Abdul Qadeer Khan, who died in Islamabad aged 85 on Sunday, was, to most of the world, a rogue scientist, who stole and sold nuclear designs to nation-states that were able and willing to buy them. His clients, reportedly, included North Korea, Libya and Iran. After the US blew his cover in 2004, Khan confessed on prime television that he had traded in nuclear secrets, describing his actions as “an error of judgement”. Under pressure from Washington, the then Pakistan president, Pervez Musharraf, placed Khan under house arrest. A Pakistani court revoked the arrest soon after the general moved out though restrictions on his travels remained. None of this dented his popularity in Pakistan, where he continued to be hailed as a hero for delivering the nuclear bomb.
Khan was a beneficiary of the nuclear race in the Subcontinent. He was working in a uranium enrichment facility in Holland when India exploded a nuclear device in Pokhran in 1974. Khan, whose family had migrated from Bhopal after Partition, offered his services to Islamabad, which was looking to acquire nuclear capability and compete with New Delhi, and joined the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission in 1976. A Dutch court later convicted him for stealing blueprints for making centrifuges and other components. Pakistan first detonated a bomb in 1998, days after India exploded a second device in Pokhran, though it was rumoured to have acquired it in the 1980s itself. Khan was feted by the Pakistani state and venerated by citizens for the feat.
Khan came to embody the stealth of Pakistan’s deep state that ignored the international norms and consensus on nuclear proliferation to pursue its goal of parity with India. He took the blame for proliferation to deflect the international opprobrium that came Islamabad’s way, though the last word on the matter is yet to be said.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 12, 2021 under the title ‘Rogue scientist’.