After the first shell-shocked moment following news of India’s nuclear tests, a heated debate began in Pakistan on whether or not there would or should be a ‘retaliation’ by the Sharif government. The pressure to test began mounting on Sharif with each passing day – fuelled immeasurably by a belligerent BJP-led government´s threats on Kashmir. The honour of the nation appeared to be at stake, at least as claimed by politicians and the pro-bomb lobby. Some pro-bomb demonstrations were held by religious parties. “O enemy, which nation have you taken on!” proclaimed one banner at one such demonstration staged by the right-wing religious party Shabab-e-Milli in Lahore soon after India’s second set of tests.
The country’s major political parties were not far behind in calling for Pakistan’s own tests. Sensing the public mood, they urged a “befitting response to India”.
Pro-test articles also appeared in the print media, but equal space was given to both pro- and anti-testing writers and analysts by most English-language newspapers, particularly Dawn and The News, while The Nation reflected mainly pro-bomb views.
Writing in Dawn, Karachi-based political analyst Kunwar Idris, a widely respected former bureaucrat, termed the advice to test as “jingoistic, emotional or selfish, but not sincere”. It was being offered, he pointed out, by an opposition leader “who is fighting for her political survival”, by “politicians lost in the political labyrinth”, by “retired generals with political ambitions but no programme”, and “demagogues who will not suffer its consequences”.
“The sanctions will be much more biting for Pakistan, if it explodes the device,” warned economic analyst Imtiaz Alam in The News on Sunday. “Apart from a debt of USD 32 billion, we need an annual foreign investment and aid of USD 5 billion. Our total revenues are insufficent to meet expenditure on defence and internal debt. In the absence of a rent economy, such as oil, there will be nothing to survive on.”
Defence analyst Ejaz Haider also urged a cool-headed, “proactive rather than a reactive” role from the Sharif government. “As a recognised threshold nuclear power state with demonstrated missile capabilities, Pakistan’s security can be reasonably assured without testing a nuclear device,” he wrote in the weekly The Friday Times.
Many analysts also pointed out that this was the right time to gain a moral edge over India, which has traditionally enjoyed a better image world-wide. Random interviews by newspaper reporters and a telephone survey based on people calling in to The News indicated “an overwhelming concern for Pakistan not to retaliate” by conducting its own test.
The results of this survey, undertaken in Lahore, Islamabad and its twin city, the former garrison town of Rawalpindi, published on 18 May, showed that of the hundreds who had dialled in to record their responses, a large number thought that Pakistan should take “advantage of this golden opportunity to have its debt written off” while an almost equal number believed that “the country should not bow down under international pressure and should demonstrate its own abilities”.
Pro-bomb hardliners were in no mood to listen to voices of reason, however. “Pakistan ka bacha bacha atom bomb hai,” intoned an activist of a religious party – “Each Pakistani child is an atom bomb”.
Anwar, a paanwalla, echoed this sentiment. “We have being saying we have the bomb so we should just drop it on India. Why bother to test it first?”
Asked how the country would cope with the sanctions certain to be imposed in such an eventuality, he retorted: “If our leaders can get away without paying loans worth billions of rupees, we should do the same with the US and other countries. Who is going to catch us?”
Opinion in the Urdu press was overwhelmingly pro-testing. Certainly, there were exceptions, like the left-leaning Zahida Hina, columnist for Jang, arguably Pakistan’s most powerful newspaper, and, surprisingly, also the influential conservative writer Mujibur Rehman Shami, also a Jang columnist, who wrote several pieces advising the government not to act hastily as the consequences could cost the country dearly.
The government seemed to be listening. “We want to act responsibly and not blindly follow the Indian path,” Sharif told reporters in Islamabad on 16 May – but did not rule out the possibility of such a test in the future.
“Ours is a mature nation,” asserted Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmed at a press briefing the same day. “We can’t act in madness as India did in the past and particularly now.” But he too, reiterated that the government was keeping its options open, given the “immediate danger posed to the country’s security”.
It was this danger that set back Pakistan’s anti-bomb lobby. Although some bravely stuck to their position of calling for a unilateral renunciation of the nuclear option by Pakistan, others only called for restraint.
