On the street corners of Karachi, the talk is of war. How it’s inevitable, how our leaders are vowing to teach the enemy a lesson. “What do you think, will India cross over the Line of Control?” I hear someone ask a friend. “No, it will dare not. Pakistan has got atom bombs and would not hesitate to use them.”
Last week I traveled to Umarkot along the Pakistan-India border, about 500 kilometers east of Karachi in the Thar Desert. I wanted to see what people there thought about our war footing, seeing how they are the first major town that comes in the way of Indian forces. In the 1965 war, Indian soldiers came through Umarkot, which the Pakistani military abandoned to the locals and their outdated weapons.
“How do you feel about the imminence of war?” I asked the owner of a small grocery shop.
“I am worried about it, but I doubt if it will happen,” he replied.
“But, what if it really comes about?”
“Well, in that case I would wait until it is finished,” he said.
It surprises me that in the heart of the possible battlefield, people have no idea about how this war could well be different from any other. They do not comprehend what a catastrophe an exchange of nuclear warheads would be. They agree with President Pervez Musharraf that Pakistan would have little choice if cornered by the much larger Indian armed forces.
“Any incursion by the Indian forces across the Line of Control — the working boundary separating Kashmir from both countries — would unleash a storm,” Musharraf said last week.
Yet the government has issued no warnings about nuclear war, or what people can do to increase their chances of surviving one. Perhaps this explains why, when both countries blasted nukes in their deserts to test their power of annihilation in the summer of 1998, people danced in the streets and distributed sweets in joy.
The situation on our borders is grave. We hold our breath in anticipation of the world‘s first nuclear war. But for many Pakistanis, it’s just another day in an already difficult life. This is a country where on an average day, three to four people commit suicide for economic reasons, where six of 10 people do not know how to read or write.
Last week, Karachi‘s mayor, Naimatullah Khan, led a parade through his city of 12 million in “Defense of Pakistan.” The crowd carried banners and flags and some people chanted, “Kashmir will become Pakistan.” Some burned Indian flags and an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpaye.
What troubled me while witnessing the jingoistic mood of the crowd was not so much the way the elite class of the city dealt with such a sensitive matter, but the mayor’s tone. I could not decide if I was hearing an aggressive outburst of a Taliban demagogue or a responsible leader of my city.
Referring to medieval Afghan Muslim conqueror Mahmood Ghaznavi, who looted and plundered South Asia (present-day Pakistan and India) 17 times, he declared: “The 18th attack on India is still in the cards, and God willing, we will complete his [Ghaznavi‘s] mission. We have made missiles and bombs not to be kept in showcase but to employ. The people of Karachi are eager to wage jihad.”
Pakistan, by the way, named its recently tested ballistic missiles after Ghaznavi. The Abdali and Ghauri missiles were named for medieval Muslim conquerors.
Free debate on emotional issues such as our standoff with India is largely forbidden in Pakistan and India, particularly on television, which is under state control in both countries. Generally, the only voices one hears are of those who twist reality and seem content to misinform and misguide.
“Despite being a nuclear power, if we keep running on American dictation, it would be collective catastrophe for us,” said Majeed Nizami, chief editor of Pakistan’s largest group of newspapers, Nawa-i-Waqt. “If Hindus are contemplating [building dams on our two key rivers, Jhelum and Chenab], we should send an atom bomb to them.”
Many commentators see India‘s pressure tactics as fast losing support in Indian states. Or they say it is an attempt by the right-wing Hindu nationalist government to divert attention from domestic problems. Another view is that America is behind the Indian show of belligerence. They argue that Americans want to pressure Pakistan to get maximum collaboration in the ongoing war against terrorism.
“What India is doing is all with the Americans’ blessings. If not, that means there is one exceptional country in the world that could defy America‘s wish,” one political leader commented.
The few voices of sanity remaining in this part of the world warn against such delusions. “They are either in deep deception or overestimate the nuclear deterrence as a panacea to all security threats,” said Imtiaz Alam, a leftist intellectual.
He says Pakistan has seriously miscalculated the cost of refusing to meet basic Indian demands for de-escalation over the Kashmir issue. I must say, we made the same mistakes in 1965 and 1971, when full-scale wars broke out.