New Delhi (AFP) - Hindu hardliner Narendra Modi, tipped to be India's next premier, sought Saturday to reassure Muslims he would respect their religious traditions, as 14 people died in the worst violence since the start of a marathon election.
Modi's statements in a rare television interview aired late Saturday came as police confirmed Maoist rebels in insurgency-hit central India killed 14 people, most of them involved in staging election.
Protection of India's secular status has surfaced as a key election issue with critics worrying Modi's Hindu nationalist rhetoric could stoke religious tensions in a country where 13 percent of the 1.2-billion population is Muslim.
While India is majority Hindu, it also has one of the world's largest Muslim populations.
Modi, leading the campaign of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said he refused to don a skullcap presented to him by a Muslim cleric three years ago because he did not want "to hoodwink people".
"I believe in respecting traditions of all religions. But at the same time, I have to respect my own tradition as well although I respect all traditions. I can’t hoodwink people by wearing such skullcaps.
"But I believe in taking action against those who show disrespect to other’s caps... they should be given the strictest punishment," said Modi, chief minister of the western of Gujarat. Many Muslims wear skullcaps.
He added: "Every citizen has the same rights as Narendra Modi."
Modi, whose state has prospered under his leadership, paints himself as a pro-business reformist who alone can revive the economy of the world's largest democracy and opinion polls favour the BJP to win the elections, ousting the scandal-tainted Congress party after a decade of rule.
- election security issues -
But Modi, a solitary figure remains a divisive figure after being accused of failing to swiftly curb 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in which at least 1,000 people died.
Modi has repeatedly rejected accusations of wrongdoing and investigations have never found grounds to charge him.
Meanwhile, two landmine blasts left 14 dead in impoverished Chhattisgarh state, marking the deadliest violence since polling began last Monday and highlighting security issues around the election.
Seven polling officials died when Maoists blew up their bus, police officer Gurjinder Pal Singh told AFP.
Five security men carrying out an election safety sweep who hitched a ride in an ambulance were killed in another attack. The ambulance driver and a paramedic were also killed.
"The Maoists triggered the landmine blasts," Singh, a key official in ensuring election security in the state, a hotbed of Maoist activity, told AFP.
The blasts came on a day when Indians cast ballots in the southern resort state of Goa and in the troubled northeast -- the latest round of the multi-phase elections that wind up May 12 with results due four days later.
Maoist and separatist insurgencies occupy large swathes of India's northeast, northwest and central regions. The vote is being held in stages to allow security forces to move to protect voters.
Modi also told the TV station he favoured upward mobility for Muslims, who official figures show generally are poorer, more illiterate and have lower access to education and smaller representation in public and sector jobs than their Hindu peers.
He suggested Muslims should enjoy the fruits of India's economic progress.
- 'Koran In One Hand, Computer in Other'-
"I believe their children should get better educations. They should have a Koran in one hand and a computer in the other hand," Modi said.
Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Gandhi dynasty which has given India three prime ministers, and who is leading the left-leaning Congress's campaign, told India's Aaj Tak television station in a separate interview that Modi has a divisive agenda.
"He represents an ideology that's to make Indians fight one another," Gandhi said.
In the last weeks, religion has become an increasingly explosive issue.
India's election authorities Friday ordered police to investigate remarks by a Modi top aide allegedly aimed at inciting religious violence.
The powerful Election Commission also barred Modi's aide Amit Shah, 50, from holding rallies to keep a check on what it called his "undesirable activities".
The Modi confidante has been in the eye of a storm since he reportedly told several Hindu leaders to seek "revenge" at the ballot box.
He was speaking in a part of northern Uttar Pradesh state torn by Hindu-Muslim violence last September that left about 50 people dead. - AFP