Indian police are often complicit in killings carried out by cow vigilante groups, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday, calling on authorities to take tougher action to halt lynching.
India's Hindu majority regards cows as holy and their slaughter is banned in most states.
The slaughter of cows -- revered by Hindus -- is a powder-keg issue in secular India. Men accused of killing or trading in cattle have increasingly been targeted since the Hindu nationalist government came to power in 2014.
The 104-page report said the number of attacks by cow protection groups against Muslims, low-caste Dalits and other minorities had risen sharply since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.
Between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people were killed, the rights group said in its report. Thirty-six of them were Muslims.
The report said the police often delay the prosecution of attackers and that several BJP politicians have publicly justified the attacks.
"Calls for cow protection may have started out as a way to attract Hindu votes, but it has transformed into a free pass for mobs to violently attack and kill minority group members," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"Indian authorities should stop egging on or justifying these attacks, blaming victims, or protecting the culprits," she added.
The report listed 11 murder cases in detail. In almost all of them, police initially stalled investigations, ignored procedures, while in some cases they were even complicit in the killings and subsequent cover-ups, it said.
In a case of "outright complicity" involving the mob killing of a Muslim man, police filed documents describing the death as a result of a "motorbike accident."
"Police face political pressure to sympathize with cow protectors and do a weak investigation and let them go free," a retired police officer told HRW. "The vigilantes get political shelter and help."
"Instead of promptly investigating and arresting suspects, the police file complaints against victims, their families, and witnesses under laws that ban cow slaughter," the report said.
The rights group has urged the government to prevent and prosecute mob violence by the cow vigilantes.
"The authorities should ensure proper investigations to identify and prosecute attackers regardless of their political connections and initiate a public campaign to end the communal attacks on Muslims, Dalits and other minorities," it said.
The report also found that stricter laws and policies for cow protection have disrupted India's cattle trade and rural agricultural economy, as well as leather and meat export industries.
This has "disproportionately harmed" minority communities, many of whom are associated with leather and meat industries, it said.
"The authorities also should reverse policies that harm livestock-linked livelihoods, particularly in rural communities and hold to account police and other institutions that fail to uphold rights because of caste or religious prejudice," the report said.