Pakistan’s Peaceniks

A Tiny Antiwar Movement Takes on Nukes, Military Spending, and Dictatorship

 ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN—"This is not the dawn we had dreamed of, this blood-stained dawn," wrote the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz of his nation's violent birth. In 1947, when British India was divided into Muslim Pakistan and the largely Hindu India, the trains arrived silently at their destinations—their cargo a bumper crop of death; thousands of Muslims shot and stabbed by maddened crowds as they fled west. Half a million people would die on both sides before the carnage ended.

Pakistan was born in strife; in strife it remains, engaged in a nuclear standoff with India, deeply enmeshed in military actions in Afghanistan and the disputed province of Kashmir, and spending $2.9 billion a year on guns and soldiers. Today the populace takes comfort in the machine-gun toting soldiers that loiter in public places and street corners across the country.

The country's minuscule peace movement has its work cut out for it. "I don't know if I would even call it a peace movement. It is something—maybe an initiative?" says Saba Gul Khattak of the Citizens' Peace Committee, a group of 100 or so activists in Islamabad. The CPC is part of a large coalition, the Pakistan Peace Committee, an umbrella organization of about 1000 peace activists in this nation of 140 million.

Activist Saba Gul Khattak says the state has banned the voices of peace.
photo: Michael Kamber
Activist Saba Gul Khattak says the state has banned the voices of peace.

The political views of this small group are wildly divergent from those of the average Pakistani, who could be described as pro-military, pro-nuclear, deeply hostile towards India, and content with Pakistan's military dictatorship. The peace activists conduct community workshops and hold small demonstrations and press conferences in the face of skepticism from the populace and harassment from the authorities. Their goal, they say, is to raise awareness about what they see as the dangers of Pakistan's massive militarization, its lack of democratic government, and the effects of economic globalization.

Faiza Mirza (right), with her daughter Fariha, supports militarism: "You have to fight back." (Photograph by Michael Kamber)

If there was a catalyzing event for Pakistan's antiwar movement, it was the country's first nuclear tests, which took place in 1998. Arch-rival India had provocatively detonated five nuclear devices. A wave of near hysteria swept Pakistan; the press and public demanded a response to the saber rattling. Faced with U.S. sanctions that would cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars, Pakistan nevertheless went ahead with its own series of trials; six bombs were exploded, doing India one better. Citizens celebrated in the streets and the government made May 28, the day of the first successful trial, a national holiday. (Simultaneously, it declared that May 2, the worldwide labor holiday, would no longer be celebrated.) Echoing the sentiment of many, an Islamabad resident explained recently, "We never felt secure until we had our own bomb."

A small group of academics and NGO (nongovernmental organization) employees—policy planners, aid workers, and union organizers—was stunned by these sentiments and banded together to form the CPC. "We don't need nuclear bombs in our country," said Roshan, a CPC member who asked that her real name not be used. "If we stop making bombs, all that money can be spent on schools, hospitals, and development."

CPC member Saba Gul Khattak is the daughter and granddaughter of army officers. She is now researching Pakistan's history of militarization, as well the peace movements of its early years. She vividly remembers the 1965 and 1971 wars with India, the bombs exploding, the roar of airplanes and tracers filling the night sky. She argues that there has always been a peace movement in Pakistan, but that much of it occurred in literature and poetry, which was banned by the government, allowing no consciousness to take root. "In a state-sanctioned discourse these thoughts were wiped out, and so there is no collective memory," she explains. "If the state bans your voice, then your words become just a solitary event that takes place, and with time, it fades from memory."

Today, state-sanctioned obstacles to peace organizing continue. Aasim Sajjad, a CPC mainstay and union organizer, can't remember how many times he has been jailed here. "Maybe a dozen," he says. His crime? Publicly criticizing—and demonstrating against—the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf. "All the power in Pakistan is in one man," says Izmat Shahjehan, a fiery, outspoken CPC member. "He's the president, the chief of the army, the prime minister. Parliament has been dissolved. He has no constituency—he's never been elected—and now he alone sits down with Bush and makes all decisions in the name of the people of Pakistan. We know this military government is going to stay—the U.S. supports it—but democracy has never been more important for us."

Yet most Pakistanis much prefer General Musharraf to the man from whom he seized control, the elected but unpopular Nawaz Sharif. "For most Pakistanis, the concept of peace and democracy is meaningless," says Sajjad. "It does not really mean anything unless linked to people putting food on the table. There was a military coup almost exactly two years ago [in which Musharraf took power]. Nobody said a word. Democracy in and of itself is irrelevant to these people."

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