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Tuesday, September 23, 2008


The Hindu/30th November, 2006
The scientist Pakistan chose to forget
Nirupama Subramanian
Abdus Salam's 10th death anniversary saw a small but earnest campaign for undoing the injustice to a man held in high esteem by the scientific community worldwide but virtually unknown in Pakistan.
THE TIMING seems right. Pakistan has made bold to amend the controversial Zia-ul-Haq era Hudood Ordinances for the better; President Pervez Musharraf says he wants to get rid of obscurantism and make Pakistan a nation of "enlightened moderates." He even visited a Hindu temple in Karachi recently. Taking the President at his word, admirers, followers and friends of Abdus Salam now want him to take an even bolder step — honour the Nobel Laureate who continues to be denied recognition by his country because the Ahmediyya sect to which he belonged is, in the eyes of law, "non-Muslim."
Dr. Salam died on November 21, 1996 in England at the age of 70. By then, he had lived abroad for many years retaining his Pakistani nationality until the very end. Before his death, he expressed a wish to be buried in Rabhwa in the Punjab province, where Pakistan's Ahmediyya sect has its headquarters. His wish was fulfilled, but not without a bizarre twist. A magistrate, out to enforce the law, had the word "Muslim" erased from the inscription on the tombstone which said: "Abdus Salam The First Muslim Nobel Laureate." What remained read thus: "Abdus Salam The First Nobel Laureate"(!) A comical outcome, if it were not so tragic. Later, the name of the town was changed to Chenab Nagar.
This last week, the 10th anniversary of his death, saw a small but earnest campaign — so far confined to mainstream English newspapers — for undoing the injustice to a man held in high esteem by the scientific community worldwide but virtually unknown in Pakistan.
The world famous physicist's story should have been an inspiring tale of success of a small-town boy who shone because of his sheer brilliance, going from school to college in Lahore and then to Cambridge where he got a double first in Mathematics and Physics in 1949 and later a Ph.D. The Nobel Prize came in 1979, Dr. Salam sharing it with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg "for their contribution in the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current."
But he finds just a passing mention in school textbooks and children are generally taught nothing about him. Pervez Hoodbhoy, physicist, commentator, and close associate of Dr. Salam, speaking a year after his death, said: "Fake heroes are to be found spattered all over the place but Salam is never to be found."
The scientist left the country in 1954 when the violent beginnings of an anti-Ahmediyya movement coincided with his appointment as lecturer in Cambridge. He took his intention of setting up a centre for research in theoretical physics (in Pakistan) to Trieste in Italy, where he founded the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in 1964. He continued to be its director until 1994. The ICTP was dedicated to science education in the developing world and in 1997, on his first death anniversary, was named after him.
Through ICTP, Dr. Salam reached out to budding physicists in Pakistan for whom he set up scholarships from his award monies. A firm believer that developing countries needed to invest more in education, particularly in the sciences, he also founded the Third World Academy of Sciences.
In the early years, he continued to be associated with Pakistan in many capacities, helping to prepare the building blocks of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, serving as its member and also as a member of the Scientific Commission of Pakistan, and as Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of Pakistan.
But he resigned in 1974 after the National Assembly adopted the Second Amendment Bill that declared Ahmediyyas as a non-Muslim minority, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the Prime Minister. Also known as Qadianis, the Ahmediyyas are followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, a 19th century religious leader. Orthodox Muslims say Ahmediyyas reject the belief that Prophet Mohammed was the last prophet, and are thus non-Muslims. Ahmediyyas are not permitted in mosques and they cannot call themselves Muslim. Pakistan's blasphemy law hangs over the community — as indeed it does over all minorities — like the proverbial sword of Damocles.
But Dr. Salam considered himself a Muslim, and religion was as much a part of him as physics. Writing in remembrance of the scientist, Khalid Hassan, Washington correspondent of the Daily Times, who was then the press secretary to Bhutto, recalled that the Prime Minister had asked Dr. Salam why he had resigned. Dr. Salam's reply was he could not possibly continue after his entire community had been declared non-Muslim.
"But Salam, that's all politics," Bhutto told him adding, "Give me time; I will change it, believe me." Salam said to Bhutto: "All right, Zulfi, write it down on a piece of paper and it will remain between the two of us, forever and always." According to Hassan, Bhutto's reply was "classic Bhutto": "Salam, I can't do that. I'm a politician."
Dr. Salam's life mission was fighting the prejudice against science in the Islamic world, and to get Muslim countries to invest in science education. He even wanted to start an Islamic Science Foundation, the funds of which would be pooled in by Muslim countries. In Hassan's account, the scientist visited every Muslim capital in the world after his Nobel, asking them to set aside one per cent of their GNP for scientific education. He found no takers. Instead, in Libya, he was whisked off his plane to meet Col. Gaddafi, who asked him if he could make him a nuclear bomb. "I am not that kind of a scientist," Salam replied, and Gaddafi lost interest in him immediately.
After winning the Nobel, Dr. Salam visited his home country where Islamic references in a speech he gave were deleted. Of course, India made sure he got a warmer welcome when he went to meet his primary school teacher.
Earlier this week, the Daily Times said Pakistan "needs to feel guilty about what it has done to the greatest scientist it ever produced in comparison to the lionisation of Dr. A.Q. Khan who has brought ignominy and the label of "rogue state" to Pakistan by selling the country's nuclear technology for personal gain."
Corrective steps
Pakistan did take some tentative corrective steps. In 1998, a commemorative stamp was issued in his name as part of a series of stamps honouring the scientists of Pakistan and Government College, Lahore, his alma mater — now a university — has named a department after him.
Farhatullah Babar, a senior leader of the Pakistan People's Party, writing in The News recalled that in January 1996 when Dr. Salam's friends organised a function to honour him — he was already terminally ill — on his 70th birthday in Islamabad, there were objections that it would amount to "defaming Pakistan." According to Mr. Babar, when the press clippings about the objections were put up to Benazir Bhutto, then Prime Minister, she sent the file back with "Rubbish" written on it, and the function was held. She also wrote him a letter greeting him on his birthday and recalling his services to science and Pakistan "which will never be forgotten."
But Dr. Hoodbhoy has referred to another incident in 1988, when Dr. Salam waited two days in a hotel room in Islamabad to meet Ms. Bhutto during her first tenure as Prime Minister. "Suddenly the phone rang and Salam's face momentarily lit up. Then I saw his face fall as BB's secretary told him that the meeting had been called off."
Clearly, there is a feeling that mere tokenism is not enough to honour Dr. Salam's memory and that a grand gesture is important not just for the scientist but in the context of increasing and violent sectarianism in Pakistan, and the widespread acknowledgment that it has done great harm to the nation's fabric. No one is yet talking of scrapping the Second Amendment but in an editorial, the Daily Times asked: "Can we redeem ourselves by doing something in Dr. Salam's memory on this 10th anniversary of his passing that would please his soul and cleanse ours?"
There is little reason to be optimistic that this will happen as even Pakistan's scientific community, with few exceptions, does not support the idea. Just last week at a function organised to remember Dr. Salam at the National Centre for Science in Islamabad's Qauid-e-Azam University, when Dr. Hoodbhoy spoke about how no streets or institutions in Pakistan were named after the scientist, whereas those who had perfected reverse engineering were famous, a prominent scientist walked out and later asked him: "What did Dr. Salam do for Pakistan?"
Says Dr. Hoodbhoy: "It relates to a very deep problem in Pakistan, and it's not going to go away unless we go back to the way it was before 1974."
But then did anyone imagine that the 1979 Hudood Ordinances would one day be changed?
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