Abdus Salam: A Spurned National Hero

This is part 1 of a long essay on the unrecognized patriotism of Dr. Abdus Salam.

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Hailed as one of the most illustrious theoretical physicists of the twentieth century, Abdus Salam was born in 1926 to Chaudhry Muhammad Husain and Bibi Hajira, a perfectly ordinary couple. Growing up in Jhang, a backward town tucked away in the center of what now forms the Pakistani province of Punjab, Salam would not see an electric light throughout his childhood, but with an intelligence verging on the wondrous, he would go on to garner a host of highly esteemed honors and work his way up to the 1979 Nobel Prize, becoming Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate. Given the impressive gamut of Salam’s achievements, one would agree that the story of his life, describing a journey from an unsophisticated background to the world of luminaries, ought to be documented and “told to every child in the third world” (Calder qtd. in Husain 5).

Dr. Abdus Salam (Source: Wikimedia)

One might also expect Pakistan, Salam’s homeland and a third world country, to have made an unequaled effort to preserve his legacy for posterity; however, the reality is utterly different because Salam was spurned by his own people. One would hardly find any Pakistani textbook mentioning his name and would scarcely see any scientific institution dedicated to him. In fact, just two years back, an outcry was raised in the Pakistani National Assembly when the then Prime Minister gave his consent to rename the National Center for Physics after Salam (Zaidi). As unjust as such treatment of a renowned Nobel Laureate may seem, a lot of Pakistanis believe that by disowning him, Pakistan has treated Salam fairly, for he was only a traitor who did little for his country other than severing his relations with it by becoming an expatriate.

An unbiased scrutiny of facts, however, reveals that although Salam went into voluntary exile, the way Pakistan has treated him cannot be called just because he expressed unfading patriotism all through his life, never gave up his original nationality, and made unstinting efforts to render his country capable of being a torchbearer in the scientific age.

Having spent a significant amount of time with him, many contemporaries of Salam bear witness to the fact that he manifested deep compassion and an imperishable longing for his homeland throughout his life. For instance, Freeman J. Dyson, who first met Salam in 1950, narrates that when Salam was nearing the end of his academic career in England, he had to choose between returning to Pakistan and staying in England to pursue his research. Remaining in England would provide him with a chance to land a splendid research career in theoretical physics; however, since he believed that his country had helped him become what he was by providing him with scholarships and support, he would have qualms about not reciprocating his countrymen’s generosity by returning to Pakistan and overhauling the society there with the science he had learned. When Dyson advised him to get immersed into research for a few more years, Salam said that “physics could wait, but his people could not” and returned to Pakistan (346-50). Delineating his love for his people, this moving anecdote proves that in calling Salam a traitor, Pakistanis have been completely unjust. Had Salam been self-interested, he would never have forgone brilliant opportunities for research to return to and serve his homeland.

The yearning for home that had made Salam gravitate toward Pakistan would never allow him to become oblivious to its needs. Thus, after a rigidly bureaucratic educational system and the want of a research culture had forced him to leave Pakistan and become a part of the brain drain, it was this very yearning that proved instrumental in inspiring him to create the ICTP––the International Center for Theoretical Physics (Swanson). This center would save future Pakistani physicists from falling prey to the above-mentioned brain drain by allowing them to do world-class research while staying in Pakistan. No rational person, after considering that it was Salam’s longing for his homeland that nudged him into feeling the need for ICTP, can deny the strength of his patriotism or argue that he simply cut himself off from his fellow countrymen. Leaving little doubt that Salam was not a defector, this analysis of facts illustrates his sense of belonging to Pakistan and shows that he was absolutely sincere when he said,

“I was born a Pakistani and I will die a Pakistani. My genes were formed here [and] my forefathers have lived in this land for more than 200 years. . .. No one can deprive me of [my identity].”

