NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s Parliament was in an uproar Wednesday after four men belonging to the low-caste Dalit community were beaten while trying to skin a dead cow in western India.
Lawmakers from the opposition parties shouted slogans while accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of failing to protect the Dalits, who belong to the lowest rung of Hinduism’s caste hierarchy.
Videos of the four being stripped and beaten with sticks by men claiming to be cow protectors in Gujarat state last week have gone viral and have sparked protests by Dalit groups across the state.
Hindus consider cows to be sacred, and the slaughter of cows is banned in many parts of India. Slaughtering a cow carries a punishment of up to seven years in jail.
Attacks against Muslims and Dalits accused of eating or smuggling beef have risen since Modi’s Hindu-nationalist party came to power two years ago.
Vigilante groups comprising mostly members of Hindu nationalist organizations have become active in small towns and cities across India over the past year. Last year, a Muslim man was lynched by a mob in northern Uttar Pradesh state over charges that his family had eaten beef for dinner.
Dalits usually carry out undesirable tasks such as skinning dead animals, and many work in tanneries and in the leather industry.
The four men who were attacked by vigilantes in Una town in Gujarat last week worked in a tannery. In the video, they were seen pleading that they were tannery workers who were only skinning the dead animal.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh told lawmakers in Parliament on Wednesday that the victims were attacked by a group of men who hit them with metal pipes and wooden rods.
Singh said nine people involved in the attack had been arrested.
On Tuesday, Gujarat’s top elected official, Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, promised that her government would take strict action against those involved in the attack. Four police officers who failed to take action have been suspended for dereliction of duty, she said.
Several towns in Gujarat have been rocked by protests since last week’s beating incident, and at least 10 Dalit men have attempted suicide, lawmakers told Parliament on Wednesday.
The Dalit protests turned violent in some towns. In the state’s Amreli district, a police constable was killed when angry mobs pelted police with stones.
“Dalits are being oppressed in Gujarat and we have to raise our voices to get the government to act,” said Derek O’Brien, a lawmaker from West Bengal state. “This is an organized crime that is happening in Gujarat.”
Although caste discrimination was banned soon after India’s independence from Britain in 1947, the practice persists. Successive governments have set quotas for jobs and university spots to level out disadvantages faced by lower castes, but it has been difficult to change social attitudes.
In Parliament, Singh condemned the attacks and called on all political parties to help end discrimination against Dalits.
“Atrocities against Dalits are a social evil,” he said. “I appeal to all political parties to take this as a challenge and wipe out this problem.”