NEW DELHI • Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appealed for religious unity after days of growing tensions over a Muslim man's murder by a mob for supposedly eating beef in Hindu-majority India.
The Hindu nationalist Premier has been under increasing pressure to break his silence on the incident and defuse a row over a feared rising intolerance towards Muslims and other religious minorities.
Mr Mohammad Akhlaq, 50, was dragged from his home outside the Indian capital last week and beaten to death after rumours spread he had eaten beef. His 22-year-old son was severely injured in the attack.
At least eight men have been arrested over the Sept 28 murder.
Without referring specifically to the attack, Mr Modi said on Thursday that the country will prosper only "when Hindus and Muslims unite and fight" against poverty instead of against each other.
"The country has to stand united. Harmony, brotherhood and peace will lead us to development," Mr Modi said at an election rally for the upcoming polls in Bihar state in eastern India.
Several of Mr Modi's ministers have stopped short of condemning the attack, fuelling concerns among religious minorities of an erosion of rights in the world's biggest democracy, and emboldening Hindu hardliners.
Cows are considered sacred by most Hindus in officially secular India, whose millions of Muslims and other minorities eat beef as a source of protein.
President Pranab Mukherjee on Wednesday called for India's tradition of tolerance to be upheld, in what was seen as an attempt to calm raging anger over the issue.
Meanwhile, two concerts by a veteran Pakistani singer in the Indian state of Maharashtra were cancelled by the organisers after a regional Hindu right-wing party took exception to the events.
Singer Ghulam Ali said on Thursday that he was "not angry, but hurt", by the cancellations.
"We came here to share love," Mr Ali, 75, said in an interview with the Indian television news channel NDTV. The concerts were scheduled for yesterday and today in the cities of Mumbai and Pune.
Mr Modi's comments come just hours after lawmakers from his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) punched and shoved an opposition Muslim member in a state legislature over eating beef. TV footage showed several BJP legislators attacking Mr Abdul Rashid, in the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly, for holding a provocative "beef party". "No amount of condemnation can be enough for what happened today," opposition leader Omar Abdullah told reporters outside the assembly in the northern region's main city of Srinagar. "Do I assault everyone who eats pork or alcohol?"
Mr Rashid served beef kebabs in protest against a ban on killing and eating cows in India's only Muslim-majority state. The issue ignited in the region after a top court last month ordered the longstanding but little enforced prohibition be strictly implemented.
Mr Modi's party wants a nationwide ban on the slaughter of cows, which is prohibited in some but not all states. India is the world's biggest exporter of buffalo meat, an industry mainly run by Muslims.
Mr Modi's BJP colleagues have came under fire for appearing to trivialise Mr Akhlaq's murder. "If somebody says it was pre- planned, I don't agree. It was an accident and investigations should happen," Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma told reporters at a visit to the victim's family last week.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES