Abdus Salam: A Tale of Unrequited Generosity and Devotion

This is part 2 of a long essay on the unrecognized patriotism of Dr. Abdus Salam. Read Part 1 Here

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Whereas Salam’s leadership skills helped him set up important scientific institutions for Pakistan, his generosity allowed him to keep rendering quiet financial help to his countrymen. After he had won the Atoms for Peace Award––a gold medallion accompanied by a $30,000 honorarium––he converted it into an endowment that would help young Pakistani physicists to visit the ICTP (“Abdus Salam – Biographical”). Determined to use his Catalunya Prize in a similar way,

Salam handed the U.S. $200,000 check he had received to his secretary . . . and asked her to deposit the check, not in his personal account, but in an account to be utilized for others

Kamran 273

The best of Salam’s magnanimity, however, would become manifest after he had won the Nobel Prize, for not keeping even a single penny of the prize money for himself, Salam would contribute all of it to a fund established to honor his parents, Muhammad Husain and Bibi Hajira (“Recollections”). This fund would be used not only to support disadvantaged science students throughout Pakistan but also to accouter the laboratories of various Pakistani colleges with important scientific instruments (Hamende 110). This very fund would be used to initiate the Abdus Salam Award––a certificate and a U.S. $1000 honorarium––an annually awarded prize that would recognize the research of exceptional Pakistani scientists under the age of 35 (Kamran 212). That Salam would not stint even slightly when donating money for the cause of his countrymen points toward the fact that their advancement was dearer to him than any material possession and his personal interests.

Dr. Abdus Salam (Source: Wikimedia)

Although scientists normally limit themselves to dealing with scientific issues, Salam’s solicitude for his country made him try his best to deal with such problems as waterlogging and salinity also, and he played a pivotal role in getting a US team of “university students, hydrologists, agriculturists and engineers” (Lai and Kidwai 91-3) to both study and propose a feasible solution to Pakistan’s problem of waterlogging and salinity. When he visited MIT in 1961 for its centenary, Salam mentioned Pakistan’s problem in his lecture: “the scourge of waterlogging in Pakistan has never been studied scientifically” (qtd. in Ghani 77). Thereafter, he was approached by the then U.S. president’s Science Advisor, Jerry Wiesner, who told him that the U.S. might be able to solve Pakistan’s problem if “the initiative come[s] form Pakistan” (Chaturvedi 220). Salam had broached so serious a problem that when the American proposal to help Pakistan deal with waterlogging was put before President Ayub Khan, he agreed; therefore, Salam began building a team of Pakistani experts who were required to provide the aforementioned U.S. team with whatever was known at that time about waterlogging and salinity in Pakistan. Once the American team had studied Pakistan’s problem carefully, it was able to propose solutions that not only reduced Pakistan’s agricultural imports but also made it possible to produce crop surpluses (Wisner, Jerome Bert, Walter A. Rosenblith, and Judy F. Rosenblith 287-91). The way Salam would go about solving problems that had no direct link with his area of expertise would take time away from his research, thereby making him somewhat disappointed; nevertheless, all his life, he remained adamant that

like all physicists from the Third World [his] biggest responsibility [was] to do something for [his] nation

Hammad

Making it impossible for anyone to claim that he did nothing for his country and reinforcing the fact that serving Pakistan was inseparable from his scientific work.

Despite Salam’s numerous services to his country, many Pakistanis deem him a defector, maintaining that he could have served his people much more than he did if he had not gone into voluntary exile. Although this argument seems convincing, an examination of the circumstances that forced Salam to leave his country affirms that his decision was completely in the interests of Pakistan; that is, if he had remained in Pakistan, he would not have been capable of doing anything meaningful either for his people or for his country. Firstly, as Mujahid Kamran writes, “from the world’s foremost centers of learning [Salam] landed in [Government College, Lahore] where there was [no one] with whom he could discuss scientific problems. Nor were [there] any . . . scientific journals” (83-84). Clearly, upon returning to Pakistan, not only was Salam intellectually isolated, but he also was out of touch with modern science. He himself said,

I feared that if I stayed in Lahore my work would deteriorate. Then what use would I be to my country?

