For nearly three weeks after the Dadri lynching, the Prime Minister, confronted by mounting pressure to respond, oscillated between ducking the issue by keeping silent, turning it into a wider existential clash between Hindus and Muslims, and finally describing it as a 'sad incident' while drawing an administrative distinction: "what do incidents like Dadri," he asked, "have to do with the Centre?"
We are now told that the Prime Minister is "angry" with the incendiary statements made by his party colleagues. They were in turn summoned by party president Amit Shah and given a dressing down. Characteristically, some of them have denied this.
While this may or may not assuage those still awaiting a more convincing response, it isn't quite clear why the Prime Minister is angry. After all, the troops were dutifully following the general's lead.
In the campaign for the national elections, the repeated "pink revolution" references by Mr Modi, then the party's Prime Ministerial candidate, inserted the alarmist, cow-under-attack rhetoric into the national conversation. His primary contention (which underwent mild variations in each speech): the UPA government was promoting the large scale illegal - and immoral - slaughter of cows, thereby bringing in a "pink revolution."
In Bihar, for instance, in a speech on April 2, 2014, he taunted Lalu Yadav, who comes from the caste of gau-palaks (cow rearers) for forging an alliance with a UPA that experiences garv (pride) at the massacre of cattle. By way of proof, Mr Modi spoke of the subsidies to the meat industry given by the UPA, and of the existence of large slaughterhouses everywhere. This, he explained to a crowd in Ghaziabad in Western Uttar Pradesh two days later, is the UPA's pink revolution, which wants ''India to be made the biggest meat exporter," a series of clever distortions and half-truths to conceal the larger lie of the cow in peril.
It is true that India's meat exports have steadily risen in the past several decades. But even as campaigner, Mr Modi would have known that government rules only permit the export of buffalo meat, not cow. Buffalo is technically not classified as beef by the government, even if it is treated as such in some of the countries it is exported to.
The UPA subsidy was for the agri-food export industry as a whole, of which meat export is a component.
As for the possibility of illegal killing of cows in slaughterhouses bound for export, here is what DB Sabharwal, a representative of India's meat exports association had to say: "There are 66 meat processing plants registered with the state and central government, which are only allowed for export. In each of these plants, a government veterinary doctor is posted at the gate and at the plant who does the ante-mortem and the post-mortem of the buffalo. In each plant, there are CCTV cameras installed all over as per the instruction of the state government. In most of the countries which are importing meat, some of them post their own veterinary doctors in the plants to ensure that the quality is safe and that it is buffalo meat. In addition, everything is monitored on the website and each animal when it goes for slaughter, it is accounted for and the meat from that animal is also accounted for."
Moreover, the approximately Rs 27,000 crore buffalo meat export trade is not the monopoly of a single religion; the recent discovery that a particularly acid-tongued BJP MLA had part ownership of a meat export firm for three years only underlines the fallacy of making such divisive insinuations. In light of this, for Mr Modi's assertion to hold true - that India, is in effect illicitly exporting a buffalo-cow mix - would involve a sinister, decades-long collusion between central and state governments, meat traders, exporters and perhaps even consumers in the 65 countries to whom India exports meat (of which the three biggest are Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand). It was a breathtakingly provocative claim for a politician of his stature; if he had proof to back it up, it is yet to be shared with the Indian public.
But with one stroke, he was handing to the dangerous ecosystem of self-styled gau-rakshaks their 'aha!' moment. Damn the evidence, they could now say (and they do) - no less than the Prime Ministerial candidate is airing the very conspiracy theories they deployed to justify their vigilantism.
It can be no one's case that violence over cow slaughter is a new phenomenon; if anything, it occupies one of the oldest chapters in our communal history. Which is why the freedom for states to pass cow protection laws was given a Constitutional mandate under the Directive Principles. As a result, over the past five decades, all but 11 states have banned cow slaughter outright. The cow slaughter debate, at least in theory, ought to have been settled, but for individuals and groups - some of whom owe direct allegiance to the Hindu right, others whose links are more ambiguous - who have kept alive the myth of 'cow in peril' through a volatile mix of half-truths and rumour.
This attack-first-proof-be-damned modus operandi is evident in the killing in Dadri and in similar assaults. There is today a partial curfew in many parts of Kashmir over the killing of a man after a mob in Udhampur firebombed a truck he was driving. The grounds: that he and the others in the truck had illegally killed two cows. The police found that the cows had died of food poisoning. The truck was transporting coal. In Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh, the "discovery"of the skinning of an already dead cow led to a near-riot and the near-lynching of four men. Police suspect that the son of the man who gave the dead cow to the men for skinning had tipped off the mob.
We were witness firsthand to prevarications of these groups when, ten days after Dadri, we filmed with the Gau Raksha Dal, a self-described cattle protection group based in Haryana, but with units across North India. They had called us to a temple compound in East Delhi, where, flanked by local members of the BJP, they claimed to have rescued two trucks of cows bound for slaughter to Uttar Pradesh (where cow slaughter is banned). When we asked how the simple stoppage of a truck automatically establishes the cattle inside were being transported for slaughter, a BJP person present changed tack, saying it was a violation of animal cruelty laws, which stipulate that cattle need to be transported under certain guidelines. Even if this was the case, it has less incendiary potential than claiming cow slaughter, not to mention milder punishment under the law.
Also, the "rescued" cows in this case were not cows at all, but bullocks. (This turns out to be true for almost all their videos, and a good amount of the propaganda material we were shown by similar groups in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra). The bull, in popular imagination, does not carry the same emotive charge as gau mata. In fact some states which ban cow slaughter - like Maharashtra, until recently - permit the slaughter of bulls after they have been certified as infirm.
How did the Dal explain this anomaly? They did not. Standing next to a herd of emaciated bulls, they threatened the worst possible fate for anyone caught harming the gau mata.
But it can be said with confidence that the images from Delhi would have already passed into the self-sustaining loop of context-less, time-less, date-less images (or increasingly, WhatsApp videos) of cattle "rescues" or even gory carcasses that we have been shown by similar outfits as far apart as Maharashtra, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. In almost every case, there is very little indication of where or when these were shot, what was the specific illegality, whether a case was registered, and if so, what was the outcome. Instead, each image, each video or anecdote validates the other, creating the perception of large-scale illegal cow slaughter.
The power of rumour allows the cow vigilantes to bypass what is a more likely scenario: an illicit cattle trade far smaller in scale than their hysteria will have us believe.
Even such as it exists, it has less to do with an Islamic conspiracy and more with the compulsions of the cattle economy, where farmers sell livestock that they have no use for to meat traders. For the most part, these take place inside government-run cattle markets, where scope for illegality is slim. But there are bound to be outliers, of cattle changing hands outside the purview of local laws. The solution to this is not harsher cattle protection laws and increased vigilantism - which only increases the possibility of illegal transactions - but to address the question of potential remuneration to the farmer.
In Maharashtra, farmers' groups that protested alongside meat traders after the state government extended the ban to infirm bulls posed the question most directly: "If the Hinduvatva-waadis are so fond of the gau, why don't they come to the market and buy it from us?" Several cow protection groups we have posed this question to had no answer. For good reason. Foregrounding the role of the farmer and of cattle economics deflates the selective, communalised narrative of gau-rakshaks, raising questions about their true motive: is it to protect cows, or to use exaggerated myths of the cow in crisis to stoke sectarian tension, even political gain?
That this vigilantism is allowed to operate with impunity is a disgrace to the law and order machinery of all governments, regardless of political colour. The Gau Raksha Dal, for instance, has operated for years in what was until recently Congress-run Haryana.
But the blind eye policy came with an unspoken rider - that the alarmist and rumour-powered grammar of cow paranoia will not leak into the higher tiers of political establishment, even by those who may privately sympathise with its proponents. In the case of the RSS Parivar, it has been until now largely left to the domain of the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, or within the BJP to the Adityanaths and Sakshi Maharajs.
That is why the current political regime stands answerable today - starting with the Prime Minister himself, for breaking this unspoken Lakshman Rekha with his pink revolution remarks.
Even if he could be forgiven the poetic license of the campaign trail, where are the prosaic clarifications once in power?
The mob may understandably want nothing to do with inconvenient statistics, but that fig leaf cannot extend indefinitely upwards. The last animal census conducted between 2007-2012 finds that the Indian cow population grew 6.5%. Overall, though, its growth rate is 1.5% less than that of the female buffalo.
This, according to KML Pathak, an animal scientist at the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, is due to simple economics: buffaloes have higher, richer milk yield. "Milk prices are fixed on the fat percentage. The fat percentage in buffalo milk is more than cow's milk," said Pathak. "That's why there's an increase in the buffalo over cattle population."
The only drop of any significance has been in the population of the bull, which has no dairy benefits, and has fallen by 19 %. According to Pathak, the main reason for this is the increased preference for mechanised farming.
Instead of the toning down of cow rhetoric, we have the Chief Ministers of two states where the BJP registered a significant electoral victory, again on the back of a mandate seemingly for progressive governance, making much of passing anti-beef laws. On cue, both drew praise from BJP President Amit Shah, who in his speech to the party National Executive in April this year, praised Maharashtra and Haryana for proving that only the BJP has the interests of the cow on its mind.
This is, of course, another clever evasion. Cow slaughter was already banned in both states for years. Haryana merely made the laws tougher, while Maharashtra extended the ban to bull slaughter. It's hard to gauge what these announcements achieved on practical terms, other than keeping alive cow-alarmism.
Even after Dadri, and the first round of supposed disapproval expressed at the highest level, the BJP/NDA's cow-pitch remained high: the otherwise moderately inclined Sushil Modi began to speak of a cow slaughter ban in Bihar (which, again, already has such laws). A minister in the Haryana government is running an opinion poll to replace the tiger with the cow as national animal. His boss, the Chief Minister, made a statement (which he later claimed was a misrepresentation) saying Muslims can continue to live in India, but they will have to give up eating beef.
Why then is the BJP surprised that its centre of power will be held to account when murders are taking place on manufactured rumours of cow slaughter? Even if not the administrative Centre that the Prime Minister sought to absolve of responsibility, what about the party's political Centre which lit the spark in 2014 and has since kept the flame on slow burn? Is it surprising, furthermore, that the supposed chastisements of party hotheads will continue to be viewed with skepticism, given the closed-door, source-based manner in which they were conveyed?
Since the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri village, the District Magistrate of Gautam Buddh Nagar, under whom Dadri falls, has been going from village to village speaking of the gradual leak of poisonous propaganda into the veins of impressionable young men. The BJP's top brass needs to decide whether it is sincere about turning off the tap, or letting the slow drip continue.
(With inputs from Manas Roshan)
Sreenivasan Jain is Managing Editor NDTV 24x7 and anchors the ground-report show Truth-Vs-Hype.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.