MUMBAI: When does a murder merit a prime minister’s attention? India has been grappling with this question for more than a week after a mob in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh lynched a 52-year-old Muslim blacksmith, Mohammad Akhlaq, and badly injured his 22-year-old son. The attack was sparked by rumors that the Muslim family had killed and eaten a cow, an animal Hindus regard as sacred and whose slaughter is illegal in much of India.On Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally broke his silence at an election rally in Bihar. He urged Hindus and Muslims to remain united to fight poverty together, and to ignore “irresponsible statements” made by politicians.Mr. Modi’s belated acknowledgment is welcome. The lynching in a village barely 35 miles from New Delhi has dominated newspaper opinion pages and TV talk shows this month. But the prime minister also bears partial responsibility for the statements of which he disapproves.
As the undisputed leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mr. Modi needs to do a better job of setting the tone for his party. Had he spoken up sooner, he might have forestalled many of the comments he now wants Indians to disregard. In general, the longer the delay in responding to such incidents, the more Mr. Modi undermines his promise to place economic development ahead of corrosive identity politics.Some of the prime minister’s supporters hold a decidedly different view. They say Mr. Modi is no more responsible for a murder in Uttar Pradesh—ruled by a regional, caste-based party—than President Barack Obama would be for a crime committed in Texas. How can the prime minister be expected to comment on every stray incident in a vast and often lawless land?But the Akhlaq lynching was no ordinary crime. Its injustice and brutality have angered countless Indians, many of whom backed the BJP in last year’s elections. The grace with which the grieving family has borne its suffering has struck a chord with Indians of all faiths.Moreover, Mr. Modi can hardly divorce himself from India’s fraught debates about beef. According to news reports, eight of the 11 people accused of the killing are linked to a local BJP politician.
And though most Hindus across political lines are averse to cow slaughter—an unproven accusation that the Akhlaq family denies—the BJP has seized on the issue. BJP state governments elected last year in Maharashtra and Haryana moved quickly to tighten restrictions on beef. That it took the prime minister this long to respond—Mr. Akhlaq was murdered on Sept. 28 and the crime became national news a few days later—suggests confusion in both the party and the government.Why has this particular murder led to such a sharp outcry? One factor is its brutality. An announcement on a temple loudspeaker that a cow and calf had been butchered for meat galvanized a mob to march to the blacksmith’s home.On discovering what the victims’ family says was goat meat in their refrigerator, the mob beat Mr. Akhlaq and his son with bricks and a sewing machine. While the older man died, his son remains hospitalized with a fractured skull.
In a widely watched interview with television anchor Barkha Dutt, Mr. Akhlaq’s older son, an air force technician, called on dueling politicians not to exploit the incident. He quoted a well-known patriotic poem extolling India as “the best place in the world.”The BJP, by contrast, sent mixed messages. National leaders such as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Home Minister Rajnath Singh condemned the killing and called for peace. But others downplayed it as an “accident” or described the mob as “innocent children.” One BJP member of parliament responded by promptly regurgitating a laundry list of alleged Hindu grievances against Indian Muslims going back decades.
Until Thursday, Mr. Modi—who found time to tweet condolences to a Bollywood singer who lost her son and a get-well-soon message to a hospitalized former cricketer—didn’t say a word about Mr. Akhlaq.Mr. Modi’s call for unity ought to put an end to arguments made by his more excitable fans: In the end it doesn’t matter if the meat found in the Akhlaqs’ refrigerator was beef or goat. It doesn’t matter that law and order is a state subject and that an opposition party rules the state in question. Nor does it matter that many of those who slammed Mr. Modi for his silence won’t praise him for speaking up.All that matters is that Mohammad Akhlaq was an innocent Indian who died a terrible death for no good reason. The leader of the world’s largest democracy could not afford to act as though this never happened.