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Poor as a Nation
Dr. Abdus Salam


Dr Salam (d:1998) was a Nobel Laureate, a former Scientific Advisor to the Government of Pakistan and remained Director International Centre for Theoretical Physics Trieste, Italy. These are excerpts of a speech he gave over a decade ago. (Editor)

I was admitted to  the Jhang College, Pakistan in 1938 at the tender age of 12. I spent four years there. In those days it was an Intermediate College, grade 9, 10, first year and second year classes were taught there. The majority of the students in this college were Hindu. It was my good fortune that I had some of the exceptionally learned and most affectionate teachers assigned to me. Sheikh Ijaz Ahmed was my English teacher, Sufi Zia-ul-Haq was my Arabic teacher, Khawaja Mirajud Din taught Persian language while Mathematics and Science were taught by Hindu as well as Sikh teachers. Science and Mathematics in those days were considered to be the domain of Hindu and Sikh students. Lala Badri Nath and Lala Ram Lal taught Mathematics with great proficiency, while Lala Hans Raj taught Physics, and Chemistry was taught by Lala Naubat Rai.

The foundation of my academic career was laid in this college. I believe that I owe all of my later accomplishments to this institution and to its hard-working teachers. I firmly believe that a teacher’s affection and his proper attention can make or break a student. To give an example, in my first year of college I got into the habit of using some English words which I liked very much. I started to use these phrases in my daily conversation without the proper context. My respected teacher Shaikh Ijaz Ahmad forbade me to use such difficult words but the advice fell on deaf ears. When the semester ended, my English teacher penalised me by deducting five points for every difficult or improper word I had used. The outcome of my English exam was quite obvious. My teacher did not consider even this to be sufficient but decided to bring my paper to the class room and announced to the entire school how I had used improper English words in my examination. At that time, I did not appreciate the treatment meted out to me by my teacher but now I think back and feel that it was the proper medicine administered to me. The net result of this shock therapy was that I stopped using difficult words altogether.

The education I received was due, in large part, to my teachers, but it was above all to my illustrious father’s benign attention and his fervent prayers for me. In those days, Matriculation Examination was more like a wrestling match in the province of the Punjab. Wrestlers from various school would show their prowess through this exam, especially students from Hindu Sanatam Dharam and Arya schools were considered to be formidable wrestlers. I vividly recall the day when the Matriculation Exam result came out; I was sitting in my father’s Jhang courthouse office. The exam results were published in newspapers from Lahore and on that day the newspaper arrived around lunchtime at the Jhang Railway Station. My father had instructed one of his subordinates to bring the newspaper to him right away and in no time telegraphic messages of congratulations started pouring in from Lahore. As I mentioned Matriculation exam results were sort of national events in those days. I remember returning home around 2 p.m. in the afternoon on my bicycle from Maghiana to Jhang city. The news of my standing first in the exam had already reached Jhang City. I had to pass through Police Gate district of Jhang City to reach my home in Buland Darwaza. I distinctly recall that those merchants, who normally would have closed their shops due to afternoon heat, were standing outside their shops to pay homage to me. Their respect for me and their patronage of education has left an indelible impression on my mind.

From Jhang I went to Government College, Lahore and then to Cambridge, England. In Cambridge, I experienced and learnt a variety of new methods of study from English students. In Cambridge, students sit in their classrooms in such a respectful manner, as Muslims sit in a mosque for prayers. Before the lecturer’s arrival there is pin drop silence. During the lecture you will see the students use ballpoint pens with four types of inks and rulers to draw straight lines. Students’ note pads were written in such a professional manner as if written by a calligrapher. My classmates had come to Cambridge straight from schools. They were younger than me in age but their self reliance and high resolve was of such a degree that it took me two years to achieve the same standard. My classmates had studied in such schools where teachers encouraged their pupils for advanced education and admonished them that they are sons of a great nation in which was born a man like Sir Isaac Newton. These teachers drilled in these children’s minds that they had inherited the deep knowledge of science and mathematics and they could become Newton.

In Cambridge, the method of discipline was completely new and surprising for me. You could sit for the B.A. exam only once. If heaven forbid you failed once, then you could not sit for this exam again. The discipline in student hostels required every student to be back in his residence by 10 p.m. If you were back before midnight, the fine imposed was one penny, but if a student returned after midnight, the penalty was gating for a period of seven days. If it happened three times during the academic year, a student was expelled from the University. Every student was treated like an adult; he was accountable for all his deeds. A student did not engage in useless discussions as punishments were equally exemplary which some students accepted with fortitude.

