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Pakistan's finest hour?

There could have been few more depressing scenes on our TV screens in late May than those conveying scenes of tens of thousands of members of the Pakistani working class rejoicing on the streets at news that Pakistan had detonated its first nuclear devices. Such was the jubilation that followed the tests that opinion polls found 90 percent of the population in favour of the news. Similar sentiments were expressed throughout the islamic world, where there was much celebration at the arrival of the "Moslem Bomb".

The nuclear tests in Pakistan were ostensibly a response to India's tests of 11 May--the first India had carried out for 24 years--though less attention and condemnation focused on the latter.

While the Pakistani press heralded the blasts as "Pakistan's finest hour", talk in the West was of sanctions and the withdrawal of aid programmes.

The most quoted and most hypocritical statements came courtesy of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council--the guardians of world peace who protect us with their joint 36,000 nuclear war heads--and in particular from President Clinton who informed us how we were "about to repeat" the worst mistakes of the 20th Century, when we know it is not necessarily to peace, security and prosperity" (Guardian, 30 May).

These were impressive words from the leader of a country with 15,000 stockpiled nuclear weapons, which carried out 936 tests between 1945 and 1991, which has twice used atomic weapons and which has threatened their use against North Korea, Vietnam and more recently Iraq.

As could be imagined, the tests by both India and Pakistan had the "experts" working overtime in an attempt to come up with new doom and gloom scenarios. While some suggested that China would now be forced to increase its nuclear arsenal, others suggested that Pakistan might pass on its nuclear technology to other moslem countries, and that the Middle East was now a more dangerous region in which a faltering peace process would speed calls for an Arab bomb to counter Israel's monopoly on nuclear weapons.

What was noteworthy was the total absence of any challenge to the nuclear mentality which located the problem in a wider political and social context.

Of course, none of this appealed to the nuclear apologists of Pakistan. Much of the counter arguments coming out of Pakistan highlighted the hypocrisy of the West and aimed to justify Pakistan's new found nuclear capability.

While Pakistan and India had not joined the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty observed by 185 countries, it was argued they were not morally bound to abide by the agreement, and fingers were pointed at Israel, which also has a nuclear capability, which also refused to sign the NPT and which has received no Western condemnation. France was also drawn into the equation with much reference to the recent atomic testing at Muroroa Atoll carried out without any mention of sanctions.

Speaking on behalf of Pakistan's ruling party, Prime Minister Kushabhar Tkakre hinted at the implicit racism of the Western standpoint, declaring Pakistan's tests to be "a repudiation of the policy of nuclear apartheid the West has sought to impose on us . . . we will not accept an unequal system" (Guardian, 28 May).

Fully aware of the misery that sanctions and the withdrawal of aid would mean, President Rafiq Tarar argued that a nuclear capability was worth all the pain, adding that if Pakistanis had to exist on one meal a day in future then he would join them.

Perhaps somebody should have reminded him that for many Pakistanis, one meal a day is a fact of life. Pakistan, like India, is after all no wealthy country. It has a GNP of only £295 per head and a foreign debt of over £18 billion. And in spite of a virtually non-existent social programme, spends almost 50 percent of its budget on debt repayments and defence. Indeed, Pakistan and India together spent £43 billion on defence between 1990 and 1996, while only £7.4 billion went on education.

So is there method in their madness? The corporate elite of both countries think so. They argue that the bombs they are developing bring also independence, respect and prestige, providing not only a means of defence but also a ticket of entry, in some areas, to the top table where the likes of Britain, France and the US do their wheeling and dealing. A nuclear capacity thus has less to do with any external threat--in spite of the fact that both countries have fought each other on three occasions in the past--and more to do with a perceived negotiating clout accorded to the possession of nuclear arms.

The workers of Pakistan and India need to think again. They can never be the beneficiaries of any status accorded the possession of nuclear weapons. If they must be jubilant, then let them celebrate their common identity. At the end of the day there is more that unites them as an exploited and impoverished class, with the same basic needs, than can ever divide them along national or religious lines. The nuclear tests that have rejoiced over alter not one iota the fact that they will continue to exist as malnourished and illiterate wage slaves in a system in which their needs can only ever come a poor second to the selfish interests of their masters.

JOHN BISSETT