HONORING A HERO: Dr. Abdus Salam


The same institute that once invited a renowned theoretical physicist to lecture its science students only to be shunned away by fundamentalists, has now named its centre for physics after him; Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently approved the naming of National Center for Physics at Quaid-i-Azam University after the noted Nobel Laureate Dr. Abdus Salam, not only in official recognition of the services rendered by the country’s veteran but also in effect acknowledging the perennial oblivion he was denominated to in recent decades. While Dr. Abdus Salam is a household name, it is one that has been tainted, disrespected, and discarded into the back rooms of national history that is only now coming to question its exclusion of minorities premised entirely on identity politics.


While it is true that Abdus Salam was a born genius, his formative years had little to do with it. Born in a village near Jhang on January 29, 1926, into an Ahmadi Punjabi family, he attended an ordinary Urdu medium school that lacked proper furniture, electricity, and basic facilities; yet despite those odds, he scored the highest marks ever recorded for the matriculation examination, that too at the tender age of 14. A versatile scholar who then won a full scholarship to the prestigious Government College University of Lahore, Salam was equally interested in Urdu and English literature as he was fluent in Mathematics, his academic concentration. After completing his M.A. in Mathematics, Salam was then awarded a full scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge University. He later obtained his Ph.D Degree in Theoretical Physics from Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. Not only his academic career but his professional career has also been nothing short of being meritorious and laudable. For his contribution to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, Salam, along with his contemporaries Glashow and Weinberg, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979. But by 1979, Salam had left Pakistan for good; because by then, the Pakistan he grew up in a became a different place altogether.

Until 1973, Salam held the highest positions in the sciences in Pakistan. He was the science advisor for Ayub Khan and is primarily responsible for laying the infrastructure of a science curriculum in the country; he convinced the Pakistani government to acquire Pakistan’s first commercial nuclear reactor called the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP); he served as the founding director of Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), worked for the establishment of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (PINSTECH); Not to mention, he also mentored the scientists who designed and set up the atomic bomb for Pakistan; in recent years, his work on modern physics laid the pioneering groundowrk for the discovery of the ‘God particle’ at the Large Hadron Collider, of which Pakistan is the only non-European member.

While Salam was a quite, private, and pious man- he nonetheless always tried to maintain ties with his home country that had not only severed ties with him and his community but had also disowned his contribution to its vast science and technology wing. By 1974, Dr. Salam had resigned from all government positions and wrote bitterly to Prime Minister Bhutto after the Pakistani parliament passed the constitutional amendment that declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslim for purposes of the law. In other words, Dr.Salam refused to be loyal to a constitution that declared him a non-Muslim; especially considering that for all of his life, the presence of his faith was essential throughout his work, and life.

The recent move by our Prime Minister has been welcomed and celebrated by many. In an increasingly modern, diverse, and progressive Pakistan, there is a gradual and inherent move to own up to a part of our history and contribution that makes the old guard uncomfortable, uneasy, and powerless. Apart from organizing numerous symposium and conferences and commemorating Dr. Salam in a national stamp, this is probably the first time that a concentrated effort is being made to incorporate Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate in the country’s socio-political consciousness. Moreover, the Prime Minister has also approved grant of five fellowships annually to Pakistani students for PhD in the field of physics through the Higher Education Commission at reputed international universities. In valuing his achievements, the government has opened a small avenue of discussion on the minorities, citizenships, and state sponsored legitimacy.

In truth, the government’s stance seems to have changed on how states should engage with minorities, or how to best deal with periphery communities. The government, that occupies the state, has to necessarily emit a neutral objective behavior, a feat that is difficult for governments to achieve all over the world let alone only Pakistan. But this new position will not only possibly change the relationship minorities have with then political state, but also to what extent there exists a space in which these communities can then thrive socially, politically, economically, and culturally. The PML-N government has employed soft skills to change a mindset about the contributions made not only by the renounced Ahmadi physicist, but also in effect other Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Shias, and even Agha Khanis. It is high time we stop rooting our national identity in a mainstream religious denomination; what would be even more wise for the incumbent government to work towards is to eradicate these ‘legally defined’ identities from the country’s official identification documents like the ID card, passport, etc. In a world of the future, territorial integrity should be enough to rally different ‘nations’ and communities together, an idea the creation of Pakistan was originally based on. The recognition given to Dr. Abdus Salam was long awaited, it is also perhaps one that will slowly legitimize community ties with the state that were previously severed, ignored, or willfully destroyed. As an ode to all our past, present, and future heroes- it would be best to let freedom of religion and intellectual thought prevail in the country- possibly countering extremism, intolerance, and bigotry.