Did you notice? We just had our ‘Abdus Salam moment’

Here’s the Thing

As India continues down the path to becoming the Hindutva (not Hindu, mind you) reflection of Pakistan, we almost had our own ‘Abdus Salam moment’ in the wake of Abhijit Banerjee winning the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Abdus Salam was Pakistan’s first, and so far only, Nobel Prize winner, a theoretical physicist whose life of genius began with him finding a more elegant solution to a mathematical problem that Srinivasa Ramanujan had solved years before. Salam went on to do ground-breaking work on neutrinos, introduced the Higgs Boson
theory into the Standard Model of Physics, and unified in theory two of the four fundamental forces of nature – the weak nuclear force and the electromagnetic force, for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow.

Salam was also the Pakistani equivalent of India’s Homi Bhabha. If the Bhabha-Jawaharlal Nehru team established the infrastructure of Big Science (nuclear and space) in India, Salam and Pakistani President Field Marshal Ayub Khan did the same in Pakistan. Later, with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Salam laid the foundation for Pakistan’s nuclear programme, including the Bomb.

Yet, when Salam won the Nobel Prize in 1979, while the world called him a Pakistani scientist, Pakistan itself could not call him its own. In 1974, Prime Minister Bhutto and Pakistan’s Parliament had declared that Ahmadiyas were not Muslims, and therefore had no place in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. And Salam was an Ahmadiya.

In a public speech that sounded much like our election campaign speeches today, Bhutto declared the Ahmadiyas non-Muslims, reeling out all he had done to become ‘Muslim Hriday Samrat’ – “...The Ahmadiya question had remained unresolved for 90 years. Today, I have resolved it…” (much like all those issues of our past 70 years that are being resolved in minutes now). Salam resigned as science adviser to Bhutto and permanently left Pakistan.

Five years later, in 1979, when Salam won the Nobel, Zia sent a perfunctory congratulatory note (the equivalent of “we are proud of his achievements and wish him luck in his future endeavours”). But the real voices were those of the fundamentalists he was nurturing. “The Nobel Prize for Salam is no extraordinary event for Muslims or for Pakistan,” one fundamentalist cleric declared. “But he is an Ahmadiya, and Ahmadiyas cannot call themselves Muslims and live in Pakistan,” declared another.

When I heard the likes of our Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and BJP National Secretary Rahul Sinha on Abhijit Banerjee recently, I couldn’t help thinking we are at our ‘Abdus Salam moment’. Said Goyal, “…But you all know about his thinking. It is Left-leaning. He had sung praises of NYAY. The people of India have rejected this thinking.” This, a day after his party had claimed that Modiji had already done exactly what Abhijit Banerjee had recommended under the PM-Kisan scheme.

The policy or ideological confusion in the BJP’s reaction to Abhijit Banerjee is understandable, given that Modiji veers right on national security issues and left on economic issues (he has found out that only ‘garibi hatao’ works in elections). But what can one say about indecency, such as when Rahul Sinha said, “Those people whose second wives are foreigners are mostly getting the Nobel Prize. I don’t know whether it is a degree for getting the Nobel.”

This hounding of intellectuals and those who have done well by the country long before Modiji came to power is not new. Early in Modiji’s first innings, the then HRD minister (the one whose educational qualifications change with every election affidavit) had humiliated a top nuclear scientist (in fact, one of the nuclear quartet of 1998). Long after, when I met the scientist, he brushed it off with a very charitable explanation, “You see, in the Ramayana, Ram was an evolved person, but his Vanara Sena would do some embarrassing things thinking that Ram would be pleased if they did that and would reward them. That’s what is happening now.”

I hope the scientist is right. That it is only the fault of the Vanara Sena, and not the top leadership. But if that is so, shouldn’t we have heard and seen the likes of Goyal and Sinha being told, “doob maro, doob maro, doob maro!” Instead, what we heard when Abhijit met Modiji sounded more like a warning to the Nobel laureate to watch his words, sort of “dosti bani rahe” parting between the two.

(S Raghotham lives the life of an owl, and can turn his head 270°)

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