the crash. He added that the police were willing to investigate the matter further if they got any new information on the case.
Shaukeen alleges that a man named Monu Manesar, a well-known cow vigilante who regularly uploaded videos of himself questioning cattle transporters, was the leader of the men who assaulted them. On the day of the incident, Mr Manesar had live-streamed a video of Waris and his friends being “interrogated” by himself and some other men. In the video, which has now been deleted from Mr Manesar’s Facebook profile, the Muslim men had visible injuries on their face.
“Monu was saying ‘beat them’ and everyone was hitting us. It was all done at the direction of Monu,” Shaukeen alleged.
The BBC couldn’t contact Mr Manesar, who is currently wanted for questioning by police in another case of alleged cow vigilantism. But in a BBC interview in January he had denied any involvement in Waris’s death.
He claimed that his group had been informed that a cow was being loaded into a car and reached the spot, only to see the vehicle speed away.
“I reached the site of the crash after about 35 minutes. I saw two police cars. The men in the car were slightly hurt so I told people to give water to them. The police later took them to the hospital,” he said, adding that he only heard about Waris’s death hours after the crash.
Imran alleged that his brother’s death was part of a larger pattern of violent assaults by cow vigilante groups.
He connected Waris’s death to another high-profile case – the murders of two Muslim men, Junaid and Nasir – that made headlines in India a few weeks later.
The charred bodies of Junaid and Nasir were found in a burnt vehicle in Haryana’s Bhiwani district in February. Their relatives have alleged they were killed by members of a Hindu hardline group who, according to media reports, accused them of cow smuggling. Five men, including Mr Manesar, were named in the police complaint but police have said that only three suspects have been arrested so far.
The BBC visited Junaid and Nasir’s family in Bharatpur in Rajasthan.
“His body was brought in a bag. It was ashes. There was nothing, just a handful of ashes and a few bones,” said Junaid’s wife Sajida, wiping away tears.
She said she was worried about how she would look after their six children alone.
The deaths had sparked protests by Muslims in Bharatpur, who alleged that cow protection laws were being used to target them.
“Everyone is afraid. The fear is that they might pick you up. They pick up anyone, take them away, beat them, then they accuse them of anything like cow smuggling or transportation,” alleged Mahmur, Nasir’s older brother.
More than a hundred miles away, in Haryana’s Manesar town, a group of men who identified themselves as cow protectors gathered at a sprawling shelter.
The BBC spoke to many of them, who claimed that they worked with the police and acted within the limits of the law. Some of them said that they, too, were sometimes attacked when on patrol.
“If there is a woman in the market and we see someone misbehaving, should we wait for the police?” asks Dharminder Yadav, who was the local cow protection group leader before Mr Manesar took over.
Mr Yadav denied allegations of Muslims being targeted. “Our laws say that we need to protect cows. Whatever our law says, it’s our duty to follow. Our enemy is the cow smuggler and not just Muslims,” he said.
Shaukeen claims he is now too scared to step out of his house.
“Waris is dead and I don’t want to be killed like him.”
Source : BBC News