Testing times

Published : Jun 06, 1998 00:00 IST

PAKISTAN'S nuclear scientists were draped in flowers and hailed as national heroes on May 28 as they returned to Islamabad from the Baluchistan desert where they had set off atomic explosions.

The decision, despite the threat of sanctions, to match the nuclear tests of India and the euphoria that has gripped Pakistan can be understood only in terms of the blood feud that has preoccupied Pakistan for its half century of existence.

In 1965, the year Pakistan lost the second of three wars with India, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who later became Prime Minister, declared: "If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves - even go hungry - but we will get one of our own."

The rise of Hindu nationalists to power in India in March this year worsened tensions over the key flashpoint - the disputed territory of Kashmir - and led to India's nuclear tests in May. But even in this context, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's decision to go ahead with Pakistan's tests came about through a complex inter-play of pressures inside his Government, the desires of the military and scientists, political rivalries and the potent fact that Pakistan is an Islamic country. And there are some indications that it was a reluctant call.

Sharif, a wealthy businessman from a family that was displaced from Kashmir during Partition, is Pakistan's first elected leader who is not from the rural feudal aristocracy. He has sought to modernise a backward and corrupt economy and is said to be obsessed with the idea of doing this through building American-style highways like the one he had constructed between Islamabad and the country's real political hub, Lahore.

The Prime Minister is in the habit of holding a weekly, traditional meeting in which subjects may voice appeals or raise issues with a ruler. At such a gathering in Lahore, his power base, a few days after the Indian tests, he cried rhetorically that Pakistan faced a choice of "the motorway or the bomb". And the assembled, carefully screened, crowd shouted back: "Motorway! Motorway!"

But this did not reflect public opinion, and Sharif's decision to go ahead with the tests has won him, for the moment at least, widespread adulation, with crowds dancing in the streets, offering thanksgiving prayers in mosques and setting off celebratory gunfire in the air.

Successive governments have been obsessed with nuclear weaponry since India conducted its first test in 1974. As reports spread over the years of Pakistani nuclear progress, the military and political leaderships came to view the nuclear threat as a deterrent to India's overwhelming military power.

This belief was strengthened by two events. In 1987, the Indian Army conducted a major exercise that massed troops some eight miles (13 km) from the border. Pakistani officials warned that this could mean war and intimated that nuclear weapons might be used. The Indian Prime Minister at that time, Rajiv Gandhi, said that he had not been informed of the exercise and called the troops back.

Then, in the summer of 1990, as unrest mounted in Kashmir, India, believing that weapons were pouring in from Pakistan, again moved its troops near the border. The Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Robert Gates, flew out in an emergency mission to defuse the crisis.

"The first instance was interpreted by Pakistani hawks as showing that nuclear weapons brought security," Iqbal Ahmed, a Pakistani scholar, said. "The second brought the belief that it was the fear of the use of nuclear weapons that brought foreign involvement in preventing a conventional war. As a result, nuclear weapons have become nearly sacrosanct in Pakistani military thinking."

Thus, after India's tests on May 11 and 13, Sharif faced strong pressures from the military, always a major force in Pakistan's politics. Gen. Jehangir Karamat, Chief of the Army Staff, was believed to be initially inclined to the view that the situation could be used to wring new conventional military equipment from the U.S., replacing worn and obsolete gear. But he soon agreed with the nine senior Army corps commanders and other service chiefs to push for nuclear tests.

The nuclear scientists, led by Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, eager to prove themselves, were a potent lobby, too. In his Cabinet, Sharif was under pressure from hawks, most notably Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan. And an almost irresistible force in this fractious country came from the political opposition.

Immediately after the Indian tests, the main Islamic fundamentalist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, began street demonstrations calling for Pakistan to test a bomb. While the Islamic fundamentalists' power at the polls has dropped sharply in recent years - they got only about 2 per cent in the 1996 elections, down 15 percentage points from a decade before - they still exert a hold on politics.The Jamaat and other Islamic groups are well organised and can put tens of thousands of followers on the street at a call.

And in a country created as a Muslim state, Islamic values are the political coin of the realm. Even the mainstream parties, Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League and the rival Pakistan People's Party, cannot afford to be seen as going against Islam in any way.

Indeed, Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was swiftly on the streets joining the demonstrations demanding that Pakistan stage nuclear tests. At a protest rally in Lahore, Sharif's hometown, Benazir Bhutto ripped off her bangles, which are a symbol of femininity, and cast them toward the crowd in a gesture that said: "Give these to Sharif, he does not have the guts to stand up to India."

New York Times Service
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