India avoids public stand on tragedy

Nearly every night, they touch down at New Delhi's Palam International Airport, a veritable flotilla of Ilyushin cargo planes, disgorging what Western officials estimate is 15 tons of Soviet propaganda material every day.

Yet all of the books, magazines and pamphlets, films, records, and video casettes appear to have had negligible effect in the latest war of words between the superpowers on Moscow's downing of the South Korean airliner a week ago.

With the exception of two pro-Soviet publications here and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's National Herald, India's press has come out across-the-board in strong condemnation of the downing of the jumbo jet.

The press has also begun questioning the wisdom of India's premier for the government's only official statement issued the morning after the plane went down. The government spokesman said contritely: ''We hope it isn't true.''

''Among the international reactions,'' said the English-language Tribune, in an editorial this week, ''the official Indian comment was conspicuous for what could only be described as fumbling nonalignment or, in a more charitable view, deplorably poor draftsmanship. . . . Policy statements made (by the government) should be framed by experts, not by people who try to play for both sides in a football match.''

India's official reaction to the tragedy was not wholly unexpected. India has long been friendly with the Soviet Union which has become one of India's major trading partners. And the Indian people are imbued with an anticolonial spirit and have been ready to give the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt in matters of superpower confrontation.

Mrs. Gandhi, who has expended an enormous amount of effort attempting to persuade chiefs of state to attend the United Nations General Assembly later this month, appears to be as concerned about the fallout from the incident as she is about the incident itself. International indignation, which is bound to sour relations between East and West, does not bode well for what the prime minister, as the chairman of the nonaligned movement, had hoped would be an East-West conclave at the UN this fall.

Mrs. Gandhi also has been chastised twice during the past month, by two nonaligned nations, for statements she has made. These concerned the rioting in Sri Lanka and the antigovernment protests in Pakistan. Both neighboring governments accused her, as nonaligned chairman, of unwarranted interference in their internal affairs.

''Indian policy,'' a Foreign Ministry official said, ''is neither to condemn nor to attempt to whitewash what the Soviets did. If we are to have validity as leader of the nonaligned, it is in our ability to privately counsel Washington to show restraint, and to make it clear to Moscow that, whatever the mitigating circumstances, their action was extreme.''

India's combination of quiet diplomacy and tenacious refusal to take a public stand is likely to set the tone for a number of nonaligned countries, in the view of Western diplomats. As the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had little collective impact on the nonaligned world, diplomats say it is unlikely that the downing of the jumbo will hurt the Soviets within the movement as a whole.

But this has not silenced critical voices within the nonaligned press. In a column in the Hindustan Times, the satarist Rajinder Puri, under the headline ''Pardon, your tilt is showing,'' had a Buchwaldian conversation with an anonymous official of the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

''What is the government's view of the shooting down of the South Korean civilian aircraft by Soviet jets?'' he asked.

''The government of India,'' said the Foreign Ministry expert, ''has heard rumors that an incident took place.''

''Would the government welcome an international probe into the incident?'' Puri then asked.

''Be sensible,'' the ministry official responded angrily. ''The government of India is head of the nonaligned movement. The incident took place inside Soviet territory! How can the government of India interfere in the Soviet Union's internal affairs?

''Now, if you will excuse me, I have to prepare another speech for our minister urging the people of Pakistan not to give up their struggle for democratic rights!''

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