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India leader Modi uses yoga "to unite" at U.N. ahead of Biden meeting, but many see him as a divider

United Nations — India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented himself to ambassadors, U.N. staff, journalists and guests on a sea of yellow yoga mats on the north lawn of the world body's headquarters in New York Wednesday morning as a man on a mission to unite.

"You are gathered here as the United Nations at the meeting point of entire humanity," the leader of what may already be the world's most populous nation told the crowd before taking a seat on his own yoga mat to join the session. "Yoga means to unite."

The timing of Modi's visit to New York aligned with Wednesday's International Day of Yoga — a global occasion the Indian leader himself pushed the U.N. to designate in 2014.

Indian PM Modi Leads International Yoga Day At UN Headquarters In NYC
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters after performing yoga on the North Lawn of the United Nations headquarters on June 21, 2023 in New York City.  Michael M Santiago/Getty Images / Getty Images

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, addressing the crowd, said yoga "connects us to our planet, which so badly needs our protection."

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, U.N. 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 U.S., which will include a landmark White House meeting with President Biden at the end of the week.

India, the U.N., and the Ukraine war

India has been in focus at the U.N. recently due to the Modi government's decision to abstain from voting on resolutions demanding that Russia cease its invasion of Ukraine. India, like fellow Asian giant China, has instead issued repeated calls for peace talks.

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

A uniter, or a divider?

Despite his message of unity and oneness at the U.N. on Wednesday, at home, Modi's critics and political opponents accuse him of leading 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 deeper through Indian society, but right-wing organizations, including members of Modi's Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), have spoken openly of their vision to turn secular India into a Hindu Rashtra (nation).

Earlier this year, the Indian government banned airings of a BBC documentary that examined Modi's role in deadly religious riots that hit Gujarat in 2002, when he was the chief minister of the western Indian state.

More than 1,000 Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs during the riots, which broke out after 59 Hindu pilgrims died in a fire on train. Muslims were accused of attacking the train. In a trial nine years later, 31 were convicted and 63 others freed for lack of evidence. 

Modi faced allegations of complicity in the riots that followed the train fire for failing to rein in the Hindu mobs that rampaged in Gujarat.

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

U.S.-India ties

India is an important U.S. partner in both trade and security matters. President Biden has not fostered the kind of close personal relationship that his predecessor Donald Trump appeared to enjoy with Modi, and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this week that in any meeting between officials, "we make our views known" on issues of human rights, religious freedom and other matters.

"We do so in a way where we don't seek to lecture or assert that we don't have challenges ourselves," he added. "Ultimately, the question of where politics and the question of democratic institutions go in India is going to be determined within India by Indians. It's not going to be determined by the United States," Sullivan said.

Michael Kugelman South Asia Institute Director at the Wilson Center thinktank, told CBS News the U.S.-India "relationship will continue to be dogged by questions about the administration overlooking rights issues in India, especially because it has pledged to uphold a values-based foreign policy. But at the end of the day, the U.S. track record on democracy promotion is always selective. In the case of a strategic partner like India, the U.S. will let interests and not values drive the relationship."

"Elevating rights to a key priority in the relationship would imperil a partnership that U.S. interests require stay strong," he said.

"There has been a long-standing and stable increase in the U.S.-India strategic partnership, and what happens in a particular country doesn't necessarily factor in America's strategic interests," agreed Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in Delhi.

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