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What, Us Worry?

June 09, 2002|PERVEZ HOODBHOY | Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of high-energy physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Western leaders tried last week to reassure the world that tensions between Pakistan and India need not lead to war. But in India and Pakistan, where a million troops from the two countries glowered at each other across the border, sabers continued to rattle. In a public debate in Islamabad, the former chief of the Pakistan army, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, declared: "We can make a first strike, and a second strike or even a third." The dreadful vision of nuclear war left him unmoved. "You can die crossing the street," he observed, "or you could die in a nuclear war. You've got to die someday anyway."

Across the border, India's defense minister, George Fernandes, in an interview with the Hindustan Times, once voiced similar sentiments: "We could take a strike, survive and then hit back. Pakistan would be finished."

Indian Defense Secretary Yogendra Narain took things a step further in an interview with the Indian magazine Outlook: "A surgical strike is the answer." But if that failed to resolve things, he said, "we will retaliate and must be prepared for mutual destruction."

Some find this talk of nuclear war terrifying. But while foreign nationals stream out of both countries and numerous world leaders call for peace and restraint, few Indians or Pakistanis are losing much sleep. Thousands of artillery shells exchanged since the beginning of this year may have changed--or destroyed--the lives of border residents, but elsewhere in both countries the effects are barely perceptible. Stock markets have flickered, but there is no run on the banks or panic buying of necessities. Schools and colleges, which generally close at the first hint of a real crisis, are functioning normally.

Why this nonchalance? A fatalistic Hindu belief that the stars above determine our destiny, or the equivalent Muslim belief in jabr (predestination), certainly accounts for part of it. Conversations and discussions often end on the note "what will be, will be," after which people shrug their shoulders and move on to something else. But other reasons may be more important.

Close government control over national television, especially in Pakistan, has ensured that critical discussion of nuclear weapons and nuclear war are not aired. Instead, in Pakistan's public squares and at crossroads stand missiles and fiberglass replicas of the nuclear test site. For the masses, they are symbols of national glory and achievement, not death and destruction.

Nuclear ignorance is almost total, extending even to the educated. Some students at the university in Islamabad where I teach said, when asked, that a nuclear war would be the end of the world. Others thought of nukes as just bigger bombs. Many said it was not their concern, but the army's. Almost none knew about the possibility of a nuclear firestorm, about residual radioactivity or damage to the gene pool.

Because nuclear war is considered a distant abstraction, civil defense in both countries is nonexistent. Indian Adm. L. Ramdas, now retired and a leading peace activist, caustically remarked: "There are no air raid shelters in this city of Delhi, because in this country people are considered expendable." Islamabad's civil defense budget is a laughable $40,000, and the current year's allocation has yet to be disbursed. No serious contingency plans have been devised, plans that might save millions of lives by providing timely information about things like escape routes, iodine tablets and sources of nonradioactive food and drinking water.

Ignorance and its attendant lack of fear make it easier for leaders to treat their people as pawns in a mad nuclear game. How else to explain Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's recent exhortations to his troops in Kashmir to prepare for "decisive victory"? His nuclear brinkmanship has been made possible by influential Indian experts seeking to trivialize Pakistan's nuclear capability. Such analysts have gained wide currency--they offer instant security to all who choose to believe them.

The reasoning of the "trivialization school" goes as follows: Pakistan is a client state of the U.S., and Pakistani nuclear weapons are under the control of Washington. Hence, in an extreme crisis, the U.S. would either prohibit their use by Pakistan or, if need be, destroy them. At a recent meeting this January in Dubai, I heard senior Indian analysts say that they are "bored" with Pakistan's nuclear threats and no longer believe them. K. Subrahmanyam, an influential Indian hawk who has advocated overt Indian nuclearization for more than a decade, believes that India can "sleep in peace."

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