India seeks promises of nuclear disarmament Government weighs staging its second atomic test

January 07, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW DELHI, India -- In the exclusive circle of countries that have tested nuclear bombs, the record shows 1,054 U.S. blasts, as compared with a single test by India 21 years ago.

Some Indians now want another multikiloton detonation by their country to more nearly even the score. "A new test may be the only way to tell the U.S. where it gets off," well-known columnist Inder Malhotra fumed.

The roots of India's peevishness lie in the proposed global Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and a push by the Clinton administration to get it approved by this spring. The pact, John Holum, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, has predicted, "will make us grateful that we locked all nations into place on the nuclear learning curve."

For two years, India co-sponsored the test-ban treaty along with the United States, in a visible demonstration of new thinking. But no longer.

Last autumn, at the Geneva Disarmament Conference, the government of P. V. Narasimha Rao reverted to India's old tack. India now insists that the five acknowledged nuclear "haves" -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- agree to a time-bound elimination of their nuclear arsenals as a precondition to signature of a total test ban.

"If such a commitment is not forthcoming," Mr. Rao has said, "what are we to make of a status in which a few hold on to their awesome arsenals, kept trim by sophisticated computer simulation techniques, while they want all others to watch on with empty hands?"

Indian officials fear that the test-ban accord, along with the extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty orchestrated by the United States last year, would sanction a perpetual nuclear monopoly by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

The squabble around the test-ban accord is only one area in which differences between India and the United States have sharpened of late. As nationwide elections approach, Mr. Rao's Congress (I) party may even be tempted to engage in a fresh nuclear test, since opinion polls show that's what the public wants.

On May 18, 1974, at the desert test site of Pokran in western Rajasthan state, India set off a 12-kiloton bomb in its sole nuclear explosion. But a recent poll found that 62 percent of Indians would approve of another explosion were it necessary "to develop [India's] nuclear-weapon capability."

Last month, the New York Times reported that there were suspicions in Washington that India was getting ready for new testing. Spy satellites, it was said, had recorded renewed scientific and technical activity at Pokran.

External Affairs Minister Pranab Muhkerjee called that report "speculative and baseless," and it kindled a surfeit of anti-American comment in the Indian press.

In weighing whether to test, one major restraining factor for Mr. Rao's government is the uncertain reaction of Pakistan. India's unfriendly neighbor has a nuclear weapons program of its own. In the view of Savita Pande, of New Dehli's Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, the ambiguity served by an absence of testing is no less worrisome for Pakistan's leaders than a second explosion at Pokran.

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