Vishnu Dabad attributes his rise from poverty to powerful local politician to an animal: the cow.

The 30-year-old is one of many Gau Rakshaks, or cow protectors — activists who have taken laws banning cattle slaughter and beef consumption into their own hands since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 at the head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Scores of cow protectors in recent years have been accused of using violence to carry out extrajudicial activities, often finding themselves at odds with law enforcement even as many won acclaim for defending the Hindu faith.