India-US relations hit new low as rearming of Pakistan continues

Relations between India and the United States have plummeted to a new low in the wake of the American commitment to extend military and economic aid to Pakistan.

The president dispute comes on top of the controversy already produced by the US decision to break its agreement for supplying nuclear fuel to India's Tarapur nuclear reactor.

"It's the worst it's been since 1971," says a diplomatic observer, referring to the year of Bangladesh's war for independence from Pakistan. That war, in which India intervened on Bangladesh's side, produced a much-publicized US "tilt" toward Pakistan and the Indian signing of a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union.

"There's no doubt that relations are strained and I don't see any hope of improvement soon," US charge d'affaires Archer K. Blood acknowledged last month.

Indian-American relations have undergone many prickly periods before. But a new element has surfaced here in the criticism of America's proposed rearming of Pakistan.

It is the feeling, increasingly expressed here, that India has does not matter and that Indian concerns are irrelevant to the Reagan administration.

As columnist K. P. Karunakaran put it in the Indian Express, "Today the Americans are not trying to dominate India but treating India as irrelevant to them."

Writing of Reaganite "ideologues" in the Hindustan Times, Harish Khare said, "The cold warriors want to use Pakistan to bloody the Russian nose, and if in the process Indian gets worked up, just too bad. Therefore any attempt to convince [Secretary of State] General Haig and others of his ilk of the folly of arming Pakistan is tantamount to baying at the noon."

The F-16 fighter-bombers which the United States plans to sell to Pakistan have all but replaced the Tarapur atomic power station as the symbol of deteriorating Indian- American relations.

India says it can keep the Bombay area power plant operating with its own mixed-oxide fuel even if American enriched uranium fuel shipments are finally halted, amicably or otherwise.

The United States' 30- year commitment under an agreement with India to supply fuel for Tarapur until 1993 has clashed with 1978 US nuclear nonproliferation legislation. The terms for breaking off the agreement are in dispute, but both countries appear ready to end the contract, which has strained bilateral relations.

The F-16s, however, are another matter. India claims it has nothing in its air arsenal to match them. Its position is that such advanced aircraft in the hands of its traditional adversary pose a direct threat to Indian security.

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since they were partitioned from the British Raj in 1947. It is almost an article of faith here that Pakistan will turn whatever new arms it acquires against India.

Throughout the past week, the F-16s and other armaments on Pakistan's American shopping list figured prominently in Indian parliamentary debate. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi contended that Pakistan had no intention of confronting the Soviet Union with its new weaponry, or putting it to use against Afghanistan. She left no doubt what she thought the target would be.

India's foreign affairs minister said the Pakistani arms buildup would impede normalization of Indian-Pakistani relations. Defense Ministry official Shivraj Patil told legislators that India would take "effective steps" to meet the threat arising from the US decision to supply F-16s to Pakistan.

Another theme increasingly sounded here is that the US rearming of Pakistan is an overtly hostile act against India.

For example, A. R. Antulay, chief minister of Maharashtra state, charged this weekend that America's actual aim was not to bolster Pakistan but to destroy democracy in India. Speaking at a Bombay convention, the state chief minister, a handpicked Gandhi loyalist, contended that America intended to exploit Pakistan to further its own interests in South Asia.

Against this backdrop, the first Cabinet-level representative of the Reagan administration is visiting India early this week to discuss international and bilateral concerns. The three-day visit (Sunday to Tuesday) by United Nations Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick is part of a six-nation swing intended "to dramatize the importance with which the Reagan administration regards the nations of South Asia," says the US Embassy in New Delhi.

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