The Father of Pakistan’s Atomic Bomb
MUSHAHID HUSSAIN, EDITOR OF MUSLIM, WAS AT THE AIRPORT to receive me. This was on 27 January, 1987. Although we had been friends for years, I was still a bit surprised to see him. But then I assumed that he had been touched by my travelling all the way to Islamabad to attend his wedding. The moment he embraced me, he whispered in my ear: ‘I have a khas (special) present for you.’ I told him not to have bothered, that it was my privilege, not his, because it was he who was getting married, but I wondered what he meant.
The suspense however, was over soon.
‘Dr A.Q. Khan will meet you today,’ Mushahid said. No doubt, this was the best gift he could have given me because I had been vainly pursuing Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistan bomb, for many years. Mushahid had arranged for me to lunch with Fakhar Imam, then a minister in General Zia-ul-Haq’s Cabinet. Fakhar and his wife, Chandi, were close friends of mine. They were happy to see me but had no idea about my mission. Mushahid rang me at their place to inform me that the interview had been fixed for 6 p.m. and that he would pick me up from my hotel.
Khan lived in a bungalow in a locality just outside Islamabad. It was starting to get dark and the hills silhouetted against the sky were becoming more visible. Mushahid switched on the headlights of the car. Anyone from Khan’s bungalow, which was built atop a small hillock could see the vehicle driving up. The area was littered with security-men and they, I believed, had beaten up a French journalist a few days earlier for daring to travel on the same road we were using. Khan’s house had an ordinary entrance, no high gate, no grill, no automatic devices. A few men in plainclothes, and a couple in khaki, stood guard. None stopped me. None even asked my name, much less frisked me. They greeted Mushahid and talked to him. It was odd. The country’s most sought-after scientist was receiving an Indian visitor who was not even made to pass through a detection device! It was obvious that they had been told about me and my meeting.
Khan was standing in the veranda to welcome us. He greeted me thus: ‘I am your fan. And I read you regularly in the Pakistan press.’ I thanked him for his interest. He led us to the sitting room, behind the veranda. A small round table with three chairs had been placed in the room. Large windows opened out onto a lovely garden making for idyllic scenery. We had barely settled down in our chairs when a lady, a foreigner, wheeled in a trolley laden with food. I knew Khan had married a Dutch woman when he was in Holland working in a nuclear plant.
After we were introduced I joked with her, wondering how she had intuited my fondness for upside-down pineapple pudding. I told her I had not eaten it since leaving Northwestern University in Evanston, near Chicago, from where I earned an M.Sc in Journalism. Khan also introduced me to his two daughters, who were both in skirts. After all three of them withdrew, Khan personally poured the tea and I looked at him closely. He seemed like a person who was pleased with himself. He had been working on the nuclear bomb ever since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had authorized a nuclear test in India in 1974. Her counterpart, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had said soon afterwards that Pakistan would even eat grass to get the bomb. Khan was the cynosure of all eyes in Pakistan, a person who would give the country parity with India.
At the age of 51, his face was more weathered than I had expected. The heavy-framed spectacles he wore gave his appearance a touch of priggishness. He had come a long way from his days in Bhopal where the Partition of India had bruised his sensitivity to such an extent that he had vowed to wreak vengeance on the Hindus for having rendered the Muslim community weak and helpless.
When I told him that he was the most important person in Pakistan, he was overwhelmed. I told him that my purpose in interviewing him was to project the real Khan – his achievements, his struggles, his family life. In reply to my query about his scientific pursuits, he brought me a copy of the Hurriyat, an Urdu magazine published by the Dawn group of newspapers from Karachi. The Hurriyat issue, he said, contained more or less everything about him. As I hurriedly glanced through the magazine I found a picture of his wife and daughters. Mushahid had indicated to me beforehand that I could not take down notes, nor could I use a tape recorder. I had to reproduce my story from memory. This was tough because I would not be able to corroborate what Khan had said unwittingly.
