EVEN before Indian Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit returned home last week from talks in Washington, parliamentarians here were demanding that the government explain exactly what Mr. Dixit said.
They were incensed about reports that the foreign secretary had agreed India would enter bilateral discussions with US officials on nuclear nonproliferation in South Asia, even as Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao was simultaneously reiterating India's long-standing refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) during a state visit to Mauritius.
Politicians raised allegations about United States "pressure tactics," according to the daily Indian Express newspaper, which quoted one member of Parliament saying the government "was losing its self-respect to the US."
On Monday a senior Foreign Ministry official categorically told both houses of Parliament that "there is no change in India's position with regard to the NPT."
Eduardo Faleiro, India's minister of state for external affairs, acknowledged that "India was prepared to talk to the US on nonproliferation," but he stressed that the country's independent nuclear policy was intact. He warned that multilateral discussions about nonproliferation might only result in "acrimony."
The episode underscores how difficult it is for government officials in India to alter policies when issues of sovereignty are involved.
"There is this constant fear in our minds," says parliamentarian George Fernandes, "when someone threatens to use economic weapons in order to make us go one way or the other or there is a suggestion about military retaliation of some sort. Then you have this question of sovereignty looming very large before our eyes."
The nonproliferation issue has been complicated by reports of a recently leaked Pentagon document that hints at the possibility of using US military force to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. US officials have said the document does not reflect Washington's views.
The US has been encouraging India and Pakistan to join a five-nation conference - including Russia and China - on nuclear proliferation in South Asia.
Both India and Pakistan say they can assemble nuclear weapons, and Pakistani officials say they will sign the NPT or take part in a conference if India does so. But officials in India, which exploded a nuclear device in 1974, have always advocated global nuclear disarmament, rejecting the NPT as a discriminatory effort that creates nuclear haves and have-nots.
US Ambassador William Clark Jr., in a meeting with reporters here last week, said the continuing hostility between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has made the disputed border region an area of particular concern.
Ambassador Clark argued that "there's movement" toward disarmament and nonproliferation in the former Soviet republics and on the Korean peninsula.
"The one area where you're getting [violence] and you have difficulties is the Line of Actual Control," he said, refering to the line separating the parts of Kashmir controlled by India and Pakistan.
The US has used its leverage - as Pakistan seeks a resumption of US military aid and New Delhi pushes for broad improvements in Indo-US relations - to promote a regional discussion of nonproliferation, or at least measures that would create a nuclear-safe zone in South Asia.
But Clark's comments Friday, which took place just after the parliamentary uproar over Dixit's statements in Washington, also suggest that the US is prepared to use conciliation and flexibility to bring the discussion about.
"Nothing is fixed in concrete," Clark said in response to a question about the format of a five-power conference. "No doors are closed, no paths are ruled out."
Confirming that the US and India would sit down in two months to continue the discussion, he said the US might undertake similar bilaterals with the other potential parties. He also said that the conference could be broadened: Indian officials have raised concerns that countries whose nuclear weapons could reach South Asia seem not Bto have have a role in the conference.