Within two weeks of India’s five nuclear explosions, Pakistan responded with five tests of its own on May 28 followed by one more on May 30. Not only did it out-bang India but also turned the near-gloom in Pakistan into euphoria. At the same time, the Indians went into a deep shock at the realization that the country they had dismissed as incapable had outstripped them.
There is near unanimity in the scientific community that Pakistan is ahead of India in the technological race now. Pakistan’s bombs are smaller but more useful for tactical use in battle. Similarly, Pakistan is ahead in the missile race. The go-ahead has been given to arm them with nuclear warheads, according to Pakistani foreign minister Gohar Ayub on May 29.
The pressure to respond to Indian explosions - and quickly - was building up on Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif following India’s explosions on May 11-13. By matching India blow for blow, his popularity graph has shot up among the Pakistani masses who have vowed to make every sacrifice for the country’s security. Had Sharif buckled under international - primarily US - pressure, he would almost certainly have lost his job to the rising tide of public anger.
The west’s condemnation of Pakistan was much stronger than that of India’s although it was the latter that had provoked the arms race by crossing the nuclear threshold first. In fact, Delhi had tested its first nuclear bomb in May 1974 although it insisted on calling it a ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosion. Everything about India is peaceful, including its violence.
In the Muslim world, the Pakistani tests were generally welcomed even if there were no official celebrations. There was visible pleasure among people in the streets of most Middle Eastern capitals who saw this as an achievement for Islam. The general perception is that it was about time the Muslim world joined the nuclear club given that all their enemies possess these weapons.
The most visible manifestation of the west’s animosity came from the zionist State whose prime minister again reiterated, parrot-fashion, the ‘threat’ from Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu said on May 29 that Iran was on its way to becoming a nuclear State, without mentioning either India or Pakistan. The inference was that Pakistan might pass on its technology to Iran even though in his radio and television address on May 28, prime minister Nawaz Sharif had pledged that Pakistan would adhere to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty even though it is not a signatory.
In the two-week period between India’s explosions and the Pakistani response, two troubling thoughts surfaced in Pakistan. Islamabad either did not have the bomb; or, that its rulers had come under US pressure and would once again sell the country short. It was the second possibility that bothered most people. In return for dubious promises of aid from the US, Pakistan was asked to forego its nuclear option.
Foreign aid has brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy. Additional aid would also have been pocketed by the corrupt ruling elites without benefitting the country or the common man. In the end, the decision was forced upon the government by the demands of a restive populace in Pakistan and the belligerent behaviour of Indian rulers.
Their provocative statements demanding that ‘Islamabad must realize the change in the geo-strategic situation in the region’ coupled with intensified firing along the Line of Control in Kashmir were clear attempts to blackmail Pakistan. Indian prime minister Attal Behari Vajpayee was outmatched by his even more belligerent home minister Lal Krishna Advani who threatened that ‘India will deal firmly and strongly with Pakistan.’ Other Indian officials said Indian troops would cross into Pakistan in ‘hot pursuit’ of the Kashmiri guerrillas.
The world’s response to Indian nuclearization and belligerence was tepid. In fact, the more bellicose the Indian threats, the greater became the west’s pressure on Islamabad not to go nuclear.
A nuclear-armed, Hindu dominated India, which already enjoys massive superiority in conventional arms, is Pakistan’s worst nightmare. It has thrice suffered Indian aggression, the last one resulting in its dismemberment in 1971. Despite this Islamabad had shown restraint after India’s first nuclear explosion in May 1974.
The Pakistani elite have always shown great deference to American demands. In the fifties and sixties, it entered into defence treaties with the US to fight communism, risking the ire of the former Soviet Union. In the eighties, Pakistan became a conduit for US arms to the Afghan mujahideen. This policy put it on a direct collision course with the Soviet Union whose army was next door in Afghanistan. Once the US objective of seeking revenge for its Vietnam defeat had been exacted, Islamabad was abandoned as an ally.
Much worse, turning a blind eye to India’s nuclear plans - which incidentally had supported the Soviet Union in Afghanistan - the US imposed sanctions on Pakistan. The Pressler amendment is Pakistan-specific. And the US refuses to deliver the F-16 planes paid for in cash by Islamabad. Pakistan still hosts two million Afghan refugees for whom it now receives little or no help from the UN.
After such bitter experiences, Pakistan was again being asked by the US - Bill Clinton had phone Sharif five times in the last two weeks - to trust him. If the Americans do not trust Slick Willie, the people of Pakistan can hardly be blamed for not taking any chances with their very survival.
Nuclear weapons cannot be taken lightly. These are weapons of mass destruction. But there appears to be a silver-lining around the mushroom cloud. First, within Pakistan there is great determination to stand on their own feet. Sharif promised to cut wasteful government expenditure. If he lives up to this promise, he will find the people making even greater sacrifices.
With the subcontinent, the focus of international attention, it has put the spotlight on Kashmir, the root cause of the arms race. Perhaps the world may just wake up to the reality that if the Kashmir dispute lingers on, it may erupt into a nuclear war in the region. The Kashmir issue is likely to receive more attention now even if it is not resolved in the immediate future.
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1998