Late, but when it finally came, the Prime Minister’s denunciation of violence and hatemongering in the name of the cow was unambiguous. In normal circumstances, that should have put an end to the atrocities being committed by self-styled gau rakshaks. But we do not live in circumstances that can be called normal. Ideologues in the Prime Minister’s own camp have challenged him while the fanatic fringe has turned defiant. This has not happened before, and it bodes ill for the country.What a pity that the gentle cow is at the centre of this confrontation. The cow deserves a supra-religious, non-controversial position because it plays a critical role in human well-being. The genius of India’s ancient rishis led to the concept of giving religious sanctity to animals and plants that were indispensable to the progress of mankind. Many of them became objects of “worship”—the banyan, the peepul, the tulsi, the asoka, the coconut, the jasmine and of course the cow. By teaching us to revere these, our forefathers ensured our health and happiness. In other words, they used religion in the most constructive way possible. This also reinforces the theory that Hinduism was not a religion initially, but a way of principled life, sanatana dharma.Take a casual look at some of the plants and animals we are encouraged to worship. The banyan’s leaves give relief to joint pains, the latex helps cure gum infection and conjunctivitis, the roots fight diarrhoea and pimples, the bark is used to cure skin diseases and mouth ulcers. The peepul emits oxygen. The asoka tree’s leaves, stems and roots are helpful in treating menstrual and related problems of women. The tulsi is a great cleansing agent and helps fight sore throat, respiratory ailments and indigestion. The coconut is a tree every part of which is useful to mankind.If people were simply told of such medicinal benefits, the response would have been half-hearted at best; such is human psychology. But the same psychology takes a somersault when the exhortation is tied to religion. So the banyan and the peepul found positions of eminence in the epics and the puranas. The auspiciousness of an occasion is not complete without breaking a coconut, the tulsi leaf is mandatory in the worship of Vishnu. And Sita sat under the asoka tree in Lanka.The cow has a stand-out position in this narrative, with Sri Krishna himself becoming Gopala. Like the banyan and the coconut tree, everything associated with the cow is essential to human beings. Not just milk and ghee and paneer; cowdung is valuable as fuel and as fertiliser; walls plastered with mud-cowdung mix provide natural insulation; cow products are part of the science of ayurveda. The popularisation through religion of the essentials of healthy living must have been a factor in Indian civilisation outlasting most other civilisations such as the Mayan, the Babylonian and the Greek.Today, however, the wisdom of the sages has given way to the brashness of the dogmatists. Cow protection has come to mean lynchings and ceremonial thrashing of minorities. The televised brutalisation of Dalits in Gujarat went viral at the cost of the ruling dispensation. The cow has emerged as India’s “most polarising animal”, as the BBC once put it.The atrocities are said to be motivated by votebank politics. In fact they may hurt the BJP’s electoral prospects. Undaunted, the extremists have turned against Narendra Modi. Some right-wing groups even warned of “World War III” if Modi’s promise of strict action was implemented. The Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha said it would hold “a buddhi shuddhi yagya across the country to give better sense to the Prime Minister”. Where were these crusaders until two years ago? It was Modi’s victory that gave the zealots the courage to beat and kill people they disapproved.Modi can ignore their open challenge only at the risk of diminishing himself. It is true that law and order is a state subject. But Modi has a voice, and an impact, that no state government can ignore. He can set an example by making his handpicked, new chief minister of Gujarat punish the men who thrashed Dalits before cameras. Modi was correct in saying that frauds were posing as cow lovers. There are protection rackets and business intrigues behind the cow these days. They need to be crushed. Popular opinion will be with the Prime Minister if he uses his influence to implement the principles he outlined. He can make World War III glorious.