What struck me about him during our short conversation was that he used too much ‘I’. His face would glow with happiness whenever I praised him or talked about his achievements. I had heard he was an egoist and he matched the description every inch. I lauded his qualifications, acknowledging that he was the only scientist in the subcontinent with a doctorate both in physics and metallurgy. He felt gratified. But I annoyed him when I made a passing reference to the time that he had been hauled up by the Dutch courts for having ‘stolen’ information from one of the nuclear laboratories. He raised his voice to deny the charge, adding that the court had cleared him.
The question of whether India had tried to barge into the secret Pakistan nuclear plant pleased him. Laughing, he said that New Delhi had sent some spies, one of whom was a major in the Indian Army. But they were all arrested. My entire interview technique was directed towards establishing beyond doubt whether Pakistan had made the bomb. He skirted all such questions. He would brush me off whenever I tried to be specific. It seemed to me that he had been allowed to give me an interview. But, at the same time, he had been cautioned not to say anything specific.
I thought I would provoke him; egoist that he was, he might fall for the bait. He did. I concocted a story, saying that when I was coming to Pakistan, I had run into Dr H. Sethna, the father of India’s bomb, who had asked me why I was wasting my time because Pakistan had neither the men nor the material to make the bomb. Khan hit the roof and began pounding the table: ‘Tell them we have it, we have it.’
Mushahid was taken aback at this disclosure and looked distraught. I followed up Dr Khan’s announcement with the remark that it was easy to claim but it had to be corroborated. There was no test conducted so far to confirm that Pakistan had the bomb.
Khan said: ‘We have already tested the bomb in our laboratory. Haven’t you heard of a prototype plane flying with the help of a simulator? We do not have to explode the bomb to know its potency. Sensitive and advanced instruments in a laboratory can show the scale of explosion. We are satisfied with the results.’
Thus Khan said what he should have withheld. This is what I felt and certainly what was written all over Mushahid’s face. Probably, Khan had been told to give a hint but not to confirm specifically that Pakistan had the bomb. He had gone beyond what he was instructed to say. My task was over. I had wanted to know whether Pakistan had made the bomb; Khan had confirmed it.
India had carried out its Operation Brass Tacks exercises right on the Pakistani border in January 1987 and Islamabad wanted to send a warning to New Delhi). In a fit of anger Khan went beyond his brief. In any case, once the information was out Khan and I were relaxed. Mushahid looked worried.
Khan now talked like a member of the ruling elite. He warned me: ‘If you ever drive us to the wall, as you did in East Pakistan, we will use the bomb.’ What he was trying to convey was that if Pakistan suffered any military reverses in a conventional war against India, it would not hesitate to use the bomb. President Musharraf confirmed this some fifteen years later.
I wanted to know the technical aspects of the bomb; some scientific data. Khan said he had written two articles which explained the type of bomb Pakistan produced. He gave me a copy of both articles. It was easy to put meat to the story. The meeting had lasted only half an hour but had disclosed all.
The first remark Mushahid made to me in the car was: ‘He has spilled the beans. What story will you do? Tell me.’
Mushahid was worried. He said he had to live in the country, and the story should not get him into trouble. I offered not to write the story if it would put him in any danger. He kept quiet and did not speak the rest of the way. He was lost in his thoughts. In any case we were meeting for dinner. He dropped me off at my hotel where I immediately reached for a piece of paper to jot down Khan’s words. My memory stood me in good stead. At the dinner, Mushahid looked worried. Khan was not supposed to spell out things as he had. For a long time Mushahid never told me that this meeting had been pre-arranged, but I suspected so all along.
Many years later, when I told Mushahid I was writing a book and wanted more details of the interview with A.Q. Khan, he said he was doing one himself. I asked him whether the interview I had with A.Q. Khan had been set up, to give India a message. He said, yes, it had.
Reproduced in arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers India Private Limited from the book Scoop authored by Kuldip Nayar and first published by them © Kuldip Nayar, 2006. All rights reserved. Unauthorized copying is strictly prohibited.