Reuters/New Delhi

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for religious harmony on Thursday, breaking a week-long silence after the mob killing of a Muslim man rumoured to have slaughtered a cow sparked fears that Hindu zealots were targeting minorities.

At an election rally in the northern state of Bihar, Modi appealed for Indians to ignore hate speeches.

"We must decide whether Hindus and Muslims should fight each other, or against poverty," he said. "Only peace and goodwill can take this country forward."

Since a Muslim man was beaten to death last week over rumours that he butchered a cow, politicians of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including ministers, have made statements seemingly in defense of the Hindu mob that killed him.

The violence fuelled a debate about laws on the killing and eating of cows. Modi has riled opponents by calling for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter and criticised the previous government for promoting beef exports.

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.

On Thursday, lawmakers from Modi's Hindu nationalist party punched and slapped a Muslim opposition politician in disputed Kashmir, for serving beef in a government building.

"I have done nothing wrong," said Abdul Rashid Sheikh, the lawmaker thrashed by his colleagues. "I consumed beef. It is my religious right and also my fundamental right."

Party officials condemned the violence, but no complaint has been filed with police over the incident. It followed a decision last month by authorities in Jammu and Kashmir, which is ruled by the BJP and its allies, to enforce a ban on eating beef.

The order led to fierce protests in India's only Muslim-majority state and forced a three-day Internet shutdown during the Eid festival. Protesters are asking for the Supreme Court to revoke the ban.

Indian states are allowed to impose their own laws on the slaughter of cattle and enforcement varies dramatically.

Modi's government has clamped down on the illegal trade of cattle with Muslim-majority neighbour Bangladesh, and two states ruled by his party have tightened laws to protect cows.

This week, in Delhi and the southern state of Kerala, where beef is widely eaten, groups of young people held beef-eating "picnics" to promote their right to eat the meat.