A Cambridge student is expected to do some work with his hands as well. I remember my first day at St. John’s College in London, England. When I arrived there, my 40 kilogram luggage was brought from the Railway Station by a taxi driver. On my arrival at the college, I asked a porter for help. He pointed towards a wheelbarrow and told me to help myself. I am narrating these incidents here not for the sake of pastime, but the subject at hand is education whereby these anecdotes become part of getting a point across.

You must ponder over the fact that there is a vital link between our economic downfall and education. Misleading and rather inappropriate education is in fact a national crisis right now. I believe that our nation is passing through a grave crises for which the reason is that proper education system has not been developed.

The primary purpose of an education system, in my view, is to develop a person’s character. A character that is developed during school years seldom changes for the rest of a person’s life. Here, however, I am not going to dwell on personal character. My reference is towards national aspects of our education system. God Almighty has, at last, endowed us with freedom after 200 years of slavery. This momentous event took place some 40 years ago but up to now we have not cultivated any feeling of belonging, brotherhood, oneness and of being a unique nation.

The fact of the matter is that once we had achieved freedom, it should have been the primary objective of our educational system to strengthen our sense of belonging and nationality. The idea of nationality has been gradually changing in various regions of the earth but in today’s world many countries can be cited whose consolidation as a nation solely depended on the type of education system they developed for themselves. Take for instance the United States of America where the German, the English, the Italian, the Swedish and the French people are living as one great nation. The reason I mentioned America here is that people from these European countries gave their lives during the last world war for the sake of separate identity. These people in the U.S. spoke various languages before they arrived in America. In schools, the American children are familiarised with the American constitution; American folk heroes are always at the tip of their tongues; day and night these kids listen to the American National Anthem. American poets, writers, and novelists write their pieces in such a way that every nook and corner of America is loved by one and all. Every American is taught to love his city, that is why an American citizen considers himself to be a citizen of thousands of cities. Far off places of Europe from where his forefathers came to the US do not bring any emotion or feeling of belonging. He feels that his livelihood and daily life depends on the American soil and that he only belongs to America. He strives day and night to promote the state or the city where he lives and all this is taking place through schools, colleges, newspapers, magazines and the television. It is the crying need of the hour that our education system should consciously promote this vital feeling of belongingness.

My second request to you is concerning the education and promotion of science and technology. India and Pakistan are economically backward countries; here an average person earns US$ 70/- ever year. In contrast an American earns 50 times more, while a person in England earns 20 times more, in Japan 15 times more, in Iran 8 times, and in Iraq, Algeria, Syria and Egypt six times more. My question to you is: why are we poor as a nation? I totally agree that our national wealth was stolen by the British during their 100 years of rule over Delhi, Punjab and Sindh. I admit that Americans are fortunate, they have discovered a continent rich in natural resources, but the question arises how did we become British slaves?

If the British knew the art of sea travel and we did not, then who taught them this art in the first place? If Robert Clive’s flink lock rifles and guns had greater craftsmanship than those of the Muslim king Sirajud Daula, then may I ask who taught the British this art of making superior guns? Did they not invent this art themselves, and having invented it, did they not master it through education in their country?

In the famous battle of Panipat, the great Muslim conqueror king Babur won the day due to his use of superior Roman guns. The Turks developed these guns in more sophisticated ways after their invention in 1526; however, Babur’s children did not care to introduce some sort of an institution in India that would have developed this art even further. If you happen to visit Constantinople (now Istanbul), you will find that the Turkish idea of a mosque was that on one side of the building will be a hospital and a school (or madrassah) on the other. This madrassah or place of learning was not to be for the purpose of teaching religious education alone but rather to teach the art of gun making as well. Unfortunately, those Turks who came to India were not interested in promoting education and learning. They have left behind as their legacy splendid mausoleums and etched graves as a reminder but no schools or places of learning for the people of the Indian continent.

Let me ask you this: if God Almighty has bestowed the American people with plenty of food and a vast continent, then is it not due to their sheer determination that brought them to an unknown land across the oceans? If the Japanese industry has gained world wide reputation, then how much of this is due to their well designed educational system? God’s angels did not descend on the Japanese to teach them new technology. There was a time when Japanese goods and products were considered to be of inferior quality, but today they are regarded to be of super quality in technical terms. Do you know that the British Beyland started to manufacture Mini Morris and the