The cow protection debate revived by sangh parivar activists after the Narendra Modi government came to power is no longer centred round the question of respecting religious taboos: the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq a month ago in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri village for allegedly storing and consuming beef shifted the thrust of the discussion to whether personal freedoms – the right to choose one’s diet, clothes, beliefs, and life partners – was under threat.

Next came the storming of Kerala House in Lutyens’ Delhi earlier this week by the Hindu Sena for serving beef to its customers, following which the Delhi police, with unusual alacrity, responded to the Sena’s call, giving the issue yet another twist — that of violation of federal freedom.

As long as the Bharatiya Janata Party and the sangh parivar restricted themselves to advocating a ban on cow slaughter, virtually no political party challenged it, largely because it had support among a section of Hindus, and is there in the Directive Principles — though not in the Fundamental Rights — of the Constitution.

Indeed, other political parties either remained silent on the subject — as when the BJP-Shiv Sena government earlier this year expanded its cow protection law to include all bovines — or supported it. The Congress, for instance, has been at pains to stress that most of the laws banning cow slaughter in the country — enacted in at least 24 States — was done on its watch. The Congress’ Digvijaya Singh even said his party would cooperate with the government if it wished to enact a Central law on the subject.

But with the BJP government failing to reassure citizens that it has no plans to enforce dietary restrictions, it has entered treacherous terrain.

People have read this silence as an effort to limit their freedom of choice even as State governments see the Kerala House episode as an infringement of federal principles: witness the prompt expressions of solidarity to Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy from the principal opposition in the State, the Left Democratic Front, as well as from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

The anger was seen on the social media and in citizens across the country organising well-publicised “beef parties” to protest at the use of violence by Hindutva groups to enforce food restrictions. In Bihar, barring hardcore BJP supporters, a cross-section of Hindus told this correspondent that no one had the right to decide what citizens ate.

The Kerala House episode saw Mr. Chandy describing the police raid “as a challenge to the federal system of the country,” and throwing out a challenge to the Modi government: “As long as buffalo meat is not banned in Delhi, Kerala House will continue to serve beef at its canteen,” he said. He also threatened to initiate legal action against the Delhi police unless they acknowledged their mistake.

On Thursday, belatedly, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh told India Today that he was willing to express his regret to Mr. Chandy and would meet him after his return from Bihar. Mr. Singh also said he had told the Delhi police “to be careful while acting on such complaints in future.”

The BJP and the Hindutva groups have clearly failed to read the sentiments of the people of this country: if they had believed that whipping up the beef issue would help polarise society along religious lines, it has only helped liberal Hindus to break their silence as can be seen in the protest by writers, academics, scientists, filmmakers. Freedom of choice is after all critical for citizens of a democracy; just as infringement of the rights of the States goes against the spirit of cooperative federalism.