Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, speaking at a time of growing concern here among Indians and diplomats alike that a fourth war between India and Pakistan might be looming on the horizon, declared today that India will not provoke a war with its neighbor to the west.
She added, however, that Pakistan's offer of a nonaggression pact with India raised her suspicions because it was coupled with the acceptance of sophisticated weapons from the United States. U.S. Senate action in relation to the aid package to Pakistan, which includes F16 fighter planes that have been bitterly opposed by India, could come as early as next week.
Highlighting concerns here of a new conflict between the longtime rivals, one senior Western diplomat predicted in a lengthy, informal discussion with American correspondents late last month that there is a "slightly better than 50-50 chance" of an Indo-Pakistani war within the next two years that would be instigated by India because "Indira Gandhi just cannot tolerate a resurgent Pakistan, which will constitute somewhat of a threat to India."
Gandhi appeared to be trying to set these fears to rest in an interview today with three correspondents for American publications.
"There is no provocation from our side for something like this war with Pakistan ," Gandhi said firmly.
"We do not want a war. We have never gone in for war. We have only gone in for self-defense," continued Gandhi, looking relaxed as she sat behind a large desk in her corner office in the imposing red sandstone building put up by the British to house the colonial administration before independence.
"The problems of India are of such gigantic proportions," she said, "that we need all our resources and all our energies" to meet them rather than getting involved in wasteful endeavors such as wars.
India, with the fourth-largest military force in the world, has preserved its military superiority over Pakistan with multibillion-dollar arms purchases, including a $1.63 billion deal with the Soviet Union last year. New Delhi also is receiving British-made Jaguars and is negotiating with France for Mirage 2000s, which still are in the developmental stage.
Gandhi insisted that India "has never committed aggression against Pakistan" -- a statement that most Pakistanis would dispute -- "and we don't intend to."
"Nobody would be more delighted than myself if we could live in peace forever," declared Gandhi, whose country has fought three wars with Pakistan in the 34 years they both have been independent nations.
She vehemently denied a comment made by Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq to the Far East Economic Review this week that Gandhi "has not reconciled herself to the existence of Pakistan."
"I don't want to be rude," said Gandhi of the Zia quote, "but it's really ridiculous."
"I think I have done more than almost anybody for friendship with Pakistan," she continued.
She questioned the sincerity of Zia's offer of a no-war pact, especially since it came as he accepted a $3.2 billion economic aid-military sales package from the United States that she said would raise tensions in the region and fan an arms race.
She said her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, this country's first prime minister after independence in 1947, made a similar no-war offer in 1949, and the offer was repeated. "It is Pakistan who brushed it aside," she said.
"Suspicions are raised in people's minds" over the timing of the offer, she said later. "It is difficult to understand why he Zia came up with it at the same time as acquiring very sophisticated weapons and also raising issues which don't create good will."
While not going into specifics, Gandhi indicated that Indian officials have not gotten full details of the Zia offer, which was made a month ago.
Nonetheless, the tenor of her comments today appeared aimed at improving relations with Pakistan, which observers believe are strained badly as a result of differing views on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the new arms agreement with Washington.
Gandhi especially has objected to the U.S. proposal to sell 40 F16 fighters to Pakistan.
During the last six months Gandhi constantly has sounded the theme that the U.S. arms sale and its plans to make Pakistan the eastern anchor of a "strategic consensus" to protect the oil-rich Persian Gulf from Soviet expansion have increased the chance of war by bringing superpower confrontation to South Asia.