Pakistan and India Under the Nuclear Shadow
Eqbal Ahmed Foundation, 2001
Produced by Pervez Hoodbhoy
Text by Zia Mian
There has been a disappointing dearth of critical analysis on Pakistan’s and India’s nuclear programmes. An Islamabad physicist steps forward to fill part of that space.
At a recent workshop on regional security organised by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Sri Lanka, I met a number of scholars holding diverse views and perceptions from the different countries of South Asia. Among those present was Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist from Islamabad, whose views are of particular interest, considering both his professional background and the general absence of the kind of critical opinion he holds.in the Subcontinent, especially on nuclear matters.
With a PhD in nuclear physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hoodbhoy has been on the physics faculty of Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, since 1973. He is the author of Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (Zed Books, London, 1990) and is one of the leading voices of dissent in Pakistan, a peace and anti-nuclear activist and a prolific writer on social and political issues, particularly those relating to the nuclear policies of India and Pakistan. His serious concern with the nuclear situation in the region has found expression in a video documentary film that he has made, which also provides an insight into his perceptions of the issues concerned.
Shadow over South Asia
Drawing from the lessons of history, the 33-minute video documentary Pakistan and India Under the Nuclear Shadow examines the dangers and repercussions of the nuclearisation of South Asia. Through interviews, visuals and archival footage, the film candidly depicts the nuclear dangers that imperil the people of India and Pakistan, and the urgent need for peace. In the course of the film, several academics, peace activists and journalists examine the political and economic consequences of the 1998 nuclear tests and the subsequent militarisation of the region, while retired military officials of the two countries assess the strategic impact of the tests in South Asia. The film also contains clippings of the leaders of mainstream Islamic as well as jihadi groups expounding their views on the bomb. The film was produced and directed by Hoodbhoy for the Eqbal Ahmed Foundation, named after the late South Asian scholar and pacificist. Zia Mian of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security provided the text for the film.
Opening against the backdrop of the 1945 nuclear tests by the United States and the nuclear holocaust in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film gives a brief historical overview of the development and spread of nuclear weapons, before focusing on the nuclear tests in India and Pakistan in 1998. Scenes of public euphoria and celebrations after the tests in both countries are juxtaposed with scenes of protest. However, the spontaneity of the celebrations is called into question, as there had been a deliberate projection of the tests as both a technological achievement and an absolute imperative for ensuring security. This kind of orchestration was particularly evident in some of the government-controlled electronic media.
Hoodbhoy points out that the portrayal of the tests as a technological achievement was in fact a myth. The first atom bomb was the product of technological innovation, but now it is more a question of money than scientific knowledge, which is abundantly available. Interestingly, AQ Khan, the so-called father of the Pakistan bomb, is shown admitting as much. Retired military officials of the two countries point out that the tests actually worsened regional security, as demonstrated by the Kargil conflict.
The full-blown arms race in the Subcontinent has disproved the theory that nuclear weapons would stabilise regional competition. The concept of minimum deterrence has also proved to be completely erroneous. Hoodbhoy points out the inevitable logic to the escalation of nuclear weapons and missiles as he underscores the fact that militarisation cannot bring peace.
The film provides insight into the nuclear weapons delivery systems and missile developments of the two South Asian adversaries. This is depicted against the background of the US-USSR missile development programmes and their debilitating impact on the Soviet economy and society. It points out that in the event of an arms race between India and Pakistan, the latter could suffer a similar fate, considering the state of its economy and the huge expenditure on debt repayment and defence. Statistics and interviews reinforce this argument.
Hoodbhoy emphasises the criminality of the huge expenditure on militarisation. A single fighter plane costs more than what it would take to run all of Pakistan’s universities for two years. Veteran human rights lawyer Asma Jehangir succinctly points out that nuclearisation has only made people poorer, the military more powerful, the hawks more hawkish and the liberals more marginalised — a situation which could have negative consequences for any society. Similarly, a journalist points out that if Pakistan had refrained from responding to the Indian tests with its own, it would not only have enjoyed moral superiority over India, but would also have been able to avoid the negative fallout of the tests, while India would have faced stronger international condemnation.
The nuclear tests also destroyed all hopes of peace from the Lahore peace talks. Retired Indian Admiral L Ramdas and retired Pakistani Lt Gen Talat Masood point out that not only did the tests fail to achieve the international military recognition that they sought, but actually resulted in a deterioration of the regional security situation while creating a false sense of confidence.
