KOLKATA - This week India's prime minister stirred a debate in his country when he spoke about the patriotism of India's Muslims in a televised interview with CNN.
Narendra Modi is the leader of India's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, and has a history of stoking sectarian divisions in the country. When he was chief minister of Gujarat Province in 2002, he was accused of doing nothing to stop deadly sectarian riots that killed at least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.
In Sunday's interview, Modi said al-Qaida would fail if it sought to spread its terror network in India because it would not get any support from the country's Muslims.
"If anyone thinks Indian Muslims will dance to their tune, they are delusional. Indian Muslims will live for India. They will die for India," Modi told CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria, through a translator, in his first interview since becoming prime minister in May.
Many Muslims in India continue to be skeptical of Modi and his party, and some community leaders said the comments did little to change their attitude.
Zafarul-Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, a New Delhi-based umbrella body of Indian Muslims organizations, said Modi's comments were at variance with reality as many Muslims are being harassed as terror suspects in the country.
"It sounds nice when the Prime Minister makes such comment about India's Muslims. But, the fact on the ground is that people are being arrested, people are being stopped and Modi's government has started something very new, which is profiling at railway stations, profiling at airports. This kind of profiling of course, I think it will become a very big problem for Muslims in India, when our youth wearing caps or wearing beards will be stopped and taken into custody," Khan said.
Abdul Aziz, secretary of Milli Ittehad Milli Ittehad Parishad, a body of Muslim organizations in West Bengal, said Modi's words do not match his actions.
"In the past Mr. Modi was very unkind to Muslims and often cursed, mocked and humiliated them... Today as he vouches that India's Muslims are patriotic, it sounds good to hear... but his words seem to be at odds with his deeds, because he has not bothered to change the attitude of many of his party colleagues," Aziz said.
The prime minister and his party's links to more right-wing, radical Hindu nationalist groups continue to raise concerns in India and abroad. While the prime minister has avoided statements inflaming public opinion, politicians and lawmakers with his party and allied parties have accused Muslims of harming the Hindu majority.
Despite the skepticism among many, some Muslims said that Modi's first such statement in praise of India's Muslims is a sign that he is seeking to mend relations with the religious minority.
"From Mr. Modi we never heard any good word about Muslims since the Gujarat riots. But now as India's Prime Minister he cannot ignore the interest of the country's 170 million Muslims. His statement on the CNN about India's Muslims is a sign that he is seeking to get closer to Muslims," said Sohrab Ali, a Muslim teacher in West Bengal.
The Sawab Foundation of India, a non-government organization that specializes in research and surveys on Muslim-related issues, said the prime minister's statements are part of a broader effort that seems to be succeeding in changing his, and his party's, image among Indian Muslims.
"Our Sawab Foundation of India conducted a survey among Muslims in West Bengal one month before the last general election and found that not even 1% of the community supported Mr. Modi or his party," said Aziz Mubaraki, who runs the group. "But a month after the election in a follow-up survey we found that as much as 16% or 17% Muslims in Bengal were in support of Mr. Modi."
Mubaraki said the most telling example is recent local by-election in a constituency of West Bengal, where Muslims form 63% of the electorate.
The winner was a member of Modi's party, a possible sign that the Hindu nationalist party is finding support among even among its traditional political opponents.