September 28, 2014 / 12:48 AM / 3 years ago

India's Modi jabs at Pakistan, encourages yoga in U.N. address

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York September 27, 2014. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Saturday he wants to hold bilateral talks with neighboring Pakistan “without a shadow of terrorism,” a day after Pakistan’s prime minister expressed frustration with stalled talks over Kashmir.

In his first address to the U.N. General Assembly since his resounding election victory in May, Modi also invoked India’s Hindu and ascetic traditions, saying they might provide answers to climate change and called for an International Yoga Day.

Modi appeared to chastise Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had used his own General Assembly address on Friday to blame India for the collapse of the latest talks over Kashmir, the Himalayan region claimed in full by both countries.

“By raising this issue in this forum,” Modi said in Hindi, “I don’t know how serious our efforts will be, and some people are doubtful about it.”

Last month, India announced it was withdrawing from the planned peace talks between the two nuclear-armed neighbors over Pakistan’s plans to consult Kashmiri separatists beforehand.

India was willing to discuss Kashmir with Pakistan, Modi said, so long as those talks are in “an atmosphere of peace, without a shadow of terrorism.”

India says Pakistan supports separatist militants that cross from the Pakistan-controlled side of Kashmir to attack Indian forces. Pakistan denies this, saying India’s military abuses the human rights of Kashmiris, most of whom are Muslim.

Modi, India’s first Hindu-nationalist prime minister in a decade, embraces a strain of politics that maintains India’s culture is essentially Hindu, although his Bharatiya Janata Party says such a culture is welcoming to other religions.

He has said fears that he will favor India’s Hindu majority over its large religious minorities, including some 170 million Muslims, are unfounded, and his comments on spirituality in his address are likely to be scrutinized for evidence of this.

Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat when days of religious riots raged across the northwestern state in 2002 after a Muslim mob set alight a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, killing 59 people. More than 1,000 people were killed in the riots, most of them Muslims.

Critics have accused Modi of allowing the riots to happen, but courts have found no evidence to indict him.

In his address on Saturday, Modi invoked the “ancient wisdom” of India’s Vedic era, during which Hinduism’s most sacred texts were written.

He also encouraged more people to take up yoga, the spiritual practice that predates the Islam’s arrival in India.

“Yoga should not be just an exercise for us, but it should be a means to get connected with the world and with nature,” Modi said as he called on the United Nations to adopt an International Yoga Day.

“It should bring a change in our lifestyle and create awareness in us, and it can help fighting against climate change.”

On Saturday evening, Modi appeared on stage before some 60,000 people at the Global Citizen Festival in New York’s Central Park, where performers including Jay Z, Sting, No Doubt, Carrie Underwood and The Roots, were backing a campaign to end global poverty and bring basic essentials such as sanitation to all - an effort the Indian leader is pushing at home.

Modi will get more rock star treatment on Sunday, when he is due to speak at Madison Square Garden, where a crowd of more than 18,000 is expected.

After his U.N. address, Modi met privately with the prime ministers of Nepal and Bangladesh and the president of Sri Lanka at his hotel. No talks were planned with Sharif or other Pakistani officials because they did not ask to meet, according to the Indian delegation.

While in New York, Modi is also due to receive visits from a parade of powerful political and business figures, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the chief executive officers of Boeing Co (BA.N), BlackRock Inc (BLK.N), IBM (IBM.N) and General Electric Co (GE.N), among others.

Next week, less than a decade after the United States denied him a visa under a law barring entry to foreigners who have severely violated religious freedoms, Modi is due to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House.

His trip to the United States got off to an awkward start on Friday after a little-known human rights group filed a lawsuit against him in New York, alleging that he failed to stop the Gujarat riots. Washington and New Delhi brushed off the suit, saying it would not affect the visit.

Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols, Sebestien Malo and David Brunnstrom; editing by Jason Neely and G Crosse

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