Antinuclear Pakistanis

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Published on Friday, November 2, 2001 in the Toronto Globe & Mail

Antinuclear Pakistanis Persevere Ban-the-Bomb Activists are Few in the Weaponry-Proud Country, But They Remain Stout of Heart

by Stephanie Nolen

These may be the loneliest people in Pakistan: the members of the antinuclear movement. Three hundred people -- 300 earnest and committed people, to be sure -- but 300 people in a country of 140 million.

When Pakistan successfully tested a nuclear bomb in May, 1998, 11 days after India's nuclear test, there was huge national pride that the country had done so despite being frozen out of Western technical assistance. It was hailed as the Islamic bomb.

Three years later, in spite of international sanctions that crippled the Pakistani economy, the feeling of achievement remains. Islamabad has a gleaming monument downtown to the nuclear missile, and a replica of a rock from the Chagai mountain where the test was carried out is a popular attraction in Faisalabad.

The test "was a great honor for me," street laborer Naif Ayub said.

The vast majority of Pakistanis share his view and have little tolerance for the message of the antinuclear campaigners.

Shortly after Pakistan's nuclear test, A. H. Nayyar, a gentle and retiring physicist who heads the Citizens' Peace Coalition in Islamabad, held a press conference with two of his colleagues. The journalists were openly hostile, he recalls, and then a large gang of "goons" from the right-wing Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami burst into the room.

Dr. Nayyar's colleagues were a female professor and an older, disabled man, so it was the physicist who was their target: He was beaten and the room trashed while the press looked on. "I was shocked," he recalls, "but then, I was not shocked."

The antinuclear campaign began in Islamabad in 1985, when a dozen or so people held a demonstration for Hiroshima Day on Aug. 6. The group broke up but revived in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the first atomic bombing. By then, there were about 100 members.

Six months after the nuclear test, Dr. Nayyar helped organize a peace committee in each major Pakistani city. Now, he says, there are perhaps 3,000 people across the country who quietly share his beliefs. He believes that another 30,000 are open to persuasion.

A turnout of more than 100 at a demonstration is a real achievement: He remembers the days of far fewer. (In comparison, rallies held by militant Islamists regularly draw more than 5,000.)

The handful of antinuclear supporters are drawn from the upper-middle-class elite, who are often foreign-educated. Many are in their 40s or older, veterans of Pakistan's leftist political parties.

The antinuclear campaign, in fact, is one component of Pakistan's small peace movement. Its members seek peace with India, a political resolution to the conflict in Kashmir and a reduction in the wealth and power of Pakistan's mighty military, and oppose the current allied military campaign in Afghanistan.

Perversely, the current war on Afghanistan has helped their cause.

Aasim Sajjad Akhter, a community organizer with the Social Development Policy Institute, believes 95 per cent of Pakistanis oppose the bombing. They do not endorse the Taliban, he says, but they don't agree with the U.S. attacks either.

But when Mr. Akhter and his colleagues demonstrate against the bombing -- as they will do next week in downtown Rawalpindi -- it gives them an opportunity to introduce other issues, such as the cost of nuclear weapons.

The slum dwellers whom Mr. Akhter works to organize are initially derisive of his message. "To oppose the bomb is to be anti-Pakistan. But I go and sit and talk with them," he said with a sigh.

He links the issue to poverty, however, arguing that 40 per cent of government spending goes directly or indirectly to the military (the official figure is about 5 per cent).

But the antinuclear people also have their antagonists in the ruling class.

"It's a very fashionable position," said Shireen Mazari, who heads the Institute of Strategic Studies. "Don't make them martyrs. . . . I question their motives."

They have tight ties to the West, she said, and spend much of their time abroad. She argues that it is vital for Pakistan's security to demonstrate its nuclear capability.

"We have an imbalance in our conventional forces, and we face a very real threat from India. This makes us feel more secure, and we don't have to spend masses of money matching them bomb for bomb, missile for missile."

Mr. Akhter's long-term vision is that Pakistan would sign all the test-ban and antiproliferation treaties, convert nuclear facilities to peaceful uses, shift spending to social issues and take advantage of the moral high ground to win more international assistance.

He adds, with a certain understatement, "This is going to be a long-term process."

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive

thanks to www.commondreams.org

-- mark (mrobinowitz@nospam.igc.org), November 03, 2001


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