Indian leader touts ‘unifying’ yoga at UN, but for many he’s a divider

The United Nations – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced himself to ambassadors, UN staff, journalists and guests on a sea of ​​yellow yoga mats on the North Lawn of the world body’s headquarters in New York on Wednesday morning as a man on a mission of unification.

“You are gathered here as the United Nations at the meeting point of all humanity,” said the head of this may already be the most populous nation in the world said to the crowd before sitting down on his own yoga mat to join the session. “Yoga means to unite.”

The timing of Modi’s visit to New York coincided with Wednesday’s International Yoga Day – a global occasion that the Indian leader himself pushed the UN to designate in 2014.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters after doing yoga on the North Lawn of the United Nations Headquarters on June 21, 2023 in New York City.  / Credit: Michael M Santiago/Getty Images/Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters after doing yoga on the North Lawn of the United Nations Headquarters on June 21, 2023 in New York City. / Credit: Michael M Santiago/Getty Images/Getty Images

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking to the crowd, said yoga “connects us to our planet, which needs our protection so badly”.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, United Nations General Assembly President Csaba Korosi and Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed also spoke at the event.

Modi was in New York at the start of a four-day visit to the United States, which will include a historic White House meeting with President Biden at the end of the week.

India, the UN and the war in Ukraine

India has recently come under the spotlight at the UN due to the Modi government’s decision to abstain from voting on resolutions demanding that Russia halt its invasion of Ukraine. India, like fellow Asian giant China, has instead made repeated calls for peace talks.

India depends on Russia for almost 60% of its defense equipment. Like China, Delhi has also controversially increased its purchases of cheap Russian oil since Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

A unifier or a divider?

Despite his message of unity and unity at the UN on Wednesday, at home Modi’s critics and political opponents accuse him of pursuing a divisive political agenda, marginalizing India’s 220 million Muslims.

The Indian leader has long denied accusations that he and his party are deliberately driving a sectarian wedge into Indian society, but right-wing organisations, including members of Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), have spoken openly about their vision to transform secular India. in a Hindu Rashtra (nation).

Earlier this year, the Indian government banned the airing of a BBC documentary which examined Modi’s role in the deadly religious riots that hit Gujarat in 2002 when he was chief minister of India. State in western India.

More than 1,000 Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs during the riots, which erupted after 59 Hindu pilgrims died in a fire on a train. The Muslims were accused of attacking the train.

Modi has faced allegations of complicity in the violence, failing to rein in the violent Hindu mobs that have been unleashed on the principle of revenge for the train incident.

Modi has always denied the allegations, and more than a decade later, in 2013, a Supreme Court panel said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.

American-Indian relations

India is an important trade and security partner of the United States. President Biden has not had the kind of close personal relationship that his predecessor Donald Trump seemed to have with Modi, and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this week that in any meeting among leaders, “we make our point of view known” on issues of human rights, religious freedom and other matters.

“We do it in a way where we’re not looking to lecture or assert that we don’t have challenges ourselves,” he added. “At the end of the day, the question of where politics goes and the question of democratic institutions in India will be determined in India by the Indians. It will not be determined by the United States,” Sullivan said.

Michael Kugelman, director of the Institute for South Asia at the Wilson Center think tank, told CBS News that “the US-India relationship will continue to be dogged by questions about the administration neglecting rights issues. in India, particularly because it is committed to maintaining a values-based foreign policy”. . But at the end of the day, the United States’ record of promoting democracy is always selective. In the case of a strategic partner like India, the United States will let interests, not values, guide the relationship.

“Elevating rights to a key priority in the relationship would jeopardize a partnership that American interests demand remain strong,” he said.

“There has been a long-standing and stable increase in the US-India strategic partnership, and what happens in a particular country does not necessarily reflect America’s strategic interests,” acknowledged Neelanjan Sircar, senior researcher at the Center for Policy Research. in Delhi.

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