The ignoble AQ Khan on the noble Abdul Kalam

Chidanand Rajghatta

It requires an extraordinary degree of idiocy and lack of class to speak poorly of a dead person, but when you are a low-life like Abdul Qadeer Khan, being déclassé comes easily. The Pakistani nuclear “scientist,” better known in world circles as a man who helped his country get the nuclear technology through theft and skullduggery, and worse, tried to spread it to such rogue states as North Korea and Libya, has said in a BBC interview that India’s just deceased former President Abdul Kalam was an “ordinary scientist.”

Khan may well be correct. Abdul Kalam did not boast of being an extraordinary scientist, nor did India recognize him as one. What Khan has missed — and this is probably not important to him considering his dismal reputation as a thief, a smuggler, and a proliferator of nuclear technology – is that Kalam was an extraordinary human being.

In his death, Kalam in being mourned in India and beyond as a great teacher who ennobled a country and its people with his wisdom and humility. Heck, even the Pakistan government, not known for its fine graces, sent its condolences, not to speak of tributes from President Obama and leaders across the world.

Contrast this with A.Q.Khan’s own ragged reputation and rotten standing as a fugitive who lives under protection of an intelligence agency best known for fomenting terrorism, a man despised by his own peers and doubted by his own people. Unlike the much-loved Kalam, who traveled across India and across the world – including to the US and Europe – Khan remains confined to Pakistan, fearful that if he steps out of the country he will be spirited away either by terrorists eager to lay their hands on a nuclear weapon or foreign intelligence agencies wanting to see how much damage he has done in nuclear proliferation.

A metallurgist whose contribution to Pakistan’s nuclear program consisted largely of stealing centrifuge blueprints from a European firm that employed him in the 1970s, Khan’s role in Pakistan’s bomb-making effort is questioned by his own colleagues. In fact, Pakistanis involved in this operation, commissioned by Z.A.Bhutto after being routed in the 1971 war, squabbled for credit like schoolboys – or like bank robbers fighting over booty – when they finally tested their device in 1998 in response to India’s nuclear test.

To this day, Pakistanis have a hard time deciding who among A.Q.Khan, Munir Khan, and Samar Mubarakmand, the three principals involved in the testing, had a greater role in Pakistan’s nuclearisation. Teamwork it certainly was not judging by their very public scraps.

Again, contrast this with Kalam, who as team leader took the rap for the failure of SLV-3 in the 1980s even as his own boss, Satish Dhawan, also tried to take responsibility as head of ISRO. When ISRO did get its act together and took flight, Kalam was also the first to give credit to his colleagues and subordinates.

Indeed, both under Kalam and subsequently, DRDO’s record has not been spectacular, and its failures are many. But no one remembers Kalam for that. That is the reward you get for not thieving, smuggling, and resorting to assorted skullduggery that was AQ Khan’s stock in trade. The intellectual chasm between the two men is also evident in their public writing. Anyone who reads AQ Khan’s rambling columns in Pakistani newspapers will have a hard time believing he even passed high school.

The yawning gap in technological accomplishment that comes from India having a scientific-industrial base and Pakistan’s record of stealing+smuggling or begging+borrowing (from China and North Korea) is best illustrated in the relative strength and status of the space program in the two countries. Notwithstanding the empty boast of Khan’s one-time patron Pervez Musharraf that Pakistan’s space program is superior to that of India, Pakistan actually has no worthwhile space industry or launch capability.

ISRO meantime has moved on to not just launching satellites for U.K. Germany, Canada, and Japan, but also missions to moon and mars. Musharraf himself would later chastise Khan like one would a schoolboy for shaming Pakistan.

What else can you expect of a disgraceful country that disdained the one great scientist of repute it produced. An apt epitaph for Pakistan’s scientific accomplishment (with AQ Khan in the lead role) will be the tombstone of Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, a son of the Indian subcontinent (since Pakistan disowned him) that was disfigured under official sanction. After declaring him a “non-Muslim” (because he was an Ahmadi), a local magistrate ordered the word Muslim to be erased from Salam’s tombstone that read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate.” It, ridiculously, became “First Nobel Laureate.”

On his part, AQ Khan can lay claim to be being called Pakistan’s First Ignoble Laureate. Or First Muslim Ignoble Laureate, if he prefers.

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