Two Muslim men have died after they were attacked by Indian villagers who suspected them of stealing cows, police said Monday, the latest such attack over the animal Hindus consider sacred.

Police in the northeastern state of Assam said they had registered a murder case over the deaths of Abu Hanifa and Riyazuddin Ali who were beaten with sticks on Sunday. Two suspects have been detained for questioning.

“They were chased and beaten with sticks by villagers who said the two boys were trying to steal cows from their grazing field,” Debaraj Upadhyay, Nagaon's top cop, told AFP by telephone.

“By the time we took them to the hospital at night they had succumbed to their injuries,” he added.

The incident comes amidst a wave of rising tensions over the killing and smuggling of cows in Hindu-majority India, where the animal is considered sacred and its slaughter is a punishable offence in many states.

There have been a spate of attacks in recent months by 'cow protection' vigilante groups, who roam some highways inspecting livestock trucks for any trace of the animal.

A Muslim man died last month after his truck carrying cows was attacked by a group in western Rajasthan state.

But Updadhyay dismissed any suggestion that a vigilante group or association was involved in the latest incident.

In 2015, a Muslim man was lynched by his neighbours over rumours that he had slaughtered a cow. Police later said the meat was mutton.

Critics say the vigilantes have been emboldened by the election in 2014 of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Last year Modi criticised the cow-protection vigilantes and urged a crackdown against groups using religion as a cover for committing crimes

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