A numerous number of ifs, buts and howevers are being raised on the issue – most of them valid – but the Prime Minister’s breaking his silence on perceived rising cow vigilantism under BJP rule is significant and I’m going to stick my neck out and support his stance on this.

First, to give the buts and howevers their due: cow vigilantism in Gujarat had risen while Narendra Modi had been chief minister. So it’s new national prominence is only the “Gujarat model” he promised to the country. Prime Minister Modi’s own speeches before the mandate of 2014, milked (one has to cower from the effortless puns these days) Hindu sentiments of cow worship, so his distancing from the frightening saffron cowboy brigade is mere lip-service, given he emboldened them. And the PM who was silent in the aftermath of the Akhlaq lynching in Dadri has only broken his silence now when some “vigilantes” have attacked Dalits, and BJP doesn’t want to lose the vote bank.

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Even given these absolutely valid concerns, Modi’s pronouncements on cow vigilantism are important and could be a turning point.

One, his speech on Sunday was neither wishy-washy or weak. Certainly, he can be accused of melodrama (“don’t shoot the Dalits, shoot me”), but perhaps it’s his style (he did go to the US and tell the NRIs “may the force be with you”). And perhaps it’s a style understood best by his support group of vigilantes, not the most gentle or subtle characters that have been unleashed on our streets. 

He is after all directing his warning at them – a warning they have heard loud and clear, since all manners of cow groupies from VHP to Hindu Mahasabha are emerging to criticise the PM for his harsh words. It takes courage, if not character, for a politician to offend his party’s core vote bank and allies, and the PM has done it. For this, we must give him due credit.

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Two, while Modi’s pre-general election speeches on the Opposition’s attempt to create a “pink revolution” can be seen as divisive and playing to the majoritarians, calling his denouncement of “fake gau rakshaks” who are “anti-social” elements masquerading as cow protectors hypocritical, may be a bit of an exaggeration. Modi has not distanced himself from Hindu sentiments which venerate the cow, only from those who attack, humiliate and target minorities in its name.

Given the curious politics of the country, where religious sentiments are woven into legal, social and political life even while upholding secularism, this is not entirely unusual or unconstitutional. Given the spectacular gymnastics our constitution-makers have displayed over cows and absolute rights of citizens, our laws are varying and vague and therefore susceptible to misuse. Which is why interpretation and implementation are key.

Three, Modi’s words can be seen for the value they hold in terms of future impact. State police across the country has geared up to keep a vigil on the vigilantes, and even though a fresh incident of Dalit abuse over cows was reported in Andhra after Modi spoke, there is every indication that his statements will rein in the crazies and trolls. People who post-2014, have been behaving as if the Modi government, which won the election on the plank of development, had arrived solely for the purpose of targeting minorities and lower castes and establishing Hindu rashtra in a secular country.

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The PM has in his tenure so far spoken only once before on the issue of secularism, when the “growing intolerance” campaign led to a discussion in Parliament. The PM then spoke indirectly against those leading the “growing intolerance” campaign, saying “no one’s nationality can be questioned”. 

This time, he has been far more forceful, calling those targeting people in the name of cows as “anti-social” elements who make him very “angry”. There has been no defensiveness or attempts to brazenly pass the buck on the part of the PM or his key ministers, unlike last time when Arun Jaitley termed the protest as “manufactured” (by the Opposition).

Far more worrying than BJP’s stated views on cow slaughter, are the post-2014 campaigns launched by BJP in states such as Uttar Pradesh. Love Jihad and cow protection have been used as “campaigns” to launch attacks on minorities, replete with anti-Muslim rhetoric. Far from pulling up characters such as Yogi Adityanath who has advocated the arrest of mob lynching-victim Akhlaq’s family and publicly called for dead Muslim women to be dug up from their graves and raped – the PM recently praised Adityanath for his speed and efficiency and “good work”.

Despite these instances, Modi has done the right thing this time by coming out strongly against “anti-social cow protectors”. It is a beginning, and if he continues taking the secular road not just in words but also in action, and his words are seen as having an effect on emboldened anti-socials, I will have no hesitation in batting for him. However, the key words here, given the BJP’s rogue MPs’ vote bank politics, divisive rhetoric and two-tongued stance on secularism, remain “however” and “if” – and this cannot be stressed enough.