In an unusually harsh, direct statement, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for all intents and purposes accused Pakistan Tuesday of lying about its intentions to build a nuclear bomb. ``We must consider how we can counter a nuclear weapon right across our borders,'' Mr. Gandhi told a group of American reporters on the eve of his departure on an overseas tour which includes the United States.
Pakistan has consistently claimed that it is not building nuclear weapons and that its nuclear research is solely for nuclear power. India and Pakistan, which share a border, have long been rivals.
In the interview, Gandhi discussed a wide range of topics -- Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sikhs, and relations with the United States and the Soviet Union.
The most important aspect of his visit to Washington, he said, was to develop better understanding between the two governments, which have often been at odds, and, ``from this understanding, everything else flows.''
Gandhi indicated that if the US does not intervene and stop the nuclear weapons program in Pakistan, India might be forced to reconsider its own nuclear option. India exploded a nuclear device, which it described as ``peaceful,'' in the Rajasthan desert in 1974.
``We are not developing a nuclear weapons program at the moment, and we would like not to,'' Gandhi said.
On the issue of countering Pakistan's alleged nuclear arms program, he said, ``There's a lot that the United States can do. You have exempted Pakistan from the Symington Amendment [which blocks US aid to nations pursuing a nuclear arms program]; you have taken a soft line towards the export of certain triggering devices; and only recently you've let that gentleman go back to Pakistan.''
Gandhi was referring to Nazir Ahmed Vaid, convicted in October 1984 in Houston of trying to smuggle 50 krytrons (devices capable of triggering nuclear bombs) out of the US. Mr. Vaid was deported in November.
Gandhi made it clear he would discuss Pakistan's alleged clandestine nuclear dealings when he meets with President Reagan next week. Gandhi also minced no words on his displeasure with the continuing flow of US weaponry to Pakistan, which, he said, upsets the arms balance on the Subcontinent.
``It is not the arms per se,'' Gandhi said. ``It's the higher technological level of weaponry introduced. You give Pakistan the F-16 and we have to get the MIG-27. You give them missiles, and we've got to get a missile to match. It just goes on and on and on.''
The prime minister also had sharp criticism for the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. Last month the FBI arrested five Sikhs allegedly planning to assassinate Gandhi during his US visit. Gandhi charged that the FBI had not informed the Indian government until seven months after it first uncovered the plot, which also included plans to blow up nuclear power plants in India.
``They [FBI agents] were in touch with these people since November, pretending they were training them, and they knew that they wanted to blow up a number of our critical installations, including nuclear power plants.
``We weren't told. And, even if they couldn't tell us about the assassination plots, they should have told us about the attacks which they were planning on our nuclear power plants.''
Since last month, however, the Indian government has been satisfied, he said, that the Americans will do ``whatever they can'' as a follow-up to the FBI operation.
And, perhaps as a measure of reciprocal goodwill, Gandhi backed away from his earlier hints that Washington appeared intent upon destabilizing India.
On the issue of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Gandhi repeated his controversial position -- that the Soviets were invited into Afghanistan.
He also implied strongly that there would be no Soviet withdrawal until the United States ceased its massive, covert arms support to the anticommunist guerrilla forces and Pakistan stopped allowing supplies to cross its border into Afghanistan.
Asked about stepped-up Soviet incursions and bombardment inside Pakistan, Gandhi responded, ``The pressure is building up on both sides of the frontier.''
Had he, during his Moscow visit, felt that the Soviets wanted out of Afghanistan?
``The Soviets seemed fairly confident of their position,'' he replied.
Gandhi became a bit testy when asked about what some consider the hypocrisy of India's Afghanistan stand. He compared the Soviet Union's 110,000 troops inside Afghanistan to the United States invasion of Grenada. ``Perhaps you should define foreign intervention for me,'' he said.
Fielding questions (and declining some) with ease, Gandhi was assisted only once by aides.
It was only when discussing Pakistan that he echoed his mother, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He argued that Pakistan, with a population of 96 million, posed a conventional military threat to India's 735 million people.
Gandhi went much beyond previous accusations by the Indian government that the Pakistani military was training and arming India's militant Sikhs. Gandhi said that India had information on the ``locations [of the training camps], the numbers of Sikhs involved, the individuals doing the training, and the units to which they belong.''
Gandhi's statement was the first substantial confirmation that the Indian government believes that the ongoing violence in India's Punjab State, whose population is 52 percent Sikh, is being abetted by Pakistani military officers.
Gandhi also spoke on the issue of Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, an island nation off India's southern tip. He revealed that in recent months the Indian government had confiscated almost $4 million worth of Sri Lankan separatists' weapons in southern India. Tamil separatists train in southern India, then cross easily by boat to northern Sri Lanka.
``We [the government of India] will not allow an independent Eelam,'' Gandhi said, referring to Sri Lankan Tamils' envisioned independent state.
Does this mean that India would intervene militarily to stop it? ``No, we don't intend to go into Sri Lanka at all. But if the elected government of Sri Lanka requests our help, we'll give them help,'' he replied.
It was the closest that any Indian government official had come to suggesting that an Indian military intervention could not be entirely ruled out.
Excerpts from Gandhi's other remarks:
On regional concerns: ``We think the Indian Ocean should be a nuclear-free zone, a zone of peace. We would like our area to be kept out of tension. We don't want South Asia to become a Middle East. The United States, like any third country, coming in with large defense commitments, does affect the balance, and exacerbates the tension.
On India's relations with the USSR: ``The Soviet Union has been very consistent in its support of India. We've had some problems of consistency with the US.
On his economic philosophy: ``It's pro-Indian. It's not capitalism or socialism. It has to be a mix of the two. It has to progress as we progress, as our base develops. . . . We don't fear a debt problem, but we do feel that the US is blocking our getting aid from some [international] institutions.
``I will make our case based on our performance in development, in agriculture. We could have been an Africa. We've had two-three major droughts in the last five years, but we're still self-sufficient in food.''