Indira Sounds Nuclear on Diego Garcia
From Emirates News Newspaper (Abu Dhabi, UAE), Monday, May 11, 1981 (Front Page)
By Adel Bishtawi in New Delhi
Abu Dhabi, May 10 (WAM): “The Americans have decided to store nuclear arms in the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia at a time when the international situation is drifting towards confrontation,” according to Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India.
Mrs. Gandhi described her country’s relations with the Gulf countries as “very good” and these have been cemented by the recent exchanges of visits. “Our relations are historical, cultural and commercial from the ancient days,” she said, “and the relations have been updated to be more relevant to the needs of today.”
“What about the UAE,” she was asked. “Especially with the UAE,” she replied.
Mrs. Gandhi told the Emirates News Agency (WAM) in an exclusive interview that the increased foreign presence in the Indian Ocean, the actual war going on in Asia and the thriving of the armament industries are all signs of the international situation drifting, willingly or unwillingly, towards a confrontation.
“Some years ago there was a genuine effort to move towards a greater understanding even though countries have different systems and points of view, but there were-efforts to find areas of agreement and now it is obvious we are going in the reverse direction,” the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy added.
Mrs. Gandhi expressed her deep concern over the militarisation of the Indian Ocean and the rivalry of the superpowers in the Gulf. Voicing India’s demand for maintaining the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace, she added: “There is no way you can get away from the necessity of having a zone of peace in the Indian Ocean, and although it is not in our hands to keep the Ocean as such, all the littoral states have strong feelings on this issue.”
In 1971, Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, raised the issue of proclaiming the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace at the United Nations, but since then the tension has been mounting while increased super power build up of naval forces is causing a great concern for the 36 countries in the region.
Mrs. Gandhi agreed that it would be impossible to go to the other extreme of achieving total neutrality of the Indian Ocean, but at least an effort should be made towards this end. “What is happening now,” Mrs. Gandhi said, “is that one power increases its presence and the others feel they have to go up one more step and this is where the danger lies.”
Mrs. Gandhi expressed India’s deep interest in maintaining the stability of the Gulf and dismissed the idea that the British withdrawal from the Gulf in the early seventies has created a security gap there. “The western powers look at everything from their point of view,” she said, “but if they did not have any presence there I do not think anybody else would threaten security.”
The Prime Minister agreed entirely that the Gulf countries are right in their efforts to work together to preserve the stability and security of the region and that these two issues are best handled by the countries concerned and not by any outside power.
“I entirely agree,” she said, “not just about the Gulf but also in other areas, and that is why we are anxious that our subcontinent should have good relations with other countries because that would be the best security for all of us,” the Prime Minister added.
Mrs. Gandhi started on May 5 a tour to Switzerland, Kuwait and the United
Arab Emirates where the first Gulf summit meeting will convene on May 25 following the agreement among six Gulf nations to form the Gulf Cooperation Council.
” We can understand the desire of the six Gulf countries to work together and also to strengthen themselves for any eventuality,” Mrs. Gandhi said. “We only hope that nobody will think that this combination is against anybody because that is what invites a reaction.”
Asked about the nature of the effort which should be taken to ensure the neutrality of the Indian Ocean, Mrs. Gandhi said that all the countries concerned should try to persuade the super powers that nobody should take attitudes which aggravate the situation any further.
Mrs. Gandhi denied that the Afghan crisis was the cause behind the escalation of tension in the area. “I would not say that is correct because the presence of super power forces in the Indian Ocean, and the decision to turn the island of Diego Garcia into a nuclear base were taken before the Afghan crisis,” she said.
The 15-mile-long and one-mile wide island of Diego Garcia was leased from Britain by the United States to serve as a rear base for a marine brigade for amphibious landings.
In early April (1981) British Prime Minister Mrs. Margaret Thatcher was asked whether her government would approve an American request to install or store nuclear arms at the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Any such thing would be a matter for consultation between the United States and ourselves and they do not take such steps without consulting us,” she added.
Mrs. Gandhi reaffirmed India’s concern about the impasse of the Middle East situation and reiterated support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the aspirations of the Palestinians.
“We have always supported the Arab cause and in the earlier years this was held against us by some parts of’ the world. We have always supported the Palestinian cause and recognised the PLO and H.E. Mr. Yasser Arafat had a very successful when our support was visit to India re-emphasised,” Mrs. Gandhi said.
Asked about the moves which should be taken to bring the Middle East closer to peace she said: “This is a very difficult question fundamentally in the hands of the Arab countries, but all I know is that the solution has to be one which the Arabs have to agree upon and support and this cannot be something which does not meet the requiremts of the basic question and by that I mean the Palestinian question.”
But in view of India’s strong support for the PLO, why does India keep an Israeli Consulate in Bombay, the Prime Minister was asked. “We do not keep an Israeli Consulate,” she said. “We do not have any diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Consulate was allowed to stay because we have a number of Jews here who were travelling back and forth and the Consulate was allowed because it is intended primarily to keep them.”
India imports more than hall- of its petroleum requirements estimated at 30 million tons per annum. Out of the 340, B/D India imports, about 240, came from both Iraq and Iran prior to the war that began in September. A tour of’ the Gulf’ region by senior Indian officials earlier this year resulted in a series of contracts with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE (30, B/D) to provide the oil India lost because of war.
Mrs. Gandhi admitted that there are some difficulties regarding the illegal immigrants of Indian origin who are in the Gulf’ countries, but she thought those difficulties are not insurmountable and can be sorted out.
There are an estimated 500, 000 Indians working in the Gulf countries particularly in the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. Indians are concentrated in the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman each remitting an estimated 600 UAE Dirhams a month, or US $ 160.
“What did your election mean for the women of India?” she was asked.
“We do want our women to play an important role internationally, and our great leader, Mahatma Gandhi showed this very clearly because he was in the first leader to drive the average woman out to take part in the political movement and this was the major breakthrough for the women of India, she said.
But would the Prime Minister agree with the description of’ a British magazine that she is an iron lady?
“No,” she replied.
“How do you describe yourself then?”
“I am just a woman.”