NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said al Qaeda will struggle to recruit members in the world's second-most populous nation and he praised Indian Muslims for their commitment to fight for the country.
Al Qaeda announced the formation of its first wing dedicated to waging jihad in South Asia earlier this month. A few days later it claimed responsibility for hijacking a Pakistani naval ship.
Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was elected in May and faces criticism for remaining silent about several incidents deemed anti-Muslim, said Indian Muslims were patriotic and would not betray their nation, which has a long history of sectarian strife.
"Indian Muslims will live for India, they will die for India, they will not want anything bad for India," Modi told CNN, which aired excerpts of the pre-recorded interview on Friday. "If anyone thinks Indian Muslims will dance to their tune, they are delusional."
Al Qaeda said in a statement that it aimed to end the suffering of Muslims in places such as Kashmir, where a violent insurgency against New Delhi's rule raged through the 1990s and resentment still runs high.
Modi has long been a hate figure for Islamist groups because of religious riots in 2002 when he was chief minister of Gujarat state. More than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, died in the violence.
Muslims make up some 15 percent of the Indian population, and number an estimated 175 million, giving India the third-largest Muslim population in the world.
When asked why so few of India's Muslims have joined al Qaeda, Modi characterized the threat from Islamist militancy as not about country or one race, calling it a fight between "humanity and inhumanity".
Modi's comments come amid a debate within his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party about how to deal with religious minorities after an inflammatory by-election campaign drew the ire of rights activists and failed to win over voters.
Yogi Adityanath, a star campaigner in the recent by-elections in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has been accused of delivering inflammatory speeches against Muslims. In one video he said religious riots happen wherever more than 10 percent of the population is Muslim.
A senior BJP leader in the neighboring state of Bihar, Sushil Kumar Modi, in an interview with the Indian Express newspaper criticized those comments and said his party would give seats to Muslims in local elections.
Ahead of a visit to meet U.S. President Barack Obama later this week, Modi said ties between the United States and India, a Cold War ally of the Soviet Union, will continue to improve.
"From the end of the 20th century to the first decade of the 21st century we have witnessed a big change," Modi said. "These ties will deepen further."
CNN will air the full interview on Sunday.
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)