By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal
This day, fourteen year ago, emotionally charged voices of the team of nuclear scientists’ conducting the nuclear test in Chagi chanted ‘Naara-e- Takbeer, Allah-o- Akbar’. This was a declaration that hence forth Pakistan is a declared nuclear weapon capable state. Resource starved Pakistan had no ambition to go nuclear, but was compelled to do so.
India exploded its first nuclear device in 1974 under the guise of ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosion. Thenceforth, India was a defacto nuclear power. Explosion was made possible through illegitimate diversion of fissile material from a civilian nuclear power plant provided to India by Canada. Event occurred shortly after the fall of Dhaka. It triggered survival instinct amongst the strategist community of Pakistan. Already faced with India’s overwhelming conventional military superiority, Pakistan was indeed pushed against the wall, left with no other choice but to develop a matching nuclear deterrent to ward off future Indian threats. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared: “Pakistanis will eat grass but make a nuclear bomb”. Pakistan’s need for nuclearization was essentially security driven. Nation joyfully ate grass, and gleefully made the bomb.
After Kashmir, nuclear issue emerged as a core national interest with complete unanimity of views amongst public, government circles, establishment, leftists, rightists, centrists; they were all on the same frequency, not a voice of dissent was ever heard during those difficult times. Economic sanctions and physical threat for destruction of nuclear facilities only strengthened the national resolve. Henry Kissinger personally conveyed to a defiant Bhutto the American threat: ‘give up your nuclear programme or else we will make a horrible example of you’. And, at least in short term a horrible example was made of Bhutto for his defiance. As the dust settled and reality replaced the myth, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto reemerged as probably the most revered national figure after Quaid-e-Azam and Quaid-e-Millat.
Possession of nuclear weapons served the intended purpose; India has ever since been kept at bay despite temptations for military adventurism.
Western attitude towards Pakistan’s nuclear programme was out rightly discriminatory; it attached religious shade to Pakistan’s bomb by calling it an ‘Islamic bomb’. Earlier, one had never heard of a Christian, a Communist, a Jewish or a Hindu bomb. The approach was myopic; rhetoric was a smoke screen to portray Islam as a synonym of aggression and mobilize support from vested interests to demonize Pakistan’s legitimate necessity.
Resilient nation was pitched against the pressures of all sorts; it withstood all that with grace and tenacity; and acquired the matching capability by the mid eighties. Dr Munir Ahmad Khan, former PAEC Chairman, told ‘Agence France-Presse’ that Pakistan has had a nuclear capability since 1984. It was a weapon in the basement, yet to be showcased through a practical demonstration. And then came the God-sent opportunity.
On 11 May 1998, Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee stunned the world by announcing that India had conducted three nuclear tests. Two days later, two additional tests were carried out. Dr. Samar Mubarakmand gave a technical assessment of India's tests on behalf of the PAEC. He opined that there had been only one successful test on 11 May, and if a thermonuclear device had been fired then it had been a failure. Assessment was resoundingly accurate; India nuclear fraternity has conceded the reality after a decade.
On 28 May 1998, at 3:16 pm Pakistan conducted its first nuclear test. The time has been termed as "Pakistan's Finest Hour".
Moments between 11 to 28 May witnessed interesting events. Prime Minister of that time, Mian Nawaz Sharif, recently narrated that during this period he consulted almost everybody for opinion and in the process when he sought Mr Majid Nizami’s views, the reply he received was stunning for him. Mr Majid Nizami had told him point blank that if he did not go ahead for a matching response, the people of Pakistan would shred him into mince. Former PM Benazir Bhutto advocated not only an immediate nuclear test by Pakistan, but also asserted that India should be disarmed by a preemptive attack. On 18 May 1998, the Chairman of the PAEC was given a go ahead. "Dhamaka kar dein" (Conduct the explosion) were the exact words used by the Prime Minister to inform him of the decision.
During this period Indian approach was mixed with arrogance, confusion and foolhardiness. At one time there arose a high probability of Indian air strikes over Chagi to destroy the site prior to test. Pakistan Air Force (PAF) reacted with lightening speed and created a protective umbrella over the test site. Dr Samar Mubarakmand, who was the team leader at the testing site, once narrated that while the PAF was in the process of doing its rapid deployments, the then Air Chief’s request was conveyed to him that the scientists should suspend the preparations for a couple of hours and vacate the test site for their personal safety till the PAF’s protective air cover was effectively in place. The entire team unanimously declined to leave the site and volunteered to continue the preparations. They indeed deserve national salute for their courage. The extreme tension prevailing at the time of the tests is confirmed by the fact that five hours after prime Minister’s announcement of the tests, Pakistan summoned the Indian high commissioner to the foreign office and informed him that "credible information" had been received that an attack was to be mounted before dawn on Pakistan's nuclear installations by India, and that "swift and massive retaliation" would result. The ambassador was asked to convey to New Delhi that Islamabad "expected the Indian government to desist from any irresponsible act."
Excerpts from Prime Minister’s speech on 28 May 1998 amply explain the circumstances leading to Pakistan’s nuclearization. He said: "Pakistan today successfully conducted five nuclear tests…I congratulate all Pakistani scientists, engineers and technicians for their dedicated team work and expertise in mastering complex and advanced technologies…Our security, and the peace and stability of the entire region, was gravely threatened. As any self-respecting nation, we had no choice left for us. Our hand was forced by the present Indian leadership's reckless actions. We could not ignore the magnitude of the threat… Our decision to exercise the nuclear option has been taken in the interest of national self-defence… "
American led lobby has not yet reconciled with Pakistan’s nuclear status. Pakistan continues to face nuclear apartheid. America has signed Agreement 123 with India and has opened the flood gates of fissile material for India while it continues to pressure Pakistan to sign a Fissile Material Treaty that would freeze strategic asymmetry to Pakistan’s peril.
Post 9/11 setting has provided yet another channel for Indo-Israeli-US nexus to malign Pakistan’s strategic assets. This time the strategy is to project the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear assets falling in the hands of terrorists. Suggestions are often aired that Pakistan is at risk of succumbing to extremists, therefore, its nuclear assets should be disabled, seized or forcibly taken out.
The struggle is not yet over. However, as ever before, the nation stands united to defend its nuclear assets at all cost. Pakistan has made it clear that it would act decisively against any attempt by any quarter to harm its nuclear assets.