But analyses from London and Washington, reported by the local press, indicated that the government’s “measured response” and assertions of being “responsible” notwithstanding, Islamabad was already making preparations for an underground nuclear test. It was obvious that political factors, rather than a mature long-term policy, were behind Sharif’s decision. As he told President Clinton over the telephone, he would not survive for long if he did not test.
An equally important factor behind the decision was the slap on the wrist India received from an ‘indignant’ world. It became clear, as political analyst M.A. Niazi commented, looking back at events in an article in The Nation of 21 June, that the “Western powers were not going to attempt to crush India and its aspirations. They were also not going to offer Pakistan all that much to desist from following the nuclear path.”
The tension ended with a bang on 28 May. Pictures of jubilant Pakistanis distributing sweets were duly flashed in the national and international media, mirroring the response to the bomb in India two-and-a-half weeks earlier. All those who had been arguing, for strategic reasons, that Pakistan should not detonate its nuclear devices yet, were effectively silenced by the blasts. As the afore-mentioned Jang columnist Mujibur Rehman Shami put it, things changed after 28 May. “It is a closed issue for me. Once the tests were conducted, it became our duty as Pakistanis not to question them, or create further problems or rifts,” he told Himal, when asked why he didn’t write more articles on the issue afterwards.
The government press, both radio and television, reacted similarly. Prior to the Pakistan tests, discussions on the issue were being held in these media and views that questioned the sagacity of tests were allowed on air. But that ended after 28 May, and the Emergency; no criticism of the tests were broadcast after that.
Most opinion-makers seem aware of the horrifying potentials of a nuclear war. But it was left to the progressives among them to highlight the issue even as they were accused of being traitors to the nation. They pushed for a de-escalation of the tension that has been dangerously fuelled by militant statements from politicians on both sides of the border, and which had been duly circulated by the independent as well as the government media.
Strategists like Imtiaz Bokhari and Inayatullah warned through newspaper columns that nuclear deterrence is a myth, pointing out that possession of nuclear arms by Pakistan and India is very different from the nuclear-armed status of the USA and the former USSR.
Zahida Hina, the columnist for Jang, argued forcefully for the two governments to sit down and reflect seriously on the real issues their countries face. “It is their responsibility,” she wrote, “to try and stop this dangerous race. Those billions of rupees which they spend on buying and building weapons should be used only to improve the situation of their people, and to search for a way that leads to development instead of suicide.”
Her voice against nuclear proliferation in Jang was joined in Lahore by journalist Imtiaz Alam in his own articles in the same newspaper. Like Hina, his pre-test columns made the case for Pakistan not to follow India along the nuclear path, and continued along the same line in the post-test period. “The feedback,” says Alam, who was until recently a writer in English, “has been tremendous, far more than I have ever had in my years in the English press. I’ve received literally hundreds of letters and phone calls in response.” Most, he says, have been supportive of his point of view, and have congratulated him for sticking to this apparently unpopular stand. But, predictably, some writers and callers have also been hostile or downright abusive.
On the whole, however, writings in Jang, a paper generally perceived to be conservative, have overwhelmingly been aggressive, first urging the prime minister to respond to India’s tests in kind, and then congratulating him for doing so. The slogan “Now or never” was, in fact, coined by Asadullah Ghalib, who is in charge of the editorial pages of Jang’s Lahore office. But at the same time, Ghalib also wrote that dissenting points of view should be listened to and not opposed with violence.
The “post-test” period has also been characterised by political uncertainty. The declaration of Emergency on the night of 28 May was unanimously condemned by all political parties even those that had backed Sharif’s decision to test. Hard on its heels, while announcing his National Agenda, Sharif threw another bombshell at the nation, tossing off in a single sentence his decision to go ahead with the construction of the Kalabagh Dam, an issue that has been termed by analysts as the most divisive politically, and one which poses a threat to the integrity of the federation of Pakistan itself.
It is these issues which have been taken up by groups like the Advocacy and Development Network in Islamabad, and the Joint Action Committee for People’s Rights in Lahore. At a peace rally organised by the latter in Lahore on 19 June, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Asma Jahangir spoke out against the politics of fanaticism. “We challenge the premise that 90 percent of the people want war or nuclear weapons,” she declared. “Voices have been silenced, and the fanaticism is endangering the entire South Asian region.”