- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2000

AGRA, India President Clinton yesterday chose sides with India against Pakistan by delivering his sharpest-ever criticism of Islamabad just three days before he is to visit that dictatorship.

"I share many of your government's concerns about the course Pakistan is taking," Mr. Clinton told a joint session of India's parliament. "Your disappointment that past overtures have not always met with success. Your outrage over recent violence."

"I know it is difficult to be a democracy bordered by nations whose governments reject democracy," he added, referring to the military coup that toppled Pakistan's democratic government in October.

Mr. Clinton's reference to "recent violence" was the closest he has come to blaming Pakistan for Monday's massacre of 40 Sikhs in the disputed region of Kashmir.

On Tuesday, the president linked Islamabad to Kashmir violence only in general terms, stopping short of mentioning the latest massacre. "I believe that there are elements within the Pakistani government that have supported those who engaged in violence in Kashmir," Mr. Clinton told ABC News.

Yesterday, as the president sharpened his criticism of Pakistan, he praised India as "a great nation." A day after being told by India's leaders to keep out of the Kashmir dispute and forget about curbing India's nuclear arms program, a chastened Mr. Clinton tried flattery while making his anti-nuclear pitch to parliament.

"I say this with great respect," the president said. "Only India can determine its own interests. Only India… ."

The parliament, which represents 620 million eligible voters, erupted in applause, halting the president in midsentence and driving home the point that India resents being told to give up nuclear weapons by the most nuclear-prolific nation in the world. The contradiction was not lost on Mr. Clinton.

"I am aware that I speak to you on behalf of a nation that has possessed nuclear weapons for 55 years and more," the president allowed. "But since 1988, the United States has dismantled more than 13,000 nuclear weapons."

"India's nuclear policies, inevitably, have consequences beyond your borders," Mr. Clinton said, "eroding the barriers against the spread of nuclear weapons, discouraging nations that have chosen to forswear these weapons, encouraging others to keep their options open."

But immediately after Mr. Clinton spoke, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made clear he has no intention of taking marching orders from a nation with barely a quarter the population of India.

"Our experience with colonialism rekindled even more forcefully our attachment to independence of judgment and autonomy of action," Mr. Vajpayee said.

The prime minister said it was not "realistic" for India to give up its nuclear weapons in the face of Pakistan's nuclear proliferation and China's nuclear might.

"We still remain committed to a world free of nuclear weapons," Mr. Vajpayee said. "We, however, find that our environment continues to witness proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles. Such proliferation continues with impunity."

"Our decision to maintain a minimum credible nuclear deterrent is prompted by a realistic assessment of our security compulsions," he added. "We are aware of the importance that you attach, Mr. President, to the subject of nonproliferation."

While differing with the president over India's nuclear future, Mr. Vajpayee echoed the American leader's tough talk against Pakistan.

"India has always tried to develop its relations with its neighbors in an atmosphere of mutual trust," the Indian leader said. "Recent developments have unfortunately eroded that relationship of trust with one of them."

The stepped-up rhetoric against Pakistan comes just as Mr. Clinton is urging India to engage its rival neighbor in "dialogue." Both India and Pakistan are under U.S. sanctions for testing nuclear weapons within days of each other in May 1998, actions that raised the stakes in their rivalry.

The president then flew here to Agra and toured the Taj Mahal, the 17th-century marble landmark that was built by an Indian ruler as a monument to his wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child. The president gazed with wonder at the towering white edifice against a cloudless blue sky.

With daughter Chelsea on his arm, the president posed for scores of news photographers as they directed him to turn this way and that. He said he regretted that the local townspeople were made to stand blocks away from his motorcade en route to the Taj Mahal.

The president's arrival in Agra was dramatically different from his motorcade through Dhaka, Bangladesh, two days earlier. The 11-mile Dhaka route was lined with tens of thousands of cheering people, including row after row of schoolchildren dressed smartly in their most colorful uniforms.

But yesterday, Mr. Clinton's motorcade wheeled down the main street of a virtual ghost town of dilapidated buildings and crumbling shacks. As his limousine passed narrow alleys between hovels, he caught fleeting glimpses of impoverished townsfolk herded behind barriers 20, 50, even 100 yards from the street.

As the motorcade neared the Taj Mahal, the crowds behind the barriers grew larger and larger. Then a single-file line of neatly dressed students waving American flags appeared along the final stretch.

Mr. Clinton said he wished the people had been allowed closer so he could shake their hands.

"I did see some people," the president said. "I would have liked it if they were up front. I wanted to see them."

Mr. Clinton used his appearance at the Taj Mahal to call for stricter environmental controls in India. Home to 150 iron foundries, Agra has some of the worst air pollution in India. Yesterday, the president bemoaned the fact that the filth threatens to darken the Taj Mahal's pristine exterior.

"Pollution has managed to do what 350 years of wars, invasions and natural disasters have failed to do," Mr. Clinton said. "It has begun to mar the magnificent walls of the Taj Mahal."

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