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EQBAL AHMAD: POST-POKHARAN DAYS


Pervez Hoodhoy

He

fought for Kashmiri self-determination in 1948, against French imperialism in

Algeria in the early 60′s, roused students on American campuses in the early

70′s against their government’s immoral war in Vietnam, dodged arrest by the CIA

in a case trumped up by Richard Nixon’s government that accused him of trying to

kidnap Henry Kissinger, passionately campaigned against the ethnic cleansing of

East Pakistan by the West Pakistani army, and was the trusted lieutenant of the

Palestinian leadership. With the passage of years, and his eventual return to

Pakistan, his efforts gradually focussed upon healing the wounds of Partition,

and diffusing the poison of intolerance and militarism of the post-Zia era.

Challenge and adversity left him undaunted – until that fateful day of 11 May

1998, when the ground trembled uncontrollably at Pokharan and the subcontinent

was to change forever. Exactly one year later – on 11th May 1999 – Eqbal Ahmad

died in an Islamabad hospital. He was 67.

Pokharan

left Eqbal–the indomitable fighter of many struggles–depressed and fearful for

the two countries he so deeply loved, Pakistan and India. It was with effort

that he roused himself to action once again. Would the new nuclear hysteria

drive out all hope of reconciliation and goodwill? Were the two countries now

destined to become radioactive wastelands in the decades, or perhaps just years,

to come? India’s mindless right wing leaders who started it all were to blame,

driven by their misguided view of nuclear weapons as a currency of power.

"They will soon realize that this is a counterfeit", he wrote, arguing

that the religious chauvinism and intolerance of the BJP made it ineligible for

guiding India towards becoming a truly great and powerful nation:

"Each

historical time has had its own temper. But one factor has been common

throughout history to the attainment of progress and greatness. Historians of

culture describe this one factor variously as syncretism, openness, pluralism,

and a spirit of tolerance. Where ideas do not clash, diverse influences,

knowledge, viewpoints, and cultures do not converge, civilization does not

thrive and greatness eludes. Nuclearisation of nationalism has further degraded

India’s environment. The tests have worsened the xenophobia of Hindutva

supporters."

Soon

the drums started beating on the Pakistani side, the initial wave of fear giving

way to shriller and shriller cries for retaliatory tests. India’s belligerence

was no longer veiled; it was a time when even the thoughtful were puzzled.

"What then should Pakistan do?", wrote Eqbal in his weekly column in

Dawn on 17th May, "My advice is: do not panic, and do not behave

reactively. This translates as: do not listen to people like Qazi Husain Ahmad

and Benazir Bhutto who, either out of ignorance, or more likely crass

opportunism, are advocating nuclear tests, here and now. The arguments for

steadying the jerking knee are compelling. For these reasons and more, it is

much better for Islamabad to stay cool, calculating, and utilizing the

opportunities Delhi has presented. May reason prevail!"

Astonishingly,

difficult though it was, reason did stand a 50-50 chance in the first week after

Pokharan. There is considerable evidence that a Pakistani nuclear test could

have been avoided. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and some of his close associates

in the cabinet, notwithstanding what they were to claim a year later, were not

enthusiastic about testing because of the heavy international sanctions that

would inevitably follow. This feeling was shared by the Chief of Army Staff,

General Jehangir Karamat, and it extended to many others in the government. Some

with impeccable hawkish credentials, such as Riaz Khokhar, then Pakistan’s

ambassador to the US, told me privately that they had campaigned hard against

testing. Pragmatism, not pacificism, drove them to this conclusion.

But

reason was soon destined to lose. By the second week the Pakistani leadership

had capitulated; the Chagai tests came just 17 days after Pokharan. What the

decisive factor had been may never be known, but it could be one of several: the

warning by L.K. Advani, India’s Interior Minister, that Pakistan should note a

change in South Asia’s "strategic environment", Prime Minister

Vajpayee’s statement that his government might forcibly take Kashmiri territory

under Pakistan’s control, the handing over of Kashmir affairs portfolio to the

hardline Home Minister who had so enthusiastically overseen the destruction of

Babri Mosque, and heating up of a limited but live conflict along the Line of

Control. On the domestic front, a pack of opposition leaders, led first by the

Jamaat-i-Islami, was soon overtaken by Benazir Bhutto. "She seems to have

sensed in this national crisis an opportunity to restore her flagging fortunes.

I know of few gestures in the ugly repertoire of Pakistani politics as revolting

as her demagogic toss of bracelets at Mr. Nawaz Sharif", wrote Eqbal.

The

debate stopped abruptly after Chagai. Eqbal was devastated. "I saw on

television a picture more awesome than the familiar mushroom cloud of a nuclear

explosion. The mountain had turned white. I wondered how much pain had been felt

by nature, God’s most wondrous creation".

But

it was joy, not pain, which made crowds dance that day in the streets of

Islamabad and Lahore. Similar orgasmic celebrations had taken place 17 days

earlier in Delhi and Bombay. The men of faith were triumphant too, although

which faith had triumphed was not clear. Grains of holy radioactive sand from

Pokharan, blessed by Lord Shiva, had been sprinkled in temples by the Vishnu

Hindu Parisad. In Pakistan the Jamaat-I-Islami transported a cardboard

"Islamic Bomb" around the country, while right-wing Urdu magazines

like Zindagi wrote about the wondrous miracles of Chaghi. They told stories of

divine intervention that protected the mard-e-momin from poison-spitting snakes

as they prepared the nuclear test-site, of four chickens that sufficed to feast

a thousand of the faithful after the tests, and of Prophet Mohammed taking

personal charge of protecting the centrifuges of Kahuta. Now was the time of the

Kalams and Khans, the Chidambarams and Mubarikmands.

Catapulted

into the role of subcontinental heroes, but unknown entities in the world of

real science, they basked in adulation pretending to be the Oppenheimers,

Tellers, and Bethes. But it was the political leadership that had it even

better. As the Sharifs and Vajpayees strutted and preened themselves before

roaring crowds, Eqbal had sober words of warning for them: "I still believe

that, notwithstanding Delhi’s provocative muscle-flexing, Pakistan’s security

interests have not been served by matching India show-for-show-plus-one…. The

leaders of India and Pakistan have now appropriated to themselves, as others had

done before, the power that was God’s alone to kill mountains, make the earth

quake, bring the sea to boil, and destroy humanity. I hope that when the muscle

flexing and cheering is over they will go on a retreat, and reflect on how they

should bear this awesome responsibility."

As

he sits in his prison cell, where he now serves a life-sentence for treason,

ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif may possibly feel the need for reflection now.

But he, like all others who were then busy stoking the fires of nationalist

frenzy, had little use for such advice. Drunk with the new-found power to commit

mass murder, they blew raucous trumpets and beat drums in macabre, insane,

officially sponsored celebrations. It mattered little that that very year

Pakistani newspaper had reported cases of 300 people having chosen self

immolation and death to living yet another painful day of grinding poverty and

deprivation. Uranium there was plenty of, but certainly not enough bread and

clean drinking water.

More

insidiously, nucleomania was giving birth to a dangerous vision, propagated with

the full force of the state media. Commentators and spokesperson daily harangued

television audiences that Pakistan had become impregnable, and was now at least

India’s military equal if not superior.

But

Eqbal argued that beyond the change in atmospherics, which rarely endure,

Pakistan’s passage from an ambiguous to an explicit nuclear power had not

substantially changed its strategic position. Kashmir was no closer to being

solved, economically Pakistan had become weaker, its domestic situation would

grow graver, and the forces of fanaticism yet stronger and more divisive. The

illusion of security provided by nuclear weapons, however, was to have fearful

consequences.

In

the months after Chaghai, Eqbal spoke at anti-nuclear meetings throughout the

length and breadth of the country. I accompanied him at many such events. He

spoke eloquently and passionately, as was his style, frequently drawing upon

exemplars drawn from his vast store of experiences and knowledge. He would

remind listeners of the Soviet Union, and its satellites such as Poland and

Czechoslovakia, which became highly sophisticated arms producers, but whose

states and societies grew dis-organically and eventually collapsed. For Pakistan

to avoid that fate, it must resist falling into the trap of seeking strategic

equivalence with India.

India-Pakistan

proxy war, more than anything else, worried Eqbal. Look at the history of the

Cold War, he would say. Since nuclear weapons had made direct confrontation

impossible, the US and USSR had exported their conflict to the Third World where

millions of Koreans, Vietnamese, Africans, South Americans, and Afghans had died

soundlessly, mere pawns in the great global grab for power. Eqbal feared that

bloody times were up ahead for the Kashmiris, who he predicted would be the

worst losers of the nuclearized subcontinent. Safely hidden behind their nuclear

shields, the leaders of India and Pakistan are perfectly willing to fight their

game down to the very last Kashmiri, he said.

It

was sometime in early March 1999 when Eqbal telephoned me. His usual

good-natured banter was missing today, there was an edge of tension. I went to

see him as soon as I finished teaching my class at the university. I had not

seen him in such a foul mood for years. Yesterday he had had a long session with

a top general – paradoxically one of his many admirers – and had come back

greatly disturbed, his fears confirmed. Terrible things were to happen in

Kashmir but nuclear weapons would ensure that war would not spill over into

Pakistan. Such was the plan. Eqbal did not live to hear about Kargil, but he

already knew enough.

Two

weeks before the end. When we took him to the hospital he was in an awful state,

although we did not yet know that it was an advanced stage of colon cancer. He

was vomiting violently and feeling sharp pains in his chest but there were quiet

phases when he asked about the world outside. He shook his head in silent

disgust as I told him of the official preparations to celebrate Pakistan’s

anniversary of the nuclear tests. Little badges with mushroom clouds were to be

distributed free to children, poetry competitions would extol the greatness of a

newly nuclear nation, and missile replicas would be placed at major

intersections.

"Eqbal,

when you get well I’d like you to look at an article I’ve just written against

the celebrations", I said. No, he replied, give it to me now. He carefully

adjusted the intravenous drip to take hold of his pen, asked me to crank up his

hospital bed into a semi-sitting position, and then went through my article

adding his editorial comments here and there, incisive and relevant as ever. It

was his last political act, the final affirmation of solidarity.

Dr.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.