By Zubeida Mustafa
As the nuclear proliferation saga unfolded in Islamabad and reached its denouement earlier this month, the government sought shelter behind the so-called public opinion in the country.
It was made out to be sacrosanct in this case which is quite intriguing since military rulers do not usually worry about mundane issues like public opinion.
We were told that Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan is “a national hero”, and is “next only to the Quaid-i-Azam” because he is the father of Pakistan’s atom bomb. It was also said that the nuclear programme is sacred because it has the underpinning of public opinion. The government also adheres to its Kashmir policy rigidly because it claims that it is what the people of Pakistan want.
The question, however, arises whether the public in Pakistan at all holds an opinion on such complex issues as nuclear weapons and proliferation. And if it holds a vague opinion on the matter, can it actually be measured. There are two basic factors which determine the nature and significance of public opinion especially on a complex issue in any given society.
Public opinion has been defined by Robert Shapiro as the aggregate of individual opinions on issues of political relevance that can influence individual and group behaviour and the action of political leaders and governments.
The factors which shape opinion in a country are the people’s perception of the national interest and their own interest, the influence of their cultural, religious and moral values, the social characteristic of society (race and ethnicity, economic status, gender and education), and the influence and credibility of opinion leaders and political organizations.
In a Third World country, especially like Pakistan, where education level is low, the culture of superstition prevails and the opinion leaders have narrow, vested interests, can one expect the people to be adequately informed about an issue to form an independent opinion? One also wonders how free they are – not just politically but also socially and culturally – to form their opinion and articulate it. We know very well that Pakistan does not meet either of the two criteria.
Given the very low literacy rate and a lower education level, it can be safely assumed that there are very few people who have information and knowledge about issues which do not have an immediate impact on them.
In early 1977 before the elections, Dawn had conducted a survey among women in Karachi to assess the issues of direct concern to them on which they sought tangible action by the candidates contesting the polls.
The voters appeared to be very well informed about the question of regularizing their land lease in the kutchi abadis where they lived, the water supply problem of the city, and so on. They did not have to be educated or be literate to understand their problems and how they could be resolved.
But not many of them would have any understanding of the repercussions of a nuclear war on the country and the people. It is even unlikely that many would have heard about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the havoc which was wreaked there in August 1945. Even the knowledge of the educated ones about such affairs would be minimal. They would not have been given details of the hazards of nuclearization especially when our nuclear programme has been glorified all along.
Four years ago, when I visited a government girls’ school in Clifton, the children had put up colourful posters for the “Yom-i-Takbeer” which was to be celebrated on the first anniversary of the nuclear tests at Chaghai.
On talking to the children I found they had been well indoctrinated about the glories of the bomb and how they could now hold their head high with pride because Pakistan was a “nuclear power”. When I asked the teacher if I could say a few words about the horrors of the bomb, she pleaded with me not to bring up the subject since it could cost her job.
Of course, there are schools which would be showing their students the other side of the coin as well. But how many? A recent report published by the Karachi-based Social Policy and Development Centre gave the result of a survey which found that 65 per cent of elite English medium school students said that they supported a nuclear status for the country.
Nearly 73 per cent of non-elitist English medium school students, 79.8 per cent of the Urdu medium school students and 96.2 per cent of the madressah students felt the same way. It is plain that those who were exposed to independent sources of information were more likely to develop an opinion which diverged from the conventional view.
The second criterion – that of freedom of expression and information – has not been Pakistan’s forte either. In the absence of this freedom, it is simply not possible to disseminate information that militates against the government’s policies or exposes the vested interests of some groups which are pre-eminent in the power structure. They might be the religious parties, those at the higher echelons of the social hierarchy or political leaders all of whom try to manipulate public opinion by misinforming the people or giving them partial information.
Admittedly, this is done in all societies, even the most educated and democratic ones. But a high level of education and exposure to information enables people to form unconventional opinions in a society where dissent is not a crime. Pakistanis do not enjoy this privilege – at least they didn’t until recently. Now the Internet and the numerous television channels have opened up new avenues for airing a diversity of views.
Another important factor in this context is our system of education that does not encourage any questioning or analysis of issues. Students are discouraged from challenging the conventional wisdom . They are not equipped for independent thinking.
Even if we are to assume that we do have a public opinion on an issue, we have no means to ascertain it with accuracy. Even if the surveys are scientifically and honestly carried out, one cannot expect consistent answers from all the people polled.
In the SPDC survey mentioned above, 65 per cent of the students from elite English medium schools supported the country’s nuclear status but 69 per cent from the same schools wanted the defence budget to be lowered. Obviously the children were not very clear about what they wanted. The nuclear programme and a cut in defence spending do not go hand in hand.
When the government and party leaders speak of public opinion on an issue they have been propagating, one can see it is a facade to justify their policies.
Since the political parties have never tried to educate the people on the nuclear issue and the fledgling peace movement has not yet had time to make a strong impact on the people’s thought, not many people really understand the pros and cons of nuclearization and proliferation.
The demonstrations and protests you see in support of the nuclear scientists and the atom bomb can be mobilized by any party with a respectable presence at the grassroots level. It is not difficult to whip up war frenzy.
So before we attribute anything to public opinion it would be worthwhile to stop and ask if there is really any informed opinion on this issue in Pakistan. Don’t be surprised if you are greeted with apathy and cynicism when you ask anybody how he feels about our nuclear bomb.