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Lest we forget
THERE died on Thursday November 21, 1996, ten years ago, a great human being and one of the greatest men by far that Pakistan has been able to produce, Doctor Professor Abdus Salam, the sole Nobel Laureate of his country during its 59 years of existence and so far the sole Muslim to have won this award of great merit.
He was known to be a devout and humble Muslim, whose religion occupied an inseparable part of his professional and personal life. He once wrote : “The Holy Quran enjoins us to reflect on the verities of Allah’s created laws of nature; however, that our generation has been privileged to glimpse part of His design is a bounty and a grace for which I render thanks with a humble heart.”
His biography, written at the time of the award of the Nobel Prize in 1979 records that he was born in Jhang on January 29, 1926, of a father who was an official in the local department of education. He went to school in Lahore and when, at the age of 14, he cycled home to Jhang after gaining the highest marks ever recorded for the matriculation examination of the Punjab University, the entire town turned out to welcome him.
He won a scholarship to Government College, Lahore, from where he took his MA in 1946 and was awarded a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge. In 1949, he took a BA (Honours), with a double first in mathematics and physics and the following year was awarded the Smith’s Prize from Cambridge for the most outstanding pre-doctoral contribution to physics. His PhD thesis on theoretical physics was published in 1951.
He immediately returned to Pakistan, his home, where he taught mathematics at his old college and in 1952 was appointed head of the mathematics department of the Punjab University. His intention was to found, in his homeland, a school of research in theoretical physics. But this was not to be — he was soon to find himself and his community under attack.
In the beginning of March 1953, widespread disturbances broke out in Punjab, instigated by the ulema against the Qadiani Ahmedis. The demand was that they be declared a non-Muslim minority. So violent were the demonstrations in parts of the ruling province, with people being killed and injured, that it led to the call out of troops and the country’s first taste of martial law — declared in Lahore and remaining in force until mid-May of the same year. With a heavy heart and with much dismay (and probably disgust) Salam left his homeland in 1954 for a lectureship at Cambridge. Ten years later, this gifted theoretical physicist managed to find a way to solve his dilemma. At the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, which he created, he instituted the famous ‘associateships’ which allowed deserving young physicists to spend their annual vacations doing research in company with leaders in their field and with their peers.
In 1957 he was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Imperial College, London, which position he continued in and combined with that of Director of the Trieste ICTP. The aims of his centre : “The fostering through training and research of the advancement of theoretical physics with special regard to the needs of developing countries.” The money he received from the Atoms for Peace Medal awarded to him in 1968 was spent on setting up a fund for young Pakistani physicists to visit the ICTP, and his share of the Nobel Prize he entirely used for the benefit of physicists from developing countries — not a penny went towards his own personal or family needs.
The 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics was shared equally between Sheldon Glashow, Steven Weinberg and Salam “for their contributions to the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, including, inter alia, the prediction of the weak neutral current.”
For his own country, he did as much as he could to serve it until he was rejected and it became impossible. He was a member of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, a member of the Scientific Commission of Pakistan and was Chief Scientific Adviser to the president of Pakistan from 1961 (President General Ayub Khan) to 1974 (the era of Prime Minister Democrat Socialist Humanist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) — and he could no longer continue in the service of the country of his birth.
On September 21, 1974, the Second Amendment to the constitution of 1973 was enacted. It deliberately infringed on the rights of an entire community, that of Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam — rights that are recognised by the world at large and by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This community was finally (the exercise began in 1953) shorn of its majority rights and declared a non-Muslim minority after it had existed as part of the majority since the birth of the country in 1947.
This bill, the Second Amendment Bill, was introduced in the National Assembly on September 7. The rules of procedure that govern parliamentary procedure under the same constitution were suspended. According to the rules, on its introduction a bill is referred to the relevant standing committee which is required to present its report within 30 days. Thereafter, the bill and any modifications or amendments recommended, must be distributed among all members within seven days, after which two clear days are to elapse before it can be sent down for a motion. This bill was passed the same day, September 7 1974.
Thus came to an ignominious and shameful end the association of a unique man with his own country. He lived on in Trieste, his home, carrying out various assignments for the United Nations and for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and along the way collecting award after award, honour after honour, being elected to numerous academies and societies, being honoured with 27 D.Sc Honoris Cause, and publishing some 250 scientific papers.
Sadly, and most undeservedly, in the early 1990s he suffered a rare nervous disease which affected his speech and his bodily movements, leaving his mind perfectly clear. He died in 1996, his body was brought back to Pakistan, and he was buried in Rabwah, later renamed Chenab Nagar by that great ‘liberal’ Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif. Renowned internationally as the only ‘Muslim Nobel Laureate,’ this fact is denied in Pakistan, where his gravestone has been amended to comically read ‘The First blankety-blank Nobel Laureate,’ the word Muslim having been brutally erased.
Let President General Pervez Musharraf undo Shahbaz’s senseless act and let one of the greatest Muslims of his times rest in peace, well remembered.