Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for religious unity on Thursday 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 growing pressure to break his silence over the incident and defuse a row raging over a feared rising intolerance towards Muslims and other religious minorities.
Mohammad Akhlaq, 50, was dragged from his home outside the Indian capital last week and beaten to death after rumours spread that he had eaten beef. His 22-year-old son was severely injured in the attack.
At least eight men have been arrested over the September 28 murder.
Without referring specifically to the attack, Modi said the nation will only prosper “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,” Modi said at an election rally for the upcoming polls in Bihar state in eastern India.
The premier also implored people to ignore political leaders who have jumped on the issue in recent days to win votes along religious lines ahead of the election.
Several of Modi’s own ministers have stopped short of condemning the attack outside New Delhi, 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.
Modi’s comments come just hours after legislators from his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) punched and shoved an opposition Muslim memberin a state parliament over eating beef.
Modi’s party, which came to power in May 2014, 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.
Modi’s BJP colleagues have came under fire for appearing to trivialise Akhlaq’s murder.
“If somebody says it was pre-planned, I don’t agree. It was an accident and investigations should happen,” Modi’s culture minister Mahesh Sharma told reporters during a visit to the victim’s family last week.
Commentators have also warned of an emboldening of Hindu hardliners since Modi came to power, with vigilante gangs increasingly campaigning against Muslims.