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