Ram Raj was drinking tea at his home in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on a chilly November evening last year when a stray cow attacked him.
Over the next few minutes, his young grandchildren screamed and watched in horror as the animal mauled him. The 55-year-old farmer died of severe injuries on the way to hospital.
“It was a painful death and my mother-in-law has stopped having proper meals ever since,” his daughter-in-law, Anita Kumari, said.
Such attacks have become common in India’s most populous state, where a ban on cow slaughter has led to a huge rise in the cattle population. So much so that they have become an issue in the state’s upcoming elections, which are set to begin on 10 February.
Hindus consider the cow holy, but until recently many farmers took their old cows to slaughterhouses.
“We used to sell our cows once they stopped giving milk or were no longer fit for ploughing fields. That was our back-up plan for hard times,” says Shiv Pujan, a paddy farmer.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has cracked down heavily on cow slaughter in keeping with its right-wing Hindu agenda – the practice is now illegal in 18 states, including Uttar Pradesh, or UP.
Here, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a hardline BJP leader himself, shut down several allegedly illegal slaughterhouses after coming to power in 2017 – even though this is a huge business in UP, which is a major exporter of buffalo meat.
Cattle traders, many of them Muslims or Dalits (formerly untouchables, who are at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy), have even been attacked and killed by vigilantes often linked to the BJP or local right-wing groups.
So, many of them have given up on the business, fearful of buying or transporting cattle. And farmers now simply abandon old and unproductive cows.
“Now there aren’t any buyers so obviously, no-one can sell them,” Mr Pujan says, adding that he and others are forced to leave old cattle in nearby forests.
These stray cattle are often seen roaming the towns and villages in UP, where farmers and locals say they turn hungry and aggressive. One such cow entered the courtyard of Ram Raj’s home and when he and his family got scared and started yelling, it attacked him.
Mr Pujan himself was recently attacked by a herd of stray cattle while trying to chase them away from his field.
“Two of them tried to push me down to the ground and I ran for my life,” he said, showing his bandaged hand, which was cut while he scaled a barbed wire fence.
Mr Pujan is a devoted Hindu who believes the cow is holy, but he also says he is frustrated with the government’s blanket order that all of them should be protected.
Farmers like him say the stray cows also destroy crops, cause road accidents and kill people.
“My son is an orphan now because of the stray cows roaming around. Who will look after us?” asks Poonam Dubey whose husband was killed by a stray bull.
Bhupendra Dubey, 36, had returned to his village after losing his job during the first wave of Covid-19 in 2020. He died when the animal attacked him in the local market, where he had gone to buy sweets for his son.
About 100km (62 miles) away, Ram Kali, 80, has been in a coma since 2019, when she was attacked by a cow. Her family says she still doesn’t know that her only son died of Covid-19 early last year.
Opposition parties have taken up the issue in UP, a largely rural state where farmers are a crucial voting bloc.
The governing BJP’s state spokesperson, Sameer Singh, said that the government was “devising new strategies” to deal with the problem.
“These should not be called stray cows as the animal itself is part of the Hindu culture. We never leave our elders to die when they grow old, how can we leave our cows to die on the roads?”
The cows are meant to be housed in cow shelters – Mr Adityanath’s government has allocated millions of rupees to construct more shelters. They also imposed a special alcohol tax to maintain thousands of state-run cow shelters.
But this hasn’t solved the problem. A government-run shelter that BBC Hindi visited in Ayodhya district was packed with cows jostling for space.
“There are 200 cows here, which is our maximum capacity. Some 700-1,000 stray cows are still roaming around the area,” said Shatrughan Tiwari, who looks after the shelter.
Many farmers, meanwhile, are guarding their farms round the clock.
They form groups that take turns to patrol the fields through the night, braving the cold and snakes.
“We have groups of people from across the village who keep taking turns. A new team will arrive in the morning to replace us, and then we will go home and rest,” said Bimla Kumari, a 64-year-old farmer.
Others, like Dina Nath, said they are fed up with the issue, and are considering boycotting the election.
“What is the point in voting if our problems aren’t solved by it?”