Chandigarh/New Delhi, Oct 16: Finding himself cornered over his controversial statement on consumption of beef, especially by Muslims, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar on Friday offered his "regrets", as the Centre sidestepped the issue and the opposition flayed him and even demanded his sacking.
The controversy erupted after Khattar was quoted by an English daily on Friday as saying that "Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef as the cow is an article of faith here".
"Haryana Chief Minister Mr Manohar Lal has denied having made any such statement and said that his words and sentiments have been distorted," an official statement said.
A political greenhorn and first-time legislator, Khattar completes one year in office as chief minister on October 26.
The statement was made in the context of the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri district of Uttar Pradesh on September 28 by a mob on suspicion that he ate beef.
But once Khattar's recorded interview (in audio) was released by the daily and played by news channels, making it clear he indeed made the controversial statement, Khattar told the media here: "However, even if you believe that if any of the words were spoken by me, there was no intention (of hurting anyone's sentiments). If anyone's sentiments are hurt by my statements, I am ready to offer my regrets for this."
"We understand and respect the feelings of every religion and community. I did not make any statement which would have hurt anyone's sentiments. However, if anyone or any community has felt hurt, I regret the same," a statement quoting Khattar later said.
Khattar said he had "full devotion in the practice of 'Sarva Dharma Sambhav' and believed in taking along all sections of society".
Khattar, a former RSS pracharak, had said that the "cow, Bhagwad Gita and goddess Saraswati were articles of faith for the Hindu community".
He had maintained that the Indian Constitution, which had no provision to ban cow slaughter or consumption of beef, however, had a provision that no one should do anything that offends the faith of another religion.
Reacting to the controversy, union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters in New Delhi that "Khattar has explained himself and I have nothing more to add".
"This country is full of diversity and our government and the party (BJP) believes in 'sabka saath-sabka vikas'," he added.
On the other hand, the Congress criticised Khattar and took a dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"It's a sad day for democracy. Khattar-ji will now decide the qualifications for Indian citizenship. Is this a new model of governance, Modi-ji?" Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) demanded Khattar's sacking and said his statement was a "blow to the country's secular fabric" and that a criminal case be registered against him.
"Khattar should resign for his irresponsible statement, and if he does not, he should be sacked. He has distorted the secular fabric of the country. His statement is not only unfortunate, but also shameful," AAP Delhi unit convenor Dilip Pandey said.
Janata Dal-United president Sharad Yadav accused Khattar of playing politics over religion.
"He is speaking nonsense. He is playing politics over religion. Now that he has made such statements, obviously the Muslims will react to it," Yadav told reporters.
Kamal Farouqui, member of Muslim Personal Law Board, said: "He (Khattar) is no longer an RSS sarsanghchalak. He is the elected chief minister of Haryana and has sworn on the constitution. First, he tried to malign the media by saying his statement had been twisted. Then he says he didn't mean it. What does he mean by that? He is saying things that make Muslims in this country very uncomfortable."
"Very few Muslims in this country actually eat beef. Going beyond Hindu-Muslim issue, there are many others who consume beef. So they mean all such people should leave India? If they are serious about it, they should ban export of beef and meat," he added.
"He should offer an unqualified apology and say this will not happen again. But he will not do this because they want to give an open-ended statement that can be twisted this way or that," Farouqui said.
Yogendra Yadav, a founder member of Swaraj Abhiyan and a former Aam Aadmi Party leader, said, "It reveals a deeper mindset that minorities are tenants and the Hindus are the landlords. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP have never accepted that the minorities are as much the owners of this entity called India as are the majority. What they really want is to emulate Pakistan, except they want a Hindu Pakistan."