NEW DELHI — The lynching of an Indian Muslim by a Hindu mob on suspicion he ate beef was "unfortunate," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an interview published Wednesday, in his first direct reference to the case.
The Hindus regard the cow as holy, and the mob killed the 55-year-old man in a village in the Dadri area of Uttar Pradesh state this month after rumors he had beef stored in his refrigerator. The slaughter of cows is banned in Uttar Pradesh.
Modi has been criticized for not commenting on this and other incidents such as the August killing of rationalist and author MM Kalburgi, who opposed idol worship, and the cancellation of a concert in Mumbai where Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali was to perform.
"Incidents like Dadri and Ghulam Ali are really sad, but what is the role of the central [government] in such incidents?" Modi said in the interview.
Leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have maintained that these are law-and-order issues that are the responsibility of state governments – not the federal government that Modi heads.
"Opposition regularly accuses BJP of igniting communal flare, but isn't the opposition doing the polarization now?" Modi said in the interview.
In his only other comments so far, during an election rally in Bihar state last week, Modi urged citizens to follow President Pranab Mukherjee's message on the need to preserve core civil values of diversity, tolerance and plurality.
He did not mention any specific incident.
Modi's comments on the Dadri incident came as more than two dozen eminent writers gave up literary awards given by the state, saying the space for free expression in the country was shrinking in the face of growing intolerance toward different opinions and cultures.
"He [Modi] should have said 'I condemn' instead of 'unfortunate.' That is too weak a word in the circumstances," said writer Shashi Deshpande, who resigned from the board of the Literary Council. "A leader is morally responsible for what happens in your area and a few words can make a lot of difference."