“If you have to shoot, shoot me, but not my Dalit brothers. This game should stop.” These powerful words from the prime minister against self-styled gau rakshaks, coming as they do for the second time in a row over two days, suggest that he means to take on those who have been attacking, even killing Dalits, in the name of cow protection. Many may say that this has come too late, but even so, we can hope that Mr Modi’s anger and sentiments will be heard loud and clear by the rank and file of both the BJP and RSS. Perhaps predictably, the reaction of the VHP and Hindu Mahasabha, not to mention a host of extreme right-wing elements, has been defiant and disturbing. The VHP has threatened that the BJP would pay for this in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The prime minister must ignore this, and ensure that, at least in BJP-ruled states, his words are followed up with strong action. In states where cow slaughter is banned, there are laws to deal with those who violate the law. There is absolutely no need for vigilante groups to take on policing duties. Those who incite people to violence, like the Union minister for social justice who asked people to verify rumours of offences against cows before taking action, should be brought to book. There is enough evidence on tape of cow custodians openly condoning or threatening violence against Dalits and other minorities on the issue of cow protection.
The right-wing groups, the RSS included, have never been quite comfortable with Mr Modi, so the vehemence of their attacks on him is not entirely surprising. As chief minister of Gujarat, he oversaw the demolition of at least 300 temples built on illegal land, bringing him into direct conflict with the VHP and Bajrang Dal among other Hindutva groups. The PM has long held that he is governed only by the religion called the Constitution. And his condemnation of the gau rakshaks, at least those whom he termed fake and criminals, goes to underline this. Alongside this, he should also exhibit zero tolerance towards those in government, whether the Centre or BJP-ruled states, when it comes to this issue. The gains made by the NDA government in the economic and other spheres are threatening to get overshadowed by those who claim to speak in the name of all Hindus. Once the cow protectors feel the full force of the law, their penchant for such criminality will be greatly lessened.