Narendra Modi signalled over the weekend that he would not be the rakshak to the gau rakshaks.
Or did he?
Modi is parsimonious with his views on anything that is controversial. Therefore it's safe to assume he knew clearly that his comments on cow vigilantes would overshadow everything else he said in his town-hall. The question he was asked had no cows in it whatsoever. It was about voluntary organisations. That he chose to make his answer revolve around cow vigilantism shows that the PM wanted to send a message.
And he sent it loud and clear, seizing the bull by the horns.
Mujhe itna gussa aata hai. (It makes me so angry)
It's an anger the PM has chosen to keep well under wraps for a long time. Those who lynched Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri almost a year ago also thought of themselves as protectors of the cow. But Modi had maintained a studied silence at that time.
He had not called the Dadri killers "anti-socials by night" who become "gau rakshaks by day".
It's not that the Prime Minister has been silent on all issues cows though. In the run-up to the elections in Bihar, Modi talked about the "pink revolution" in meat. It's a topic he's used as a dog whistle over and over again. In his prime ministerial campaign he'd often tell crowds that after the green revolution and the white revolution, the UPA government had ushered in a pink revolution.
"There is no subsidy for farmers or for rearing cattle, but the Congress gives subsidy to those who slaughter cows," he said according to The Hindu, stoking fears about cattle being stolen from villages because of proliferation of slaughterhouses.
In Bihar, his party leader Sushil Modi spelled it out in what Mukul Kesavan described as a "brutal binary" – "the election was a choice between those who eat beef and those who would ban cow slaughter." Kesavan wrote at that time that Dadri "demonstrated that the battle for Bihar remains an ideological contest between those who would have the State enforce deference to Hindu sensibilities and those who would not."
It's not that the Prime Minister has been silent on all issues cows though. In the run-up to the elections in Bihar, Modi talked about the "pink revolution" in meat. It's a topic he's used as a dog whistle over and over again.
And there is no indication that the PM feels otherwise, though the sacred cow could not deliver Bihar. Even his current statement does not hint at rejecting that binary. It's a binary others have picked up on. When Mamata Banerjee says "If I consume goats then there is no problem, but if the other person consumes cow it is a problem" she too is playing cow politics. The cow slaughter and beef eating laws might have been largely put in place during Congress rule but they have become red-hot issues in Modi's India.
What Modi effectively says now is the violent gau rakshaks are giving gau seva a bad name. But in that same answer he also made it clear where the battle lines were drawn in his head.
"In the old days there were battles between rajas and badshahs. So what did the badshahs do? They put cows before their forces. The Rajas would be troubled as the use of arms would kill the cows. Fearing they would sin by cow slaughter, they lost the battle."
Cow vigilantism in India did not merit the PM's intervention as long as it was between the descendants of rajas vs the descendants of badshahs. When Dalits were thrashed in the name of gau raksha, that obviously worried the powers that be. UP elections are coming up and the BJP has been trying to woo Dalits as part of a larger Hindu family by embracing BR Ambedkar. When the cow issue jumps the Hindu-Muslim polarization line, then the PM tries to draw the line.
Modi's statement at a party meet in Hyderabad a day after the townhall made his priorities even clearer. He attacked his political opponents saying: "Some people who thought that they control Dalit votes could not digest the fact that people are now getting to know about the BJP's good work."
But the BJP is also having a hard time digesting the fact that hot-headed gau rakshaks by attacking Dalits were undermining the BJP's "good work" as well. "If you want to attack, attack me, not Dalits. If you want to shoot, shoot me," the PM said.
Muslims too are being attacked in the name of gau raksha but the PM did not mention them. An Outlook 15 August cover story says GRD (Gau Raksha Dals) "are out to deprive some of India's largest (and poorest) communities – many of them Dalits and Muslims – of their traditional trade in animals and animal products."
The Prime Minister is correct. As the Outlook report reveals many of the GRDs are really extortion rackets disguised as cow protectors. It describes how businessmen in Punjab and Haryana (some of them Hindus) are being brought "to their knees by levelling false charges of trading in cow byproducts."
GRDs are attacking buffalo, goat and even chicken transporters. The GRDs are the new middlemen in this business. "Cow protectors don't care if cows die. What they dislike is if Muslims and Dalits become prosperous from cow-related trades," says Satish Prakash, who teaches history at Meerut College to Outlook.
By dramatically putting his own body on the line, the PM is making a pitch to project himself as the rakshak of the Dalits or at least their votes.
The cow protectors might not discriminate but what Modi has signalled is that he cares, at least about Dalits because they are a vital part of his electoral math.
Even Modi's more ardent well-wishers recognize this. In her Sunday Indian Express column Tavleen Singh writes, "When it was just Muslims who were victims, the ideologues of the RSS said nothing. Now that the violence has spread to the Dalits, and there are mass protests in Gujarat, these ideologues have gone to great lengths to prove that Dalits are part of the Hindu religion."
Singh's column was no doubt written before Mr. Modi made his comments. In fact, the thrust of her column is calling on him to "snap out of his cocoon of silence and take back his mandate."
He did so but only in half measure not that unlike the same RSS ideologues that Singh has written about in her column. By dramatically putting his own body on the line, the PM is making a pitch to project himself as the rakshak of the Dalits or at least their votes. On the other hand, the likes of the family of the late Mohammad Akhlaq can fend for themselves against FIRs for cow slaughter.
Modi has been applauded for speaking up on the issue but it's also clear all victims of cow vigilantism are not created equal. That should be some fodder for thought.