Photograph of VT Joshi

Author - VT Joshi

The elevation of the renowned scientist, Dr. Abdul Kalaam, to the highest public office as India's next President is a telling contrast with the unceremonious dumping of Pakistan's once reputed nuclear scientist, Dr. Abdul Qadir Khan, for reasons shrouded in mystery. It is also an eloquent commentary on the dubious nuclear status.

A "phony" war between the two hostile neighbours, as described by the noted strategic analyst Bharat Karnad, seems to have just ended in a whimper after a bang. The early phases of world war II of the last century (1939-45) were also described as a phony war at the time. Deceptively, though, in retrospect. Indo-Pak conflicts have also seen several phases in the past 50 years and now seem to have entered the 'nuclear' phase. One hopes it remains phony and will not burst into a shooting war.

Even more phony and funny is General Pervez Musharraf's nuclear bluff and bluster - curiously enough buttressed and exaggerated by western powers apparently to force India to relent prematurely even before an end to the Pakistani 'cross border' shelling which is still killing day after day more and more poor civilians living in border towns and villages. One day Musharraf threatens India with nuclear blackmail and the next day he chants pious calls for "denuclearisation" of South Asia which must indeed be sweet music to American ears but ominous enough to India. Pak President's selective sanity amidst bouts of insanity seems to be amazing, to say the least.

The phony phase of Pak nuclear drama began some 15 years ago. It was early 1987, the wintry month of January. The armies of India and Pakistan were in the same "eye-ball-to-eye-ball" combat-ready postures as it has been for the past six months. That was in the aftermath of Operation Brass Tacks. Tension rose sharply. Visiting relatives and friends scurried back home in their respective countries before the possible outbreak of hostilities as panic spread all over the border towns and villages along the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir as also across the international border.

A flurry of diplomatic activity followed the exchange of frantic phone calls between Rajiv Gandhi and Mohammad khan Junejo, the then prime ministers of the two countries. A hurried visit to Delhi of Abdul Sattar, then foreign secretary of Pakistan (now the just-resigned Foreign Minister) helped to reduce the tension and eventually averted a disaster.

Behind the scene however an enigmatic nuclear drama was being played quietly. The eminent Indian Journalist, Kuldip Nayar, (later Indian High Commissioner in London and now Rajya Sabha M.P.) was on one of his periodical professional visits to Pakistan. He managed to get an interview with Pak nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan, (then reputed as "father of Pakistani bomb" but recently ousted from his pet Kahuta uranium enrichment project inexplicably). Nayar's interview, as it transpired later, had been arranged through a renowned Pakistani journalist and the then editor of the prestigious daily Muslim, Mushahid Hussain (who later became Information Minister in the Nawaz Sharif Cabinet, was incarcerated together with his mentor after General Musharraf's infamous October 12 coup of 1999, and was released sometime back). There were strong indications that the interview, which proved quite explosive, was not without the consent of the then President Zia ul Haq. But apparently it was without the knowledge of prime minister Junejo who felt terribly hurt.

Abdul Qadir Khan's naration was a veiled nuclear threat primarily meant for India at the peak of the simmering border crisis, virtually declaring that Pakistan had absolutely succeeded in making the bomb. By some kink or eddie, the publication of the interview was delayed by a few weeks. Meanwhile the war clouds hovering on Indo-Pak horizons had passed and the crisis had been defused following the strenuous efforts of the prime ministers of the two countries. But hell broke out when it first appeared in London Observer and was immediately picked up by the Pak and Indian media besides the world press. It was the first ever announcement of Pakistan's claims to having achieved nuclear capability.

"The message, obviously meant for 'belligerent' India, instantly reached America instead. It created a flutter in the dovecotes of the US administration", as the then correspondent of Voice of America (VOA) in Islamabad mentioned to me in a chat. It was indeed the beginning of America's public display of displeasure with the Zia administration on the nuclear issue, which eventually culminated in the stoppage of aid by President Bush (father of the present US President) on the ground of his inability to certify to the Congress Pakistan's nuclear virginity as required under the prevalent US laws.

