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Voices for peace

Print edition : Mar 13, 1999 T+T-

The growing peace movement in Pakistan had an impressive, broad-based mobilisation in Karachi on February 27 and 28. Nuclear disarmament activists in India and Pakistan have much to give to, and learn from, one another.


MANY Indians only think of Pakistan in stereotypes. One stereotype holds Pakistan to be a society well on the way to Talibanisation where everyone believes so fervently in the Two-Nation Theory that it is virtually impossible for people to conceive of peaceful co-existence and cooperation with their larger "Hindu" neighbour. In the "Islamic" republic, there can be few voices of dissent from the Left, unlike from the religious Right, which has gained in influence in recent years. That is why many Indians believe that there is at best only an insignificant peace movement in Pakistan, and so little news of it in the Indian media. The consensus in Pakistan in favour of the Bomb, many people think, is very nearly complete. The peace movement in Pakistan essentially comprises crazies and fringe elements, or those who indulge in nostalgia trips about Lahore in the 1940s. That is why even the small improvement registered during the recent Lahore summit is shaky and can easily founder on the rock of Kashmir.

The stereotype could not be farther from the truth. If the February 27-28 Pakistan Peace Conference in Karachi was anything to go by, there is indeed a strong and growing peace sentiment which has sunk deep roots into civil society, people's movements, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country. Pakistan's peace movement exercises a rising degree of influence on public opinion, and at least on the English-language media. We in India may have something to learn from it and should draw inspiration from the 500-delegates conference, with representation from a broad range of NGOs, ethnic groups and social constituencies, and including 30 people from the rest of South Asia. This was perhaps the biggest convention on nuclear weapons in the subcontinent since May 1998.

To start with, it bears recalling that some groups in Pakistan's peace movement, like the Joint Action Committee - which brings together different peace initiatives - are four or five years older than anything comparable to what we have in India. The Pakistan-India Forum for Peace and Democracy, set up in 1995, has held four conventions of activists (two each in the two countries), numbering 200 to 300 in each case. It is more active and influential in Pakistan than in India. And it is certainly noteworthy that Pakistan witnessed a strong campaign against nuclear tests between May 11, when India crossed the threshold, and May 28, when the Chagai blasts happened.

Now, it takes moral courage to demand publicly that Islamabad must resist the temptation to follow New Delhi in its footsteps when a majority of politicians, strategic "experts" and former diplomats, not to speak of assorted mullahs, shout from the rooftops that a nuclear test can be Pakistan's sole "honourable" reaction to India's grave "provocation". It is not easy to stand up and be counted as peaceniks and anti-nuclear dissidents when that means you could lose your job. And yet Pakistani peace activists demonstrated just such courage when they demanded publicly before May 28 that the Government exercise restraint, and, after the Chagai tests, protested against the subcontinent's nuclearisation. They had to face not just heckling, but physical assault at the hands of the youth wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Equally significant was the strong display of anger and revulsion by the people of Baluchistan (where the Chagai mountains are located) at the tests which, they are convinced, had extremely harmful effects on their health and the environment. In fact, the first major demonstration against an impending test in that province was on May 16, the day the first significant anti-nuclear march was taken out in Delhi against Pokhran-II. So powerful and widespread was the anti-nuclear sentiment in Baluchistan that Chief Minister Akhter Jan Mengal did what few Indian and Pakistani politicians have ever done: resign on an issue of principle, because Islamabad had betrayed its solemn assurance not to detonate nuclear explosions at Chagai.

The tests involved serious human rights violations. People who were forced out of their homes are yet to be resettled. One activist said: "The poor people of Chagai turned pale soon after the pearl-black mountain Rascoh turned white." Chagai, like Pokhran, is a fit case for a serious and independent investigation and long-term monitoring of health and the environment, as well as human rights violations.

THE peace movement in Pakistan, then, was baptised by fire. It has been able to pool together people from remarkably divergent backgrounds - from scientists and independent analysts of strategic affairs to feminists and human rights activists, from development and environmental NGOs to scholars and journalists, from trade unionists and campaigners against child labour to those who fight for the rights of Pakistan's ethnic minorities, which have long been systematically denied and suppressed. The Karachi conference brought together activists from rural areas as well as luminaries such as former Finance Minister Mubashir Hasan and Air Marshal Zafar Chowdhury, scientists such as Pervez Hoodbhoy, A.H. Nayyar and Zia Mian, and artists such as Sheema Kirmani and Khaled Ahmed, labour activist Karamat Ali as well as Pakistani Physicians for Peace and Development representatives.

The ratio of Sindh-based conference participants to the rest was roughly one to two. And there were representatives from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The conference featured several cultural events, including Sufi dance performances, plays, poetry recitals and a performance by the Sufi pop group "Junoon", which is banned from staging public appearances. The emphasis in these was on plurality, openness, tolerance, secularism, democracy, equity and peace in South Asia - with which nuclear weapons are so utterly incompatible.

