NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The murder of a Muslim man over rumors he consumed beef has fueled a fierce debate over India's rising intolerance toward religious minorities, with President Pranab Mukherjee on Wednesday calling for a tradition of tolerance to be defended.
Since Mohammed Akhlaq was beaten to death in his home near New Delhi last week, politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, ministers among them, have made statements seemingly in defense of the Hindu mob that killed him.
Cows are considered holy by many, but not all, Hindus, who form a majority of India's population of 1.2 billion, and beef is eaten by some of the country's minority Muslims and Christians, as well as many lower-caste Hindus.
India is the world's largest exporter of beef and its fifth biggest consumer, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government wants a nationwide ban on cow slaughter and the beef trade, which is run mostly by Muslims.
Akhlaq's murder has brought to the fore tension over whether India should drop its pluralistic ideals and adopt a Hindu-first identity.
In a rare televised speech from the presidential palace, Mukherjee addressed an event attended by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who has previously spoken in favor of a nationwide ban on cattle slaughter. On Tuesday, Singh called for calm.
"Throughout the years, this civilization celebrated diversity, promoted and advocated tolerance," said Mukherjee, a constitutional figurehead with a largely ceremonial role. "We cannot allow the core values of our civilization to be wasted."
Modi has been criticized for not publicly commenting on the controversy, but seven days after the murder, the home ministry said perpetrators of violence would be punished.
Author Nayantara Sehgal, the niece of the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on Tuesday returned a 1986 prize she had received from India's national academy of letters, to protest against what she called the rising dominance and intolerance of Hindu nationalism.
Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran also weighed in, with an article saying the lynching and other incidents were worrying signs that the "idea of India" was diminishing.
This week, in Delhi and the southern state of Kerala, where beef is widely eaten, groups of young people held beef-eating "picnics" to protest against the imposition of food prohibitions.
Modi's government has clamped down on the illegal trade of cattle with Muslim-majority neighbor Bangladesh, and two states ruled by his party have tightened laws to protect cows.
(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel and Rupam Jain Nair; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)