NEW DELHI : The family of a Muslim man lynched in India over rumours he had eaten beef could face criminal charges after they were accused of slaughtering a cow - a taboo in the mainly Hindu country.

Around 100 people dragged Mohammad Akhlaq, 50, from his house in Uttar Pradesh state last year and beat him to death in a case that horrified the nation and fuelled concerns of a rise in religious intolerance. His family has consistently denied the rumours and police have arrested 19 local people over the killing. But on Thursday a local court ruled that there was enough evidence to investigate Akhlaq's wife and adult children for allegedly killing a cow, according to lawyers for both sides. Cow slaughter is a criminal offence in many Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh, and the court made its decision after receiving a petition from a group of local residents. "The court accepted the petition mainly on the basis of the government report which confirmed the recovery of beef and key eye witnesses who saw them slaughtering a calf," said Rajiv Tyagi, a lawyer for the petitioners.

Police investigating Akhlaq's murder were initially reported to have found beef at his home, though it later emerged that the meat was found on a nearby rubbish dump.

Local police said they expected to receive the court order by Friday evening and would then register a case.

"We will then launch a formal investigation and further action will be taken on merit," said Dharmendra Singh Yadav, a senior officer.

Yusuf Saifi, acting for the Akhlaq family, said they would appeal the decision in a higher court.

Cow slaughter carries a maximum jail sentence of seven years jail and a fine of up to 10,000 rupees ($150) in Uttar Pradesh.

Akhlaq's murder fuelled concerns that religious intolerance may be growing under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party government.

Critics accuse the Hindu nationalist government of having failed to protect minorities since it came to power at general elections in May 2014 and say Hindu hardliners were emboldened by Modi's victory.

It took the prime minister several weeks to respond to the attack, in which Akhlaq's son was also severely injured. He eventually described the incident as "unfortunate".

While the majority of India's 1.2 billion population is Hindu, the country is also home to sizeable Muslim, Christian and Buddhist minorities.