India’s empty threat to Pakistan

Bhutto is hosting visiting Kissinger to dinner at his home in October 1974.

Pakistan was protesting, vociferously, India’s decision to wipe out the “special status” of the part of the Jammu and Kashmir state under its occupation. Rajnath Singh, the Indian defense minister, told Islamabad to hush up. He said New Delhi may be changing its “no-first-use” policy on firing nukes.

India adopted the policy of not using its nuclear weapons against an adversary unless that adversary had attacked it with nukes first.

Singh warned Pakistan, in effect, that the Indians were now prepared to rain their nuclear bombs on Pakistan without waiting to be targeted by a Pakistani nuke.

The Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir principality was never part of the Indian mainland, even though Indian emperors occasionally had invaded and occupied it. In 1948, after “British India” had been split into independent India and Pakistan, Pakistani tribes overran a third of the Muslim-majority kingdom, while India grabbed the other two-thirds. The dispute went to the United Nations, where then Indian prime minister, Kashmiri pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, promised to hold a plebiscite to let the Kashmiri people decide whether to join India or Pakistan or to remain independent. India eventually reneged on its plebiscite commitment and, instead, allowed Kashmir a “special status” with wide autonomy. Two weeks ago India’s Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Kashmir’s special status, triggering a new round of row between India and Pakistan, which had fought two wars over the fate of Kashmir.

As I read Singh’s comment online, my mind raced to the dreary, darkish afternoon of Jan. 21, 1972. My friend Asrar Ahmed had dropped in to see me in the Pakistani vice presidential compound on Peshawar Road in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. I worked as press secretary to Vice President Nurul Amin. My boss was in the living quarters and I was drafting a speech he would be delivering he next day at a student gathering in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

“Bhutto stirred up the Qiyamah in me,” said Ahmed, seating himself on a coach next to my desk. Ahmed and I had become friends a couple of years before when he was elected president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists of which I was an active member.

“Qiyamah in you?” I said, staring into my friend’s eyes.

In Islamic scripture Qiyamah means the Day of Judgment when terrified throngs of resurrected humans would be streaming to the field of Arafat in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, (by some accounts, somewhere in greater Syria) to be dispatched to hell or heaven, depending on their sins or virtuous deeds in their lives.

Ahmed asked for tea, which I ordered.

He said the day before he had “sneaked into” a meeting of leading Pakistani physicists, nuclear scientists and engineers in the city of Multan. He had got a tip, saying the new Pakistani president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had called the meeting to talk about a “new security strategy” for the country, which had lost its eastern half to an invading Indian army just six weeks earlier.

India had invaded East Pakistan, facilitating its secession from West Pakistan and emergence as independent Bangladesh. The Pakistani army’s Dec. 16, 1971, surrender to Indian forces in Dhaka, the East Pakistani capital, had led the Indians to drag 93,000 Pakistani troops and civilians into Indian detention centers as prisoners of war. Some Pakistanis I had talked to asked whether India would now be using its overwhelming military might to pulverize the rest of Pakistan.

Ahmed said that on his way to the Multan meeting he had wondered if Bhutto, a widely known boozer, had been “drinking too much” as he was trying to get “people who only know to peep into microscopes and telescopes” to help him hash out a national security strategy

Bhutto warned the gathering that what had been left of their country after the secession of Bangladesh existed “on borrowed time.” India could chop up the rump of Pakistan, too, but was giving the world the time to “digest its tearing up a sovereign country.” A time could come, the president warned, when New Delhi could decide to turn Pakistan into another “Muslim Spain.” In the fifteenth century Catholic armies and militias had reconquered all Muslim domains in Spain and Portugal, obliterating the flourishing Islamic civilization there.

The president told the scientists that Pakistan’s only defense against India lay in acquiring the nuclear bomb. He kept asking them: “Are you going to give me the bomb”? Pakistan’s Nobel laureate physicist Abdus Salam was among the first to assure him that he would get his wish. Bhutto then wanted a time frame. One scientist said it would take five years to build a nuke from a scratch. “Five years!” the president howled. “Can’t you do it in three? Come on, three years!” Siddique Butt, a younger physicist, jumped to his feet and punched the air with his fist. “Yes sir,” he declared. “three years. You will get it in three years, Mr. President.”

Ahmed told me that he didn’t “really know how long it will take” Pakistan to get the bomb, but that he, too, believed now that “Pakistan can’t survive without the bomb.”

Forty-seven years later Rajnath Singh’s threat to nuke Pakistan vindicated to me the panic that had driven Bhutto into his no-holds-barred, whirlwind drive to get Pakistan its own nukes.

Getting Pakistan the bomb became Bhutto’s all-consuming mission in life. He probably gave his life for it. On a visit to Pakistan in August 1976 Henry Kissinger, then U.S. secretary of state, twisted Bhutto’s arms brutally to get him to abandon his nuclear program. When Bhutto refused, Kissinger warned the Pakistani statesman – in presence of Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir; and then deputy chief of the US mission in Islamabad, Gerald Feuerstein – that in that case “we will make a horrible example of you” of resistance to U.S. will. Zulfikar and Benazir Bhutto believed through their dying days that Kissinger and the CIA had got Gen. Ziaul Haq to overthrow the father of the Pakistani bomb in a military coup and then hang him on trumped-up murder charges.

Singh’s bluster reminded me that the populist Pakistani leader’s mission had been crowned with success. New Delhi’s threat to launch a nuclear strike on Pakistan was actually empty. Hindu nationalist Indians are of course going bonkers with their animosity toward Pakistan. But I doubt that they’re total loonies. They know that Pakistan, with its stockpile of more than 150 nuclear warheads, can turn such an act into a suicide mission for India. That makes such a misadventure highly unlikely.

To get Pakistan to this point, Bhutto had once declared, “We will eat grass, even go hungry. But we will have our own [nuclear bomb]. We have no choice.” With their near-melting economy, Pakistanis are eating grass, so to speak; but thanks to their hard-drinking, “Islamic socialist” leader, they’re unlikely to be herded into Indian detention camps again.

Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts this blog. 

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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