Thursday 10 October 2013

Dr Abdus Salam-The Forgotten Son of Pakistan

On the eve of another Pakistani on the verge of a Nobel Prize,I am reproducing the biography of Dr Abdus Salam(the only other Pakistani to be awarded a Nobel, in 1979), as recounted by eminent historian, K.K Aziz in his book THE COFFEE HOUSE OF LAHORE, from page 200-209.
I hope Malala doesn't suffer the same fate.

   DrAbdus Salam

Salam was the son of Chaudhri Muhammad Husain, a schoolteacher of Jhang and Hajirah who belonged to Faizullah Chak near Batala. Muhammad Hussain was Jat and Hajirah a Kakkezai. Faizullah Chak was an almost exclusively Kakkezai Village. The Kakkezais were a close-knit community. Born in 1926 and educated at the Government High School and Government Intermediate College, Jhang, Government College, Lahore and St. John’s College, Cambridge, he made it a habit to excel in every examination he took. He stood first in 1940 in the matriculation of the Punjab University and again in 1942 in the F.Sc. Examination. He joined the Government College, Lahore in 1942 to study mathematics A and B and honours in English. He graduated in 1944 winning every laurel in sight: 300 out of 300 marks in Mathematics, 121 out of 150 in English Honours, standing first in the University and breaking all records in the B.A examination. In 1946, he took his M.A in Mathematics, scoring 573 marks out of 600, and topping the list.
In September 1946, he left for Cambridge on a Punjab Peasant Welfare Fund Scholarship to study Mathematics at St. John’s College as an undergraduate (Its worth mentioning here that this fact was recently mentioned in an article by Javed Chaudary, and the origin of the said fund was the money that was left over from the War tax, after the war had finished-AM). If in India, his academic career was brilliant, in Cambridge, it was dazzling. He got a first both in preliminary in 1947 and Part II in 1948, and then gave up Mathematics for the time being because on the higher level it could not be fully mastered without a good knowledge of physics. In an unprecedented performance, he read Physics for one year and took its Part I and II together in 1949; scoring a first and surprising even his teachers.
His scholarship was extended for two years (it should have been three years) to work for his Ph.D. He came to Pakistan in the summer, married Ummatul Hafeez, and returned to Cambridge in 1949, deciding to tackle theoretical Physics for his doctoral thesis.
The year 1951 was the time for him to harvest the fruits of his labour. He completed his thesis(though he could not get his PhD till the following year because the university statutes required that the candidate spent nine terms before being eligible to receive his doctorate), won the smith prize(From Wikipedia: The Smith's Prize was the name of each of two prizes awarded annually to two research students in theoretical Physics, mathematics and applied mathematics at the University of Cambridge,Cambridge, England-AM), was elected Fellow of his College, and named Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University.  Pending the award of his degree, he came to Lahore and was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Head of Department of Mathematics at both the Government College and the Punjab University. In 1952, he went to Cambridge for his viva voce and to receive his doctorate.
His problems began almost as soon as he took up his job at the Government College. Instead of honouring him for his brilliant achievements, he was humiliated by the College and the Education Department. He was not given an official residence, as was his right. Temporarily he stayed with Qazi Muhammad Aslam, the professor of Philosophy at the College, and continued his efforts to get a house allotted to him. Disappointed with the indifferent attitude of the officials he asked for an interview with the Minister of Education, Sardar Abdul Hameed Dasti. Salam told him that he had a family to accommodate and was entitled to a residence. The minister brought an end to the interview by refusing any help and declaring: “If its suits you, you may continue with your job; if not, you may go” (Translation from Punjabi-AM). Salam was so frustrated with that he was considering a resignation, but soon a house was found for him and he stayed on.
But that was just the beginning. A little later, the Principle, Professor Sirajuddin, asked him to do something to earn his keep besides his teaching. He was given three choices: to act as Superintendent of the Quadrangle Hostel or to supervise the college accounts or to take charge of the college football team. Salam chose to look after the footballers. Occasionally, at the end of his chore at the University Grounds, he would drop in at the Coffee House and tell me (K.K. Aziz, the writer-AM) about his bitterness on being forced to waste his time. A man who had worked 14 hours a day at Cambridge as a student had now hardly any time to read new literature on his subject, and the facilities in the college laboratory were dust and ashes compared to the Cavendish Laboratories where he had worked as an undergraduate and a doctoral student. It was not difficult to take the gauge of Salam’s frustration.
A more serious contretemps occurred in the Christmas Holidays of the same years. Professor Wolfgang Pauli, the 1945 Nobel laureate of physics and a friend of Salam, was visiting Bombay on the invitation of Indian science association. He sent a telegram to Salam wishing too see him and asking him if he could come to Bombay. Salam, who had been craving to talk to a peer in his field, at once left for India, and spent a week with Pauli. On his return to Lahore, he was charge sheeted for absenting himself from his station of duty without prior permission. Salam was shocked. He was used to European freedom of movement and had been part of Pakistani bureaucratic set-up for a mere three months. The principal made so much fuss about the incident that Salam feared that he might be dismissed from the education service. At this point S.M. Sharif, the director of Public instruction of the Punjab, intervened and the period of Salam’s absence was treated as leave without pay.
