A Q Khan
A Q Khan (1936-2021) was a national hero in Pakistan Image Credit: AFP

Last week, arguably one of Pakistan’s most prominent citizens, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan (A Q Khan) passed away. He is credited with building and expanding the country’s formidable nuclear capability and missile programmes.

Even though those in his profession generally remain off radar, shorn of public and media publicity, Dr Khan was always in the middle of it.

Also his life’s many twists and turns did not allow him to remain understated. From a national hero who loomed larger than life beyond his contributions to Pakistan’s defence industry, the bird-feeding, animal-loving, soft-spoken migrant from Bhopal, India, had to suffer distresses of confinement for a while.

His last two decades were mostly a battle against his ailments and the allegations that he was involved in violating international regulatory regimes that dealt with the safety of nuclear material and technology.

Khan never treated these allegations seriously and dismissed them out of hand as sensational slander by his detractors, who were, in his words, using him to malign Pakistan.

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Unparalleled popularity

In his glory days, that lasted a full generation and half, he was the go-to guy when it came to advice on all matters pertaining to nuclear deterrence and even national direction. Treated with utmost respect and honour by civilian authorities and military rulers alike, his word carried finality on sensitive issues that very few could object to or find exception with.

Publicly, his popularity was unparalleled as he inaugurated hundreds of development projects and walked the red carpet in thousands of gatherings organised in his honour or where he was invited to speak to inspire the country’s young to beat heavy odds to achieve national goals.

A family man who had to spend long years without the comfort of a regular life, his reach was global, in both controversy and in networking to keep Pakistan’s nuclear muscle strong and functional.

Khan had a big team of young followers who copied his ways and got integrated into a system that is now regarded as Pakistan most precious line of defence.

His competitors and critics were not in dearth either and at home and abroad he evoked passionate opposition that tried to paint him in controversial colours, accusing him of copying nuclear designs and developing a personality cult. That never deterred the man from his path nor distracted from his ways and views in which he was stone-set, like most high achievers always are.

‘I work, others sulk’

In his free years, during which this scribe interviewed and met him many times, he would laugh off the criticism with polished sarcasm. “I work while others sulk”, he would often say closing the conversation about charges that were levelled against him, never explaining, never defending. Clearly, he enjoyed his highs.

And loathed the lows. Under General Pervaiz Musharraf’s government, Khan found himself isolated from public life. He fought a long, and largely unsuccessful battle, for freedom of movement and complained about ungrateful friends who had let him down. Even one of his last letters that is circulating on the social media speaks of the apathy of authorities who did not care much during his medical condition.

That might sound like cynical but Dr Khan was never known for not speaking his mind, a trait that catapulted him to dizzying heights of fame as well as landed him in the middle of controversies. We don’t know what and how he felt and thought during the years he was bereft of limelight that made him a national icon.

Perhaps he has left behind his memoirs that might get published after his death. If it is true, many would not be surprised. Dr Khan knew how to keep secrets and how to reveal them for maximum impact. Only time will tell. For now his death is being mourned nationally.

And after his state funeral, the flood of condolences messages by the who’s who of Pakistan’s power elite, it has become clear that the final official verdict of Pakistan decorates him as a hero to be revered.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain12