A hero to a people

October 17, 2021

While hospitalised, Dr AQ Khan complained that neither the prime minister nor any of his cabinet colleagues had inquired after his health

A hero to a people

Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, known to many as father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, is no more. For two decades, he had been battling hard to get, what he said, was his due from people and the state. His 2004 televised ‘confession’ to being part of an international nuclear proliferation network had blighted his image overseas and among a section of the society at home.

The 85-year-old had struggled for survival after contracting coronavirus several weeks ago. He took his last breath on October 10 at an intensive care unit after his lungs collapsed. His death was widely mourned in the country – officially as well as popularly. The international media, besides identifying him as a central figure in making Pakistan a nuclear power, recalled the proliferation confession.

At home, Khan was widely celebrated as a national hero. Many groups have continued to call him the “father of Islamic atomic bomb.”

The government announced a state funeral and followed the protocol somewhat ironically as he had been fighting in courts till his death for the restoration of his fundamental freedoms.

Born in 1936 in Bhopal, India, Khan migrated with his family to Pakistan in 1947. He received a science degree at Karachi University in 1960, then went on to study metallurgical engineering in Berlin before completing advanced studies in the Netherlands and Belgium. Later, he became a part of a team set up to develop nuclear weapons. He founded the Research Laboratories at Kahuta in 1976 and was the chief scientist and director of the project for many years. In 2006, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but recovered after a surgery. In 2012, Dr Khan formed a political party called the Tehreek-i-Tahaffuz Pakistan (Save Pakistan Movement). It championed justice and equality. The party did not secure even a single seat in the elections and he eventually dissolved it. There were motions urging the ruling parties at various occasions to nominate him as their presidential candidate. However, this did not come to pass.

Dr Khan was a soft spoken person. He was once honoured with the Hilal-i-Imtiaz and twice awarded Nishan-e-Imtiaz by the state. He was also fond of appreciation and acknowledgment, which, many agreed he rightly deserved. The masses mostly showed him respect for which he was grateful. Equally, he was disappointed with the state and the successive governments after 2004.

At times, he was quite straight and blunt in demanding praise and acknowledgment. He was quite hurt but faced everything patiently, bravely. A few days before his death, he wrote a letter of acknowledgement to Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah for sending him a bouquet at the hospital. “Extremely grateful to you for your kind wishes — I am much better and recuperating to the satisfaction of the doctors,” AQ Khan wrote. He added that “the PM and the chief ministers of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and the Punjab were waiting to hear the good news of my demise.” Earlier, while hospitalised, he had complained that neither Prime Minister Imran Khan nor any of his cabinet colleagues had inquired after his health.

A hero to a people

The state never let foreign investigators interrogate Dr Khan. However, his freedoms of speech and of movement were severely curtailed. He remained under formal house-arrest till 2009. There was a period when he was not allowed to meet even his family – his wife and two daughters. 

In 1976, in a letter addressed to then prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Dr Khan said: “I have been here now for almost 7 months and have done my best to be useful for the (nuclear) project. However, I am constrained to write you that I am totally disappointed and dejected person and have come to the conclusion that either things should change or I should leave. I came to Pakistan leaving a lucrative position, to serve my country and to make it a nuclear power. I have been handed over to the most ignorant and incompetent team,” he wrote. “I am the only person in Pakistan who can set up this facility. As a matter of fact I am one of only a dozen or so people in the world who can do this job,” he added.

The news of Dr Khan’s involvement with a large global nuclear proliferation network was a major setback and turning point in his life. In 2004, in a recorded message played on Pakistan Television, Dr Khan admitted that he was a part of a proliferation racket. After the confession, Gen Pervez Musharraf, the then military ruler, said the government had learnt of it through a a tip-off from the American CIA.

Two Pakistani scientists, Sultan Bashir-ud Din Mahmood and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, were also traced by the CIA to Afghanistan. They were alleged to have founded the organisation Ummah Tameer-i-Nau (Reconstruction of the Muslim Ummah) apparently for relief and development work in Afghanistan.

The state never let foreign investigators interrogate Dr Khan. However, his freedoms of speech and movement were severely restricted. He remained under house-arrest till 2009. There was a period when he was not allowed to meet even close family – his wife and two daughters. He got some of his liberty back after a long legal battle. His case for the complete restoration of his fundamental rights was taken up by the Supreme Court of Pakistan this year. A hearing was scheduled during his illness.

Dr Khan had courted further controversy after he told the media that he had transferred nuclear technology to two countries on the instruction of then prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Mike Chinoy, a non-resident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute, recently wrote an article based on his 2008 book, Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.

The article claimed that Khan began his proliferation enterprise in the late 1980s, selling centrifuges, blueprints and some components to Iran. There were fears that he would also approach Iraq and Syria. By the new millennium, his client list had expanded to include Libya and North Korea. “It is widely believed that a visit to Pyongyang by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 1993 was the critical first step in an accelerating pattern of cooperation between Islamabad and Pyongyang.” Till 2002, the investigation by the CIA was at an early stage. In his book At the Center of the Storm, former CIA director, George Tenet, claimed: “We discovered the extent of Khan’s hidden network, which stretched from Pakistan, to Europe, to the Middle East, to Asia.”

Responding to the allegations and retracting the previous confession, Dr Khan, in 2008, told Agency France Press in an interview: “I saved the country for the first time when I made Pakistan a nuclear nation and saved it again when I ‘confessed’ and took the entire blame.”

Dr Khan is believed by many to have been a hero who was made a scapegoat. Many questions left unanswered by him will likely continue to haunt his people and the world for decades. Many in Pakistan consider him a martyr and a victim of the state’s thoughtless cruelty.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at vaqargillani@gmail.com

A hero to a people