The writer has taught international relations and public policy at Boston University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
Four days from now, on January 29, much of Pakistan will forget – or refuse to remember – Dr Mohammad Abdus Salam on what would have been his 88th birthday. Let us choose not to be amongst them.
Imagine yourself in Stockholm on December 10, 1979. In different rooms of a grand hotel, nine of the world’s smartest men scramble into black tailcoats and white bowties; preparing to receive Nobel awards from the king of Sweden. In a tenth room, a stocky bearded Pakistani gets into a black sherwani, a white shalwar, a pair of gold embroidered curled khussa shoes, and then struggles to tie a pagri (turban). It’s a skill he was once good at but has now forgotten.
Tying that pagri turns out to be as tricky as the physics he is to be honoured for. A cook from the Pakistan embassy is called to assist, but is not much help. Finally, our physicist does the best he can himself. If you watch the grainy footage of the day, you will see that it was not quite right after all. But he still stands out as the most elegant man in that royal room. At least to my Pakistani eyes he does.
Later that night, as he rose to make a speech, his message was even more explicit. Breaking into Urdu, he says to his hosts: “Pakistan iss key li’ye aap ka buhat mashkur hai” (“Pakistan is deeply indebted to you for this”). He goes on, then, to recite from the Holy Quran and derives from that his central message to the gathering: “This in effect is, the faith of all physicists; the deeper we seek, the more is our wonder excited, the more is the dazzlement for our gaze.”
As one reads Gordon Fraser’s fascinating biography (Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam-The First Muslim Nobel Scientist; 2008) one realises that it is not just that we have appreciated this man so little, but that we know so little about him.
Muhammad Abdus Salam, born in the Sahiwal district in 1926, was a teacher’s son who grew to become a teacher. At 14 he stood ‘first’ in the Matriculation examination in the Punjab, breaking all previous records. At 16, at Lahore’s Government College, he found a love for mathematics under the brilliant Prof Sarvadaman Chowla. Responding one day to Prof Chowla’s homework challenge (on extending one of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s famous simultaneous quadratic equations problem) Salam found an elegant solution that was to become his first academic paper, published at age 18.
By age 20, he had (luckily) failed to qualify for a job in the Railways – for reasons of age and eyesight – but already completed his MA in mathematics. With a scholarship from the Punjab government (redirected from funds originally collected as a World War II tax) Salam was offered admission at St John’s College, Cambridge, but only if he were to start as an undergraduate student. He did.
At Cambridge he became close to noted astronomer Fred Hoyle, but it was the 1933 Nobel winner Paul Dirac who really sparked a passion for theoretical physics. By 1950, he had received Cambridge’s prestigious Smith Prize and was already wowing peers and being noticed by physics luminaries.
Doing all this much faster than Cambridge regulations allowed meant that Salam could not be granted a PhD just yet. Having now been away from home for five years, and ‘home’ now being a new country, Abdus Salam declined a research position at Princeton and returned to Lahore in 1951, where he joined Government College as professor and chairman of the Mathematics Department.
Within two years, however, he was back in Cambridge, pushed out by rising anti-Ahmedi sentiments but, at this point, much more by the pettiness of his academic colleagues. According to his biographer he was seen as “a young upstart, too big for his boots, a high-flying student who had escaped the double trauma of the partition of a country and a province.” Threatened and envious, his colleagues connived to sabotage his aspirations with political manoeuvrings and administrative shenanigans.
Having neither the time nor the interest to play petty political games, Salam returned to Cambridge and immediately plunged into a whirlwind of activity and achievement. In 1955 he completed his PhD. In 1957, he took up a Chair at Imperial College. In 1959, at age 33, he became one of the youngest Fellow of the Royal Society. Most importantly, he became a frantic collaborator and prolific researcher in elementary particle physics. Amongst other things, he introduced the now-famous Higgs bosons to the standard model and, of course, made ground-breaking “contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including, inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current” (from the original citation) for which he was awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics along with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg.
Even as Abdus Salam became an authority on high-energy physics, his own high energy could not be contained by research alone. Like a force of nature, the multi-tasking Abdus Salam would always be on the move, moving from country to country, institution to institution, from research to policy to management, from writing papers to raising money, from mentoring young scholars to advising heads of state, from steering global discourse to designing national policy.
Despite his bad experiences with societal bigotry and intellectual pettiness, he could never keep himself away from Pakistan; even when not physically there. In 1960 he became science advisor to Ayub Khan and was amongst the founders of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (Suparco), the Pakistan Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology, and the International Nathiagali Summer College on Physics and Contemporary Needs. He headed Pakistan’s IAEA delegations for a decade, was the driving force behind Pakistan’s first nuclear energy plant, and its space agreements with Nasa which included plans to build a space facility in Balochistan.
Internationally, he was founder of the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and, of course, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, which is now named after him and which he had wanted to be based in Pakistan. Abdus Salam’s contributions as an institution builder are, in fact, as vital as his achievements as a scientists. The ICTP, in particular, became his driving passion, especially in his later years as he was marginalised out of Pakistan; particularly hurtful was when his 1987 bid to become Unesco director general was scuttled by his own country, then under Ziaul Haq.
Nothing, of course, can compare to the deep trauma and heartbreak of that dark and fateful September 7, 1974, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government had parliament declare the Ahmadi sect – to which Abdus Salam belonged – officially non-Muslim. His diary entry for that day: “Declared non-Muslim. Cannot cope.”
For Bhutto this was just a political move and little did he recognise the depths of perversion and persecution this would lead to. Abdus Salam tendered his resignation, writing: “Islam does not give any segment of the Islamic community the right to pronounce on the faith of any other segment, faith being a matter between man and his Creator.”
According to Gordon Fraser, Bhutto tried to keep Salam engaged: “‘This is all politics,’ [Bhutto] tried to placate Salam, ‘Give me time, I will change it.’ Salam asked Bhutto to write down what he had just said on a note that would remain private. ‘I can’t do that,’ replied the master politician.”
The rest, as they say, is sordid history. Bhutto was never able to put the genie back into the bottle and the injustice has only become more grave and deadly. Ziaul Haq at least had the grace to congratulate Salam and award him with Pakistan’s highest civil award, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, when he won the Nobel. As Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto would not even have the courtesy to grant him an appointment (although she would later send him a note of greetings on his 70th birthday).
Indeed, faith is a matter between man and his Creator. So, let God judge Salam for his faith. It is not for us to do so. It is for us, however, to at least undo the legacy of shameful silence and indecent ingratitude that we have piled upon this finest son of Pakistan.
The fact is that the forces of violence have not succeeded in expunging him from our memory. While the majority may wish to hide in the comfort of silence, I would wager that those who respect Abdus Salam for who he was outnumber those who do not. If I am right in this assumption, let us demonstrate it. If I am wrong, let us change it.
By Dr Adil Najam
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