At the other end of the spectrum are religious leaders and representatives of organisations like the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-e- Mohammed. The film shows footage of their rally speeches in which they claim that the bomb belongs not just to Pakistan alone but to Islam, and that it would be a matter of great joy if all Muslim countries obtained nuclear weapons. With pro-nuclear mobilisation of this kind, it is not surprising that the streets of Pakistan witnessed the celebration of the bomb as a symbol of the country’s strength and invulner- ability, and as the instrument of some grand mission. Hoodbhoy underscores the point that Kargil was the first war in history that was actually caused by nuclear weapons. Elaborating on this, he points out that Pakistan sent its forces across the LoC, with the confidence that the nuclear shield would deter India from retaliating. In the climate of nuclear triumphalism the political-military establishment in Pakistan felt secure that it could successfully pursue its policy objectives vis-a-vis India.
In this context, Hoodbhoy forcefully emphasises that there is no such thing as safe nuclear command and control system. There are both technological as well as fundamental problems involved in command, control, communication and intelligence systems. The geographical proximity of the two countries and their missile capabilities provide each with very little time to think, weigh options and respond. History has proved that accidents can and do occur. A nuclear war could occur either by chance or as a result of a deliberate decision, but in either case it would have disastrous effects of terrible dimensions. Poignant and hard-hitting black and white images of the 1945 nuclear holocaust tragically drive home the point.
The film ends on the more positive note of the growing realisation of the dangers of nuclear weapons in South Asia and the consequent increase in the number of protest movements in both countries. It effectively concludes that the bomb has not been able to bring peace and security to the Subcontinent and argues that there is an urgent need for disarmament and peace.
The film has evidently been made on a shoestring budget, but the spirit behind it compensates for deficiencies of technical finesse. There is also a dearth of adequate footage and opinions from India, which is understandable, since the film was made in Pakistan. More to the point, the film is unable to address the domestic political factors that have fueled the nuclear weapons programmes of both countries, the nuclear histories of the two nations prior to 1998 and the perspectives of political parties and leaders in Pakistan. Of course, 33 minutes scarcely suffice to examine such a range of issues. In any case, the message is more important. The initiative on the part of the filmmaker is laudable, particularly when we are all aware of the lack of audibility of voices of dissent on such issues in the region. The film is essential viewing for every concerned citizen of South Asia, even if only to assimilate criticisms of the arguments that justify the nuclear build up and to visually comprehend the effects of nuclear combat. As Hoodbhoy points out, just because the world has lived with the threat of nuclear war and nuclear accidents for fifty-five years and somehow survived, is not sufficient guarantee that it can live with these weapons forever.
In the course of personal conversation, Hoodbhoy revealed some of the difficulties he faced in making the film. Since the theme and thrust of the film evokes the hostility of government as well as militarist groups in society, there were not too many people willing to be associated with the project in any way. Finding a studio to process the film was itself a daunting task, and it was with difficulty that a studio could be persuaded to co-operate, on the condition of strict anonymity. Hoodbhoy even found it difficult to get someone to do the voice-over, even among friends, and ultimately he had to do this himself. Obtaining footage for the film was also difficult, which is evident from Hoodbhoy’s reluctance to reveal most of his sources.
Initially, the response to the film was quite welcoming, but since 11 September, reactions have been increasingly negative. Even in Hoodbhoy’s own physics department, where the film was screened two months ago, the audience was largely unappreciative.
Hoodbhoy points out that the most serious cause for concern in the India-Pakistan nuclear scenario was the total lack of understanding of each other’s technological capabilities. As part of a Pugwash delegation, he had met Prime Minister IK Gujral in early 1998, and expressed his anxiety about the regional nuclear situation. He was reassured that contrary to his perception, Pakistan did not have nuclear capability nor did India have weapons capability — both assurances that were rendered false only a few months later in the May tests. Hoodbhoy also draws attention to the fact that there were no bomb shelters in either India or Pakistan, neither do the governments of either country encourage discussion of such issues, presumably so as to prevent civil society from being overly concerned. And yet, a nuclear attack would be the most terrible thing that could ever happen. A large fraction of the populace might be vapourised, but the after-effects would be felt by millions of people for generations to come.
Hoodbhoy sees no incongruity in being a nuclear physicist as well as an anti-nuclear activist. He says that it was only in the early years that nuclear physics was concerned largely with weaponisation. Now it has moved on much further to addressing questions such as the origin of the universe and other non-militaristic pursuits. He feels that scientists must come out against the bomb. Besides his work at the University, Hoodbhoy is currently working on a thirteen-episode television serial called Asrar-e-Jehan (Mysteries of the Universe), aimed at fostering an understanding of science among ordinary people.
Amidst the drumbeats for militarisation and nuclear build-up in the Subcontinent, scarce voices of sanity come as a breath of fresh air and need to be heeded. As the concluding words of Hoodbhoy’s film assert: “India and Pakistan must give up the atom bomb and must make peace — there is no other choice”.