Lai and Kidwai 441

It is also true that the Principal of Government College had made Salam waste his time in meaningless chores; for example, he was forced to become a football coach, something that did not have even the remotest of the links to his work. Used to working 14 hours a day in Cambridge, Salam would now hardly have any time left for research (Aziz 203). Moreover, Salam belonged to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, a sect of Islam that was widely discriminated against in Pakistan. In the early 1950s, when Salam was at Government College, anti-Ahmadi riots peaked in the country, especially in the province of Punjab, and Ahmadis were being vilified during hate campaigns while their properties were being set alight (Talpur). As a prominent professor of mathematics at Government College, Salam could also have become a target of the anti-Ahmadi movement. Operating together, all these factors made Salam accept the offer of a lectureship in Mathematics from Cambridge University and go back to England in 1954. It must be observed that Salam’s decision was absolutely right, both for him and for Pakistan. If he had remained in Lahore, he would not have been capable of putting his mind to research, or he might have been killed by the anti-Ahmadis, and as a result, Pakistan would have lost not only a true patriot but also an indomitable promoter of science.

Having become conversant with Salam’s unfaltering patriotism and his selfless services to his homeland, one might also want to have a look at the way Pakistan has treated him because only after doing so would one know whether Pakistan has been just in its treatment of its first Nobel Laureate. A compassionate individual, Salam had always tried to connect with his people, relate to their problems, and be recognized as a part of the Pakistani society. However, in 1974, yielding to the demands of anti-Ahmadi groups in the country, the Government of Pakistan passed a law that excommunicated all Pakistani Ahmadis––including Salam––from Islam (Hoodbhoy, “Abdus Salam – Pakistan’s Discarded Genius”). Defeating his efforts to be one with his people, this law segregated Salam from the overwhelming majority of the Pakistani society and made him feel painfully estranged from the government he had served so sincerely and the nation he had loved so deeply. Despite having been made an outcast in his own country, Salam collected his Nobel Prize in his cultural dress to honor Pakistan, and he might have expected Pakistan to reciprocate his feelings. To his dismay, however, Pakistan did not honor him the way that the rest of the world did. For example, while he received over 30 honorary degrees from Universities throughout the world (Lai and Kidwai 495-96), the “Government College [where he had spent one of the most significant periods of his educational career] did not invite him even to visit its precinct” (Aziz 208). As to the politicians of Pakistan, they also failed to pay homage to Salam the way politicians all over the world did. For instance, when Salam visited India, Indira Gandhi requested the pleasure of his company at her residence, gave him the coffee that she had made herself, and sat on the carpet to pay tribute to him (Kamran 165). In contrast, when Salam wanted to meet Benazir Bhutto, he was kept waiting for 2 days and then told that the “meeting had been called off” (Hoodbhoy qtd. in Subramanian). Having failed to give him respect during his life, the Government of Pakistan did not care to honor him even after he had died: no official from the Government attended Salam’s funeral (Naz), and because he was an Ahmadi, the Government did not shy away from desecrating his grave by removing the word “Muslim” from it (Tanveer).

Presented with a rational evaluation of facts, no one can help but concur that Pakistan has been terribly unfair in its treatment of its first Nobel Laureate. Despite his untiring endeavors to put his country on the high road to becoming a spearhead in the world of science, Salam ended up being labeled a “traitor” and a “non-Muslim” by the very people he was fighting for. Given his stature as a physicist and an indefatigable proponent of science, it is unlikely that the world would forget him and the tragic narrative of his life. However, what we must learn is the fact that if we keep believing religious bigots and dogmatic diehards like those who prevented us from owning Salam, we would end up rejecting everyone who rises for our cause. In short, our past implores us to learn lessons from our history, for “those who don’t learn [from history] are doomed to repeat it” (Berry).

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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