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Amrit Dhillon is a journalist based in New Delhi.


What Indians eat for dinner became a matter of life and death last week. A Hindu mob, hearing rumours that a Muslim family was keeping beef in their fridge, descended on their home in Bisara village, near the capital, and dragged out a man and his son. Using bricks and rods, the attackers killed the father, Mohammed Akhlaq; his 22-year-old son was left with severe brain injuries.

The mob formed after the village priest announced on the temple loudspeaker that the Akhlaqs had slaughtered a cow and kept the meat in their fridge. Hindus worship the cow and most do not kill it (although millions of Hindus do eat beef), but the Akhlaqs are Muslim, for whom beef is not prohibited. And although the slaughter of cows is banned in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the attack took place, consumption of beef is not. In any event, the family insisted they had not killed a cow and that the meat in the fridge was mutton, not beef.

In a bizarre move, the police have taken the meat to a laboratory for testing to see if it is beef or mutton – a ridiculous act that effectively legitimizes the mob actions; even if it were beef, the mob had no right to murder a man because of his eating habits.

This is the kind of India that right-wing Hindu fanatics want to create – a place where their religious beliefs dictate what Indians wear, what rights women are allowed, what you can eat for dinner, a place where the minorities (mainly Muslims and Christians) know their "place," which is to cower before the Hindu majority.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has always been closely affiliated with jingoistic Hindu groups aiming to usher in Hindu rule. Ever since Mr. Modi came to power almost 18 months ago, they have sensed that this is their big opportunity to push their conservative cultural agenda. One crucial aspect of this agenda is to ban beef throughout India, depriving millions – Muslims, Christians and millions of Hindus, too – of their right to eat it.

BJP ministers have made scandalous remarks in public and in Parliament that have been designed to incite hatred of Christians and Muslims. Mr. Modi didn't condemn the ministers, let alone sack them. He has allowed a climate of fear to be created. Muslims and Christians wonder what they will be targeted for next.

It is time for Mr. Modi to speak out and stand up for tolerance and basic freedoms. He has made a couple of broad remarks indicating that, for him, all Indians are equal, but these comments have been so sweeping as to be meaningless. He needs to address his ministers' poisonous comments specifically and make clear where he stands. Otherwise, Hindu extremists will, understandably, assume that they have his tacit concurrence and feel emboldened.

Last week, Mr. Modi was in the United States to drum up the foreign investment India needs for development. He is wasting his time if he fails to realize that a country that allows mob killings and medieval witch hunts is not an appealing place for foreign investors.

If he is serious about development, he needs to stamp out ideas that are inimical to development, because being modern involves more than just swanky airports and swish restaurants. It's also about the mind.