Nadeem

Not only did Salam’s love for Pakistan prevent him from becoming devoid of the concern he had for his people, but it also kept him from giving up his Pakistani citizenship. Although he had offers of citizenship from both the British and the Italians, he did not surrender his Pakistani passport, showing ultimate loyalty to his homeland (Hoodbhoy, “Abdus Salam – Past and Present”).

After he had won the Nobel Prize, someone asked him to provide a rationale for keeping his Pakistani citizenship while turning British and Italian offers down. Maintaining both confidence and clarity, Salam said,

“I was hopeful that the Almighty would confer this honor (the Nobel Prize) on me. So I did not want the credit for my prize attributed to any other country.”

Naya Daur

As is evident, a strong desire to be recognized as a Pakistani was the sole thing that influenced Salam to keep his original nationality, for from a worldly point of view, becoming a British citizen held benefits that Pakistani citizenship could not afford. For example, Salam was dubbed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) by the British Queen in recognition of his exemplary services to both Cambridge and Imperial College London, but since he was not a British citizen, his title was honorary, and he could not write the word “Sir” with his name. Many of his friends, including Member of Parliament David Miller, expressed the wish that he should acquire British citizenship to become eligible to sign his name as “Sir Abdus Salam,” but he declined to do so (Chaudhary 378). It seems that Salam took much more pride in being called a “Pakistani” than in being referred to as “Sir Abdus Salam.” It was this pride in identity, roots, and heritage that had made Salam wear,

“an achkan, shalwar, turban and Punjabi jutti with extended curved tip” to the Nobel Prize Ceremony in 1979.

Qureshi

Acts of his––holding on to the Pakistani nationality, sacrificing the honor of being called “Sir Abdus Salam,” and collecting the Nobel Prize in his cultural attire––were, as might easily be inferred, entirely meant to honor Pakistan. If he had been disloyal to his nation, he would have wallowed in his rewards without sparing even a single moment to think about his people, but the fact that he honored them whenever he could make one realize that declaring Salam unfaithful is sheer injustice.

Just as the claim that Salam was unpatriotic is unfounded, so is the belief that he did nothing for his country groundless because facts make it clear that “[putting] Pakistan on the high road to prosperity through science” (Hoodbhoy, “Abdus Salam – Pakistan’s Discarded Genius”) was one of Salam’s dominating passions. As someone who had started with modest beginnings and risen all the way up to the top, Salam was well aware of what a poor country like Pakistan should do to join the ranks of the world’s most prosperous, successful, and scientifically advanced nations. A short time before he was appointed the Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of Pakistan, Salam gave an address, entitled “Technology and Pakistan’s Attack on Poverty,” at the 8th Annual All Pakistan Science Conference held on January 1961 at Dacca, elucidating the primary problem of Pakistan: poverty. Not only did he invigorate his people by proclaiming that a shift to prosperity was totally possible, but he also laid down the scheme to be adopted to make Pakistan self-sufficient:

“First, [we] must acquire the requisite technological skills; secondly, [we] must save and re-invest more than 5% of [our] national income in productive enterprises.”

Lai and Kidwai 184

Since Salam knew that Pakistan had not been successful in developing scientific manpower effectively, he decided to put his scheme into action by training people in various disciplines of science and sending about 500 scientists and engineers abroad for higher education (Kamran 212). He also prodded the government to channel money into science education and ensured that Pakistani universities had enough funding for both research and teaching (Ghani 66). Despite having commitments at Imperial College London, where he was a professor of theoretical physics, Salam played a pivotal role in setting up the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology––PINSTECH––an institution that “would [help] transform Pakistan into a nuclear state” (Leslie). In addition to these services, Salam holds the honor of having been actively involved in the establishment of Pakistan’s first nuclear reactor, the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant or KANUPP, and Pakistan’s national space agency, Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission or SUPARCO (Ahmad). It might clearly be observed that his central role in everything he did as the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Pakistan vindicates Salam of the charge that he did nothing for his nation.

Works Cited

“The views expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spectra Magazine.”

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