When Salam had been elected a fellow of St. John’s College in 1951 he had accepted the honour on the condition that he would be allowed to go to Lahore and teach there and live in St. John’s only during the long vacations. St. John’s was so anxious to have him that it made an exception and accepted his condition. This was a measure of Salam’s love for the Government College; he was prepared to forego the considerable honour of a fellowship of St. John’s for the sake of the prospect of teaching at the Government College. But he had been insulted and humiliated so often by the College he loved so much and for which he had sacrificed the full facilities of the St. John’s fellowship that he now forced to look somewhere else for his professional future. As luck would have it, in the middle of the same year (1953), the Stokes lectureship at St. John’s fell vacant. The holder of the lectureship, Nicholas Kemmer had been offered the Tait professorship of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He had been Salam’s teacher at St. John’s and a fellow at Trinity College. He was so keen on Salam’s succeeding him at St. John’s that he wrote to the Punjab University, pleading that Salam should be persuaded to accept the offer. The vice-chancellor, Mian Afzal Husain, had kept in touch with Salam since his departure from Cambridge and 1946 and had great admiration for his work. He advised Salam to accept the lectureship and go to Cambridge. Salam’s love for Pakistan and the Government College was boundless. Notwithstanding the treatment he had received from the authorities of College, he was still reluctant to snap the umbilical cord that tied him to his alma mater. Finally, s.m. sharif solved the problem by suggesting and sanctioning an arrangement that satisfied Salam. He was to go to St. John’s on deputation from the Government College for an unspecified period and would receive a deputation allowance of Rs. 181 per month. He left at the end of 1953 and took charge of his lectureship on the new year’s day of 1954.
He stayed at St. John’s for exactly three years, and on 1st January 1957 took up a professorship at the Imperial College of science and technology in London; he was then 31 years of age, and thus won the distinction of being the youngest professor in the British Commonwealth. He retired from here in 1993 for health reasons. Between leaving the Government College and his death, his march to the summit of his profession was phenomenal. At St. John’s he taught some advanced courses and made his reputation on the international level by the research papers he published and by his work as scientific secretary of the first United Nations atoms for peace conference in Geneva in 1955. His research and teaching at Imperial College attracted favourable attention of the greatest scientists of the world. He acted as the chief scientific advisor to the president of Pakistan from 1961 to 1974. In 1964, he established the International Centre of Theoretical Physics and served as its Director from 1964 to 1994 and its President from 1994-1996. 
He won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979(he had come very close to winning it in 1957). Immediately after the news of his Nobel Prize was published in October, Government of India and Indian scientific bodies invited him to tour the country. There was no reaction from Pakistan until the Pakistan high commissioner in London informed his Government of India’s invitation. Only then did the Government of Pakistan ask him to visit his home country. Salam decided to visit Pakistan first and India a year later.
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 of 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 Punjab University, had to be moved to the senate hall in the city because certain groups had demonstrated earlier and threatened to murder Salam. The University of Punjab refused to honour him with a degree. The Government College did not even invite him to visit its precinct.
A year later 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 25 January 1981 in rural Punjabi, and the university, on his request brought to Amritsar four of his old teachers who has 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 honouring 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.
In 1986 the director general-ship of the 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 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”.
Salam died, full of honours 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, on 2 November at 11 A.M at the foot of his mother’s grave.

For Reference
Aziz K.K. Abdus Salam. The Coffee House of Lahore. 1st ed.Lahore; Sang-Meel Publications;2007. p200-209.


  1. Abdul Majeed,
    Where can I contact you, need to talk on writing of Blogs.
    You can contact me on facebook
    and on twitter @omaidus

  2. Dr. Abdus Salam was the greatest son ever, this country had in its history. This great unsung hero of Pakistan will forever remain in our memories, come what may. Mullahs and the establishment though hv tried their utmost to wipe off his memories but what Salam has done in the realm of science stays in the hearts and minds of the people and whatever stays there, cannot be wiped off by state regulations or by the bigoted mullahs of Pakistan.

  3. I cannot say anything except to fill my eyes with tears and focus them in waiting for the birth of another Abdus Salam. . . . . !