One was the son of a head clerk in the education department; the other, daughter of a small contractor, orphaned at 7, both from the Indo-Pak subcontinent won the Nobel Prize in 1979- Abdus Salam and Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (a.k.a Mother Teresa).
Prof Dr. Abdus Salam was from the Ahmaddiya community which was declared ‘non-Muslim’ in 1974 through a constitutional amendment. Dr. Salam, the first Pakistani to receive a Nobel Prize, preferred to remain a Pakistani national all his life, whereas a scholar of his stature could have honored any country of the world by adopting its citizenship. He remained the citizen of a state which ensured that he be dishonored posthumously. In November 1996 when the great scientist was buried at Rabwah (renamed Chenab Nagar through a Punjab Assembly resolution passed in 1998) his tombstone read ‘Abdus Salam the First Muslim Nobel Laureate’. Needless to say, the police arrived with a magistrate and rubbed off the ‘Muslim’ part of the inscription. Now the tombstone says the nonsensical: Abdus Salam the First Nobel Laureate. Unfortunately the State, in this part of the world decides as to who is and who is not a Muslim.
The other recipient, the frail, short-statured lady, looking after the leprous of Calcutta, who adopted the Indian nationality in 1948, was a catholic. Mother Teresa was awarded the Padma Shri in 1962 and the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1969.She continued to receive major Indian awards in subsequent years, including India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, in 1980.
When Mother Teresa died in September 1997, she received a State burial. The gun carriage that carried Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru’s bodies’ was used to carry Mother Teresa to a service in Netaji Stadium,Calcutta. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets, for she was an internationally acclaimed Indian citizen and not an “infidel.”
On 28 August 2010, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth, the government of India issued a special 5 Rupee coin, being the sum she first arrived in India with.
When in 1952 Dr. Salam came to Government College Lahore as head of the Mathematics department, he was refused an official residence. When in an interview, he requested the Education Minister Sardar Abdul Hameed Dasti, to look into this problem; the Minister categorically told him that if the job did not suit him, he could leave. Later Professor Sirajuddin, the Principal asked him to take charge of the college football team, an assignment he always resented as it was against his temperament and sheer wastage of time for a person who would spend 14 hours a day in academic work at Cambridge. During Christmas holidays he was invited by Professor Wolfgang Pauli, the 1945 Nobel laureate in physics, who was visiting India, to come to Bombay. He went to India for a week and on his return was charge-sheeted for not seeking prior approval before leaving. This shocked him as he was used to European freedom of movement. However, later the Director Public Instruction intervened and the period of his visit was treated as leave without pay.
After receiving the Nobel Prize, Dr. Salam came to Pakistan. In December 1979, on his arrival in Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad, he was received by junior army officers who were military secretaries to the provincial governors and the ‘President’.
The convocation at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad summoned to bestow upon him the honorary doctorate of science was cancelled because of the warning from the students belonging to the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami to disrupt the function, and the venue was shifted to the hall of National Assembly. In Lahore, his lecture arranged to be held at the campus of the Punjab University, had to be moved to the senate hall in the city because certain groups had demonstrated earlier and threatened to murder Dr. Salam. The University of Punjab refused to honor him with a degree. The Government College did not even invite him to visit its precinct.
Although it was embarrassing for General Zia, he had to welcome the great scientist and had to be seen with him on TV. However, those sections of Dr. Salam’s speech were clipped where he had said the kalima or used an Islamic expression. It was Dr. Salam’s good luck that one of the believers did not go to the court under Zia’s own laws to get the country’s only Nobel laureate sent to prison for six months of rigorous imprisonment.
A year later in January 1981, when he was in India, five universities gave him honorary degrees, including the Guru Dev Nanak University of Amritsar where he delivered the convocation address on January 25, 1981 in Punjabi, and the university, on his request brought to Amritsar four of his old teachers who had taught him in Jhang and Lahore. The Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, invited him to her residence, made coffee for him with her own hands, and sat on the carpet throughout the meeting near Salam’s feet saying that was her way of honoring a great guest. Later in his tour of several Latin American countries including Brazil, he was received everywhere at the airport by the head of the state. (K.K. Aziz, 2007)
In 1986, the Director Generalship of UNESCO fell vacant and nominations were solicited. Salam wanted to be considered and everyone was sure that he would be elected. But the rule was that a candidate must be nominated by his own country. Pakistan nominated Lt. General Yaqub Khan, a retired army officer. Both Britain and Italy offered to nominate Salam if he agreed to become their national. He refused. The Pakistani general received only one vote. A French member, when pressed by her Government to vote for the Pakistani candidate, resisted, protested and then resigned, saying ‘An Army General will run the UNESCO over my dead body’ (K.K. Aziz, 2007).
Salam died, full of honors and laurels from across the world, on 21 November 1996, in Oxford. His brother, who lived in Lahore, asked the government if it would like to provide protocol on the arrival of the coffin. There was no response. He was buried in Rabwah, at the foot of his mother’s grave.
The scientist Dr. Salam had a vision. He wanted to bring about a change in the social and educational sectors of an impoverished society. He wanted to change the culture of backward areas like Jhang by creating opportunities for the downtrodden yet intelligent children of the area. He endowed the schools and madrasahs of Jhang with hefty grants and scholarships. He envisioned these to act as centers of learning, peace and harmony. Perhaps the late Dr. Salam wanted to begin with Jhang as a model district.
However, this was not to be. The self-destructive trends in our society patronized by the state of which Dr. Salam himself was a victim engulfed us. Jhang, turned into an epicenter of sectarian violence in Pakistan. The militant organizations Sipah-e-Sahaba and its offshoot Lashkar-e-Jhangvi established strong presence here. According to the Jhang police, the extremist network is expanding in Jhang.
We never realized that the vacuum created by lack of education and enlightenment is always filled by ignorance and extremism. Can we still prioritize the power of discourse over the discourse of power? A proposition which Dr. Salam advocated throughout his life!
(Today,29th January is the 94th birthday of Dr. Abdus Salam.)