A peace conference, South Asians Against Nukes, was held in Karachi in end-February 1999. The unique meeting of 1,000 activists from India, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries decides that the nuclear tests have delivered a foul blow to people's interests by raising the spectre of their extinction.

By Beena Sarwar

May 1999

More than 500 enthusiastic peace-mongers gathered in Karachi recently - in the first conference of its kind in the region - to demand an end to the nuclearisation of the region and a no-war pact between India and Pakistan as a follow-up to the message of peace and goodwill generated by the meeting of the Prime Ministers of both countries in Lahore recently.

Organised by the Pakistan Peace Coalition (PPC), a national body formed following the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of May 1998, the two-day Pakistan Peace Conference had a distinctly South Asian flavour, with the attendance of some 30 Indian delegates who got Pakistani visas literally at the last minute. At least one senior scientist was refused permission by the Indian government to attend.. Participants included activists from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal besides over 400 from all over Pakistan.

PPC comprises the various organisations working for social justice in different Pakistani cities. Its members are basically activists who found their agendas overtaken by the nuclear issue following the May 1998 tests. Delegates to the conference, besides NGO representatives, included economists, film-makers, journalists, lawyers, doctors, trade unionists, women's rights activists, scholars, retired army personnel, students and artists.

There is a symbolic significance in choosing Karachi as the venue, said conference convener B M Kutty, pointing out that this city has been in the news as a violence-prone area. This conference sends out the message that this city and its people ardently desire peace, not only for themselves, but also for all those who live in this country and in the region. Peace in this city is essential to the emergence of a meaningful peace movement in Pakistan.

Until May 1998, all those working for peace and justice presumed a continuity of state and society, commented Zia Mian, a Pakistani physicist currently teaching at Princeton University, USA. Nuclear weapons threaten that continuation as nothing else has ever done. He was one of the overseas delegates who flew to Karachi especially for the conference.

Also from the USA was journalist and researcher Lawrence Lifshultz, who co-edited a book published last year - Hiroshima's Shadow, an anthology that explodes the 'myth of Hiroshima' - popular beliefs that justify the USA's nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

'The gathering here has interrupted my pessimism,' commented Lifshultz, who is currently working on another publication on nuclearisation.

'It's been very inspiring,' commented well-known Indian activist and columnist Praful Bidwai, who has been at the forefront of the anti-nuclear movement in his country.

What's very encouraging is that the demands of the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy, considered utopian just a year ago, have infiltrated the official agenda - people-to-people contact, reducing tensions and negotiating through dialogue. So what's happened at this conference could also influence what happens at policy or state level.

Talking about the principal tool the state has employed to subdue civil society - the bogey of national security - PPC organising committee member and Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, I A Rehman, in his keynote address commented that the nuclear tests had delivered a most foul blow to people's interests by raising the spectre of their extinction.

Perhaps it was this spectre that galvanised the spirit of volunteerism so evident at the conference, to attend which most Pakistani and overseas participants had paid for their own travel - with the organisers only taking care of room and board in addition to the registration fee of PKR200.

The spirit of cooperation was also very evident in the response to Bombay-based film-maker Anand Patwardhan's announcement of the peace march due to start from Pokharan on 11 May, the anniversary of the first Indian nuclear test last year. Hundreds of participants signed the petition he circulated, along with donating at least one rupee each to contribute towards the march, totalling over R1,000 by the time the conference ended.

People are the best guarantee for peace, commented Nirmala Deshpande in her address to the opening plenary, attended by some 800 people. She was one of the two Indian members of parliament who attended the conference. The common man is still sound and peace-loving. All that is needed is mobilising the people for action to build a peaceful society. Her counterparts from the Sindh provincial assembly attending the conference nodded agreement.

Countering this, of course, is the atmosphere perpetuated by the states which have till now tended to project each other as enemies. But the recent meeting between Nawaz Sharif and then Indian prime minister Vajpayee has given hope for peace.

'At least it has lowered the temperature a bit,' commented veteran Pakistani peace campaigner Sobho Gianchandani, 80, who began his political activism in 1942. 'We are poor countries; we cannot afford to have most of our budgets swallowed by armies. We have to sit together and coolly discuss matters.'

Many justify the nuclear tests of last May by saying that a balance of terror has been created and therefore the danger of war between India and Pakistan has disappeared. A view that I A Rehman is not prepared to give credence to because 'I am not prepared to credit the apparatuses governing us with the ability to break out of the suicide pact they have painstakingly created.'

Besides the element of human error, he noted, was the point that nuclear weapons have nowhere created a balance in favour of sanity - they have only unleashed a mad race for deadlier weapons for mass destruction. Above all, they do not cause havoc only when they are used in war; their presence in a country itself causes grave harm to the state and the civil society.

Nine working groups, ranging from 25 to 60 participants each, deliberated various questions from the nuclear issue perspective. The idea, rather than announcing a charter of demands, was to spell out what society wants and to give a direction to the struggle to achieve it, explained conference organisers, who are hoping that participants would return to their areas armed with a better understanding of what peace means in today's conditions, and how best to politically mobilise people around a peace agenda.

This conference is a rare opportunity for activists to get together, commented scholar Hasan Gardezi, who, like many, is wondering if the peace movement in Pakistan can become an agent of social change.

Islamabad-based political activist and development economist Kaiser Bengali agreed. 'There is a need to link movements like this in the larger effort. Isolated, stand-alone efforts don't bear fruit,' he said, as charged participants did a symbolic round of the conference venue on the last night, singing songs, and holding aloft flaming torches and white flags.

'We need to make it part of a larger political effort to restructure the state, otherwise it will just be part of what I call Pepsi politics - there's a bit of fizz and then everything settles down. This mustn't be allowed to fall by the wayside like previous efforts.' - Third World Network Features/IPS

About the writer: Beena Sarwar is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article is reprinted.