In life, they treated him like a third-class citizen in his own country, called him a heretic and refused to acknowledge his achievements. Refusing to give him his due for more than 30 years, Pakistan took a small step in honouring the memory of its only Nobel laureate scientist – Dr Abdus Salam – this week when it renamed the physics department of a leading university after him.
A trailblazing scientist, Salam has been widely recognised for his contribution to theoretical physics around the world, but in Pakistan from where he belonged, he was barred from even giving lectures in public universities. His fault? He belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect, a community considered heretical by law in the state and denounced by Muslim leaders.
Ahmadi Muslims were declared non-Muslims in Pakistan in 1974 as part of the country’s Islamisation drive, conducted by General Zia-Ul-Haq to create an Islamic Pakistan.
Zia believed that “Pakistan was created in the name of Islam” and that its survival depended on the state “sticking to Islam”. The sect was, therefore, termed non-Muslim by the country. Ahmadis consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadi movement as their messiah, instead of Prophet Mohammad.
In 1984, the state also banned Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslim, and preaching and travelling to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage.
He may have paved the way for the discovery of the Higgs Boson or The God particle, but Salam’s many achievements throughout the course of his distinguished career would pale in front of his identity as an Ahmadi.
The small town of Jhang, 180 miles south-west of Islamabad where the Nobel laureate was born, hardly knows about the man or his achievements. The two storey house where he spent his entire life, lies deserted, all but forgotten.
One of the greatest minds to come out of the country, the scientist wasn’t even spared in death, just because of his religious identity. In the Pakistani town of Rabwah, where his grave lies, the gravestone was defaced by local authorities with the word ‘Muslim’ erased from the initial inscription – ‘The First Muslim Nobel Laureate’.
And while country after country celebrated his Nobel (Indira Gandhi even offered the scientist Indian citizenship), Pakistan meted out the most humiliating treatment to the scion.
Returning home after the win, right-wing propagandists were quick to accuse him of nuclear espionage. General Zia-ul-Haq rejected Salam’s candidature for the position of Director-General of UNESCO. In 1988, the then Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, refused to meet him after making him wait for two days in a hotel.
Had he given up on his Pakistani nationality, he may have perhaps saved himself from the humiliation, but Salam was bent on remaining a Pakistani national. His dream of opening an international research center for Pakistani physicists would remain a dream, with the government showing no interest in the project.
Dejected, he ended up setting the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Tieste, Italy which was later renamed the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics. The man who loved his country, despite all odds, died in England. No government official would attend his funeral.
It was only in 2000 that Pakistan first acknowledged his contributions when the Government college established a chair in his name. During his recent visit to CERN, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hailed the contribution of Pakistani scientists, paying special tribute to Salam.
The gestures are however just that – token moves coming decades later that do little to assuage the terrible treatment it meted out to one of its finest minds. It cannot mend the irreparable grief it caused him, or mend his reputation in Pakistan where many still consider him a traitor.
That the nation finally decided to honour his memory is appreciated. But it needs to do much more to make up for its conduct.
Pakistan will have to live with the guilt and shame of its inexcusable conduct till then.