Domestically in Pakistan there was a hilarious sidelight. The episode provoked a fierce controversy and Abdul Qadir Khan's authority to "spill the beans" was widely questioned - and that too to an Indian journalist! It was blasphemy for Pakistani journalists. They raised a shindy over it since all of them had been consistently refused opportunity to meet the country's most prominent nuclear scientist, A. Q. Khan, who lived virtually in a fortress ringed by armed security men and aided by a number of ferocious alsatians in a posh locality of Islamabad. The episode sharpened the mounting rivalries between President Zia and PM Junejo who felt slighted at the facilitation of Khan's disclosures behind his back by Zia. Junejo had to be content with getting Mushahid Hussain eased out of the editorship of the Muslim daily (now said to be defunct). Professional jealousies of some Pak journalists played no mean a part in Mushahid's exit!

Even more significant however was the general disbelief of A. Q. Khan's claims to nuclear capabilities. I. H. Usmani, a former chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, made no secret of it. He wrote in the same paper in February of that year (within a month of Khan's disclosure), "It takes 7,000 centrifuges to work day and night for one year at the velocity of 32,000 miles per hour to produce ten kilograms of Uranium 235 of 99.9 percent purity required for making one Hiroshima type bomb. Since technology has not yet advanced even in Europe to the required degree of perfection, centrifugal plants had only been able to achieve uranium enrichment of only 2.7 (repeat 2 decimal 7) percent purity."

"If we are capable of making the bomb, we are playing poker. One day somebody is going to call our bluff", Usmani affirmed tersely.

That was nearly a decade and half ago. It is reasonable to assume that in the intervening years Pakistan has in fact made some though not substantial progress in the nuclear field though perhaps not to the extent officially claimed by it. In any case the carefully nursed nuclear ambiguity of both India and Pakistan, coupled with periodical threats and deterrence, was exploded with Pokhran II and Chagai (Pakistani) tests in the summer of 1998. However doubts still persist in knowledgeable circles about the true extent of Pakistan's capabilities or for that matter even about India's perfection of the complex techniques involved for deployment and delivery. It is well known that most of Pakistan's wherewithal in this field has been supplied by China and North Korea after allegations of initial "pilferage" of vital secrets by none other than A.Q.Khan himself. How altruistic and genuinely helpful was (and is) China is anybody's guess. India has even made fun of its claims to the most recent missile tests, saying it was all "imported" wisdom and exercise.

Nonetheless "imported or otherwise", missiles are missiles. This writer is a witness to the rain of missiles and rockets, and to the havoc they wreak - when caught in the melee after the Ozri ammunition dump accidentally went up in flames on Islamabad-Rawalpindi highway on a black Sunday, 10th April 1988. It instantly killed in the span of just 35 minutes more than a hundred people, including housewives working in their kitchens, children playing in the open and quite a few men frantically rushing for safety in speeding cars in the twin capital cities of Pakistan. Scores were maimed.

However there is still enough sanity in Pakistan and by and large people are not as mad as their military dictators. They will not allow the fatal rubicon to be crossed. At the peak of the Nuke-controversy, which erupted after Abdul Qadir Khan first announced his country's capability, any number of well meaning, prominent Pakistani citizens came out openly again it. Among them was the late Lieutenant-General Akram Khan, a distinguished army officer and President of the prestigious Regional Centre of Asian Studies. He affirmed that there would never be a nuclear war between India and Pakistan because "both are civilized nations".

Yet another prominent writer, Ms. Rabia Ali, declared: "I would like to see the Kahuta nuclear plant scuttled even at the risk of being dubbed a traitor". She averred in an article: "Even grass will not be fit to eat after a nuclear attack". It was an obvious reference to the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's boast that "Pakistanis will make the bomb even if forced to eat grass". The late Azim Kidwai, science writer of the prestigious daily, The Dawn, made a fervent plea for "nuclear cooperation" instead of nuclear confrontation between Pakistan and India. "Pakistan should sell enriched uranium to India required for its Tarapore plant", he wrote, adding it would save both the countries from arm-twisting by western powers. Surely such sane elements still exist in plentiful measure in Pakistan, as indeed in India, and have not disappeared behind the periodical, passing war clouds or "nuclearised war clouds" as you may like to say and rue.

VT Joshi

16th June, 2002

VT JOSHI (1925-2008) worked for more than fifty years as a journalist. He retired from THE TIMES OF INDIA in 1989. During 1985-89 he was the Special Correspondent of THE TIMES OF INDIA in Pakistan. His books "PAKISTAN: ZIA TO BENAZIR" and "INDIA AT CROSS ROADS" (co-author GG Puri) were widely reviewed in both India and Pakistan.

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