Protests erupt in Indian PM's state over attack on low-caste men

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Protesters from India’s low-caste community blocked roads and attacked government buses in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state on Wednesday in a third day of demonstrations over the flogging of four men accused of skinning a cow.

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The four members of the Dalit community were last week tied to a car in Gujarat state, stripped and flogged with sticks by self-styled hardline Hindu cow protectors who then published a video of the attack as a “warning” to others.

The beatings sparked the most serious protests by Dalits in years in Gujarat, with seven youths trying to kill themselves in protest by taking pesticide in different parts of the state, an act that further inflamed tempers.

A police officer was killed on Tuesday during clashes in Una, 340 km (210 miles) from Gujarat’s main city, Ahmedabad, where the tannery workers were attacked.

Cows are revered in Hinduism and their slaughter is banned in most Indian states including Gujarat, where Modi ruled as chief minister for a decade and spearheaded a 2011 ban.

Dalits in the state, however, said they earn their livelihood from skinning cows that die naturally, buffalos and other animals, and vowed to fight anyone trying to stop them from doing so.

“We are the poorest but we are not cowards,” Mayur Dabhia, a leader of the Dalit campaign group in Ahmedabad.

Police are investigating whether the flogged men killed the cow or whether it was already dead.

Dalits are at the bottom of India’s ages-old social hierarchy, making them vulnerable to attacks perpetrated by self-styled cow-protecting vigilantes.

The vigilantes chase trucks transporting cattle and raid slaughter houses.

Several people accused of eating beef have also been attacked, including a Muslim man who was last year beaten to death by a mob in a town near New Delhi.

Opposition lawmakers disrupted parliament on Wednesday to protest against the floggings in Gujarat and demanded Modi apologize to the victims.

“The recent shocking incident in Gujarat where four Dalit youths were savagely beaten and humiliated publicly is just one example of the social terror this government condones,” Sonia Gandhi, president of the opposition Congress party told supporters, Indian media reported.

Critics say Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalist agenda empowers hardline activists to believe they can take matters into their hands and target minority groups like Dalits and Muslims involved in the cattle trade.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh condemned the attack in Gujarat and said Modi was committed to the protection of low-caste people.

additional reporting by Amit Dave in AHMEDABAD and Tommy Wilkes in NEW DELHI; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Robert Birsel