The prime minister has spoken. It has taken a while - the Dadri lynching was on September 28, 2015 and the Una thrashings in July 2016 - and some pressure from the Opposition, but Narendra Modi has spoken out against cow vigilantes in two meetings on two consecutive days. The substance of what he has said is being welcomed, generally, as an unmistakable condemnation of violence against Dalits with the cow as alibi that the Bharatiya Janata Party and its friends would be compelled to heed. Given the characteristic high drama of the prime minister's utterances - if vigilantes want to shoot, they should shoot him, not his Dalit brothers - the country would be eagerly waiting to see how his directions are implemented. In all the time that the prime minister did not speak, people were murdered and many beaten up across eight states in north India; an organized extortion racket developed that is destroying the cattle trade in Punjab and elsewhere; the kind of terror that spread is causing men to jump into fast-flowing rivers after killing cows in a road accident - and the Dalits have started a protest movement. The prime minister can hardly keep silent after that. Dalits are one of the BJP's main target groups in the campaign to win Uttar Pradesh: the goal of "Hindu unity" has made Dalits Mr Modi's "brothers". Their suffering is causing him "unbearable pain".
What has emerged from Mr Modi's speeches is that there is a category called "fake gau rakshaks" who are anti-social elements perpetrating violence by day and executing crimes at night. Such groups should be punished, for they are using the cow to hurt Dalits and thus destroying Hindu unity. They are to be distinguished from the true gau sevaks, for whom the prime minister only has reverence for their "great work". Evidently, there is no transcending the politics of the cow. The emphasis on Hindu unity tries to obscure the covert target of the cow protection programme: minority communities. At the moment, the cow vigilance saga looks like a strategy that has misfired, and at the wrong time. It is only natural that Mr Modi should insist that the Dalit problem is a social issue, and unnamed parties that are politicizing it are the ones who wish to cause division. It cannot, of course, be divisive to enforce a ban on cow slaughter in a secular country because the animal is 'sacred' to the majority religion.