India's Modi seeks to reassure Muslims in rare TV interview

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Hindu hardliner Narendra Modi, tipped to be India's next premier, sought on Saturday to reassure the nation's big Muslim minority he would respect their traditions, as 14 people died in the worst violence since the start of a marathon election.

Modi's statements in a rare television interview to be aired late Saturday came as police confirmed Maoist rebels in insurgency-hit central India killed 14 people, most of them involved in helping stage the general election.

Protection of majority Hindu India's secular status has surfaced as a key election issue with critics worrying Modi's Hindu nationalist rhetoric could stoke religious tensions in a country where 13 per cent of the 1.2-billion population is Muslim.

In interview exerpts on India TV's website, Modi, leading the campaign of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said he refused to don a skullcap presented to him by a Muslim cleric three years ago because he did not want "to hoodwink people".

"I believe in respecting traditions of all religions. But at the same time, I have to respect my own tradition as well although I respect all traditions. I can't hoodwink people by wearing such skullcaps.

"But I believe in taking action against those who show disrespect to other's caps," said Modi, chief minister of the western of Gujarat. Many Muslims wear skullcaps.

Modi, whose state has thrived economically under his leadership, paints himself as a pro-business reformist who alone can revive the economy of the world's largest democracy and opinion polls favour the BJP to win the elections, ousting the scandal-tainted Congress party after a decade of rule.

But Modi remains a divisive figure after being accused of failing to swiftly curb 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in which at least 1,000 people, died.

Modi has repeatedly rejected opponents' accusations of wrongdoing and investigations have never found grounds to charge him.

Meanwhile, two landmine blasts left 14 dead in the impoverished Chhattisgarh state, marking the deadliest violence since polling began last Monday and highlighting security issues around the election.

Seven polling officials died when Maoists blew up their bus, senior police officer Gurjinder Pal Singh told AFP.

Five security men carrying out an election safety sweep who hitched a ride in an ambulance were killed in another attack. The ambulance driver and a paramedic were also killed.

"The Maoists triggered the landmine blasts," Singh, a key official in ensuring election security in the state, which is a hotbed of Maoist activity, told AFP.

The blasts came on a day when Indians cast ballots in the southern resort state of Goa and in the troubled northeast - the latest round of the multi-phase elections that wind up May 12 with results due four days later.

Maoist and separatist insurgencies occupy large swathes of India's northeast, northwest and central regions. The vote is being held in stages to allow security forces to move around the country to protect voters.

Modi also told the TV station he favoured upward mobility for Muslims who official figures show generally are poorer, more illiterate and have lower access to education and smaller representation in public and sector jobs than their Hindu peers.

He suggested that Muslims should enjoy the fruits of India's economic progress.

"I believe their children should get better educations. They should have a Koran in one hand and a computer in the other hand," Modi said, according to the TV transcript.

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