New Delhi — One of the most rancorous chapters in recent Indo-American relations may come to a close this month as United States and Indian negotiators discuss an end to an 18-year-old agreement to supply fuel for India's Tarapur atomic power plant.
Both Indian and American officials have denied reports that the United States has made up its mind to cancel the enriched-uranium-fuel agreement, intended to last 30 years when it was signed in 1963.
But speaking in Parliament last week, India's foreign minister held out little hope of salvaging the agreement, which has foundered in the past two years over India's refusal to open all its nuclear facilities to international inspection.
When legislators compared coming New Delhi talks on an amicable termination of the agreement to a "funeral procession," Narasimha Rao, minister of external affairs, quipped, "The burial should be decent." Rao told cheering parliamentarians that a halt to US fuel deliveries would not stop the Tarapur plant, which Indian scientists say can be run on locally produced mixed-oxide fuel already successfully tested here.
Neither India nor the United States would relish a repeat of last year's heated battle in the US Congress over continued shipments of fuel to Tarapur, which drew charges of "nuclear blackmail" from partisans on both sides.
That clash involved two overdue deliveries of Tarapur fuel, held up in the wake of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978, which denies US atomic fuel to countries that do not accept full-scope safeguards.
India's surprise detonation of a nuclear device in 1974 was the original impetus for the nonproleferation law, but the Carter administration argued that Indian applications for 1979 and 1980 fuel deliveries fell within the act's grace period.
The Senate finally went along by a two-vote margin after an acrimonious debate that strained US-Indian relations, India, which has since received only one of the two approved shipments, argued then -- as it does now -- that the 1978 American law cannot be applied retroactively to the 1963 Tarapur agreement. But to both sides, it became clear that the issue of future shipments meant nothing but trouble.
Most current accounts here pin the initiative for ending the Tarapur agreement on the United States, disregarding earlier American press reports of Indian overtures toward a polite parting of the ways.
The parting, however, may be less than polite. Earlier, this year, Indian officials for the first time publicly claimed exclusive title to the spent fuel produced at Tarapur and the right to reprocess it into plutonium -- an ingredient of either additional fuel or nuclear bombs -- without American consent. The United States has maintained that the use of the spent US-supplied fuel must be jointly determined, under the terms of the 1963 agreement.
India maintains that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and it is widely believed that it has not gone on to develop its nuclear-weapons capability after its 1974 test explosion.
But recent intelligence reports, quoted in Washington, have raised the specter of a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan.
Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California has cited reports of construction at both the old Indian underground test site at Pokaran and the Baluchistan mountains of Pakistan in apparent preparation for nuclear tests.
Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has said that her government had reports indicating that Pakistan may try to detonate an atomic device sometime between this July and September, 1982. She said experts had identified three possible Pakistani test sites --border.
India's small pro-bomb lobby has turned up its volume lately, calling on the Gandhi government to proceed with weapons development in anticipation of a nuclear threat from Pakistan.
The possibility of a budding Indo-Pakistani nuclear arms race is expected to spur on US opponents of any further Tarapur fuel shipments, as well as opponents of economic and military aid to Pakistan.