As in the case of the peace movement in India, the movement in Pakistan too has a broad, holistic perspective, and it sees nuclear weapons not just as pure technological artefacts but as part of a larger social, political, military and scientific system which creates, maintains and justifies them. It sees the Kashmir problem too as part of the larger pathology of India-Pakistan rivalry and hostility, as well as the internal political dynamics of the two countries.

However, the Pakistan Peace Coalition does not by any means ignore the specific technological and material aspects of nuclear weapons and nuclearism (that is, the ideology and doctrine of elite dependence on these weapons of mass destruction for a number of objectives and purposes, security being just one). Thus, the final conference resolution, passed just before a concluding torchlight procession, emphasised transitional measures of restraint and confidence-building, including cuts in military spending, and a commitment not to test nuclear weapons and not to use them first (no-first-use), besides the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The conference also set up two alternative commissions comprising experts, former officials and citizens: one on defence and security and the other on Pakistan's ethnic minorities. This too, especially the first, is a useful precedent for India to emulate.

IT is possible to disagree a little with some of the specific formulations of the resolution. For instance, one might question the tactical wisdom of stressing at this moment a no-first-use (NFU) commitment, one of the few token gestures of restraint that the Indian Government has made. First, such unilateral non-binding commitments have no legal value, unless they are translated into treaties and formal agreements. Indeed, they can be just as easily rescinded as they were made. For instance, Russia withdrew the pledge that the former USSR had offered in this regard. Second, even in international treaty law, such offers can be set aside in situations of conflict by citing "the supreme national interest". And third, for military leaders everywhere, especially in South Asia, who have been brought up on a doctrinal diet of surprise and pre-emptive use and so on, it would be hard to stick to an NFU commitment in practice.

Additionally, Pakistan's reluctance on the NFU issue is buttressed by the argument of many generals that nuclear weapons alone can provide a shield against the complete rout of Pakistan's conventional forces at the hands of India, which enjoys overwhelming superiority, of the order of 3:1. The argument is of dubious value. The first or pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan against India is wholly unlikely to inflict such a crippling military defeat that India cannot retaliate with conventional or nuclear weapons. India has, or can develop quickly, a crude second-strike nuclear capability far more reliably than Pakistan. A nuclear first strike by Pakistan could provoke massive retaliation by India and hence could be suicidal from Islamabad's point of view. Such a strike can only be premised upon a profound irrationality: for example, the premise that the Pakistan Army must never, can never, be defeated.

However specious the argument that Pakistan may get into a "use them or lose them" situation and hence must not make an NFU commitment, it does carry some weight in the country's military. That is why Islamabad does not reciprocate India's NFU offer, itself made after a lot of hesitation and vacillation. (Vajpayee first wanted a multilateral treaty and then hedged in the NFU proposal with other conditions.) Thus, the functional relevance of the Pakistani peace movement making an NFU demand upon its own Government is different from what it would be for its Indian counterpart. Perhaps of greater relevance would be a joint demand by both movements that the two governments must agree not to make, induct or deploy nuclear weapons, nor carry out more tests, and further that they must earnestly return to the global nuclear disarmament agenda.

INDIA and Pakistan can do a great deal if they return to the path of sanity. They can seriously lobby for a negotiating forum in the Conference on Disarmament on nuclear weapons elimination, and try to turn the fissile material cut-off treaty currently being negotiated into a "framework agreement", whereby all those who produce or stockpile weapons-usable nuclear materials have to report every year what they have done to stop production and cut stockpiles. An FMCT which is not a one-off measure, but like the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, involves frequent negotiations on further reductions, could fuse well into the fight for nuclear weapons abolition.

Above all, India and Pakistan can offer to put all nuclear weapons and missile-related development on hold for, say, five years during which the five nuclear weapons-states negotiate qualitative weapons reduction - by 50, 70, 90 per cent. This would be the best way of rolling back some of the damage the two have inflicted upon themselves and upon the global disarmament agenda, and of contributing to the worthy goal of global elimination of these horror weapons.

Such major changes in official policies, it can be safely predicted, will not come about through initiatives at the state level alone, however far-reaching they may be. They will of necessity require citizens' action, grassroots pressure, and campaigning by NGOs, all leading to shifts in public opinion and the emergence of new policy agendas through advocacy and lobbying. No great evil in history, such as colonialism or racism, has ever been abolished without mobilisation at the level of citizens and peoples. Nuclear weapons are just such an evil. Their eradication too will need concerted citizen-level action.

This is not as utopian or daunting as it might seem. After all, only a year ago, the demand by peace-seeking NGOs for normalised mutual relations and greater citizen-level contacts was declared unrealistic. But with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's visit to Lahore, it has invaded the official agenda. Ideal solutions can only come about through realistic small steps. But that is no reason why we must not believe in ideals. Without them, life itself would be hopeless and meaningless.