Monday, November 15, 2010

Who is Afraid of Dr. Salam?

Masood Hasan

It would seem just about most of us are! Fourteen years after his death in Oxford, Dr Salam rests in a modest graveyard near the Chenab river in Punjab, his grave disfigured on the orders of a lowly magistrate who had the word "Muslim" gouged out of his tombstone. The royal orders were happily complied with. The town of Rabwah, of course, is already "christened" Chenab Nagar. Maybe they should extend the farce further and call all those who inhabit this perpetually-threatened place, "Chenabis." A magistrate can "do the needful," as the Babus say.

I had the great honour of being within handshaking distance of this unique man – so modest and self-effacing, as all genuinely great men are. This was at a function years ago, convened almost secretly at one of Lahore's hotels. PTV, God bless them, had pulled out of the coverage at the last minute, which led a bemused Dr Salam to quip, "Why is PTV so afraid of me?" And in 1996, when his body arrived in Lahore, there was a farcical cat-and-mouse pantomime, with the government playing hot and cold. Bureaucratic hurdles were placed in the otherwise ordinary business of transporting his body from the airport to the Ahmadi place of worship in Garhi Shahu and then to Rabwah – sorry, Chenab Nagar. In the end, largely due to the efforts of dozens of volunteers and ordinary folks, mostly from the "A" sect, the ceremony was conducted without any major hiccup. Today, even this would seem highly unlikely. A bloodbath would be very much on the cards. Perhaps the Ahmadis should address themselves just as "A," since the mere mention of their name sends the faithful into paroxysms. In a few years a law can be passed and the "A" quietly erase as well.

In 1979, the proverbial spanner got entangled in the works. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that the world's highest award in physics would be awarded to three scientists "for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles." One of these was Dr Abdus Salam. He would go on to become one of the most important theoretical physicists of his day, contribute to a landmark and crucial theory in physics, the Grand Unified Theory, and be celebrated around the world as a great scientist and human being. Except, of course, in his motherland, Pakistan.

When the Nobel Prize was announced, the government of India was the first to "claim him" and invited him to India with all protocol. Pakistan only reacted when our high commissioner in London intimated Islamabad of the Delhi invitation. Zia-ul-Haq's top brains went into a huddle. Damn if you do and damn if you don't. The British too had started claiming Dr Salam as their own! Realising that it was rather unlikely that Pakistan would ever produce another Nobel Laureate in a billion years, Islamabad cleared its throat and feebly accepted that said scientist was indeed one of their own. How it must have galled that demonic one-eyed monster to accept this, but the Nobel Prize is not quite "Bolan Awards," so the very bitter pill was swallowed, with resultant nausea.

When Dr Salam strode out in Oslo, Norway, he looked spectacular. Splendid in his traditional Pakistani gear, his turban high and flowing and his eyes, as always sparkling. History was being made. Just a handful really relished the moment, knowing that this would not happen again. Just a handful really relished the moment, knowing that this would not happen again. Pakistan fidgeted and turned, cringing at the situation at hand. The bias and discrimination against the new Nobel Prize-winner continued. 

We couldn't quite claim him, and we couldn't quite give up on him. Dr Salam had received at least 42 honorary doctorates bestowed upon him by universities across the globe. Five from India alone. Here, somehow the Quaid-e-Azam University and the Punjab University finally decided to award him honorary doctorates, but there was so much noise made by moderates like the Jamaat-e-Islami that the functions were hastily shifted to other venues and quickly dispensed with. To its eternal shame, Lahore's Government College University (GCU), Salam's own, did not even invite him!

Whereas nation after nation fussed over Dr Salam and leaders like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi literally sat at his feet, here he was treated with contempt and indifference. He was welcomed as a state guest and received by heads of states at airports. In Pakistan this "honour" was left to faceless secretaries and other file-pushers. The "leaders" were too scared to be seen welcoming him. 

Salam had earlier left Pakistan because his research work was not appreciated. It was actually frowned upon by the administrators at Government College. At the age of 31, he was already a professor at Imperial College London, and while he remained the chief scientific adviser to the president of Pakistan from 1961 to 1974 and somehow managed to set up PINSTECH and SUPARCO, his considerable plans faced innumerable hurdles and he was thwarted wherever possible. It was with the IAEA's support and Italy's generous help that Dr Salam established the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) at Trieste where countless Pakistani scientists received personal guidance from him. This is well known. 

He spared no effort to promote Pakistan and the scientific advancement of this part of the world. Even after his death, his spirit guides the many young scientists who arrive in Trieste. How ironical that this "heretic" should have found inspiration and guidance from the Holy Quran, of all the thousands of books he must have read starting as a boy in a village of the poor, squatting on the bare earth and going on to the great learning centres of this planet? How ironic that, through all that Pakistan did to him, he remained steadfast to this country and its people? How odd that this great man's life was built on the highest standards and principles that could never be compromised? Today, the world's biggest particle physics laboratory, CERN, conducts the largest experiment in the history of mankind at the Large Hadron Collider in search of fundamental answers to the creation of the universe. The Higgs Boson, predicted and worked on by Dr Salam, is at the centre of this research and deeply rooted in his unflinching faith in the miracle of the Holy Quran.

What was this country able to give to this great man? A solitary Nishan-e-Imtiaz? Abdul Qadeer Khan has two. and perhaps a few others! Even the notorious fixer, Sharifuddin Pirzada, has one – maybe more. And yes – the media accused Dr Salam of selling our nuclear secrets!. We issued a solitary stamp in Dr Salam's "honour," but so did the African country of Benin. The ICTP in Trieste is named in his memory. Not so the National Centre of Physics in Islamabad. In fact, except for the Department of Mathematics at GCU, there is no landmark, no institute, no building, no department or university in this country named after the greatest scientist this country has ever produced. 

It has been 31 years since he became our first and only Nobel laureate, and nearly 14 years since his death. The doctrinal differences over faith seem to have far more importance to this country than anything else. We will name no airport, or a road, or build a monument, an institution, initiate a scholarship – no, we will barely tolerate who he was. We are blinded by our bigotry and hatred. Will we seek forgiveness for how we treated one of the great, if not the greatest, sons of Pakistan? No, we won't. Many Pakistanis will continue to deny this unique man, and therein lies our shame, except we have none. We lost it many years ago.


a fan said...

I came to your blog to read the posts and the length of this post scared me :)

PostMan said...

my apologies :)
welcome back :)
I dint write it :p

raheela said...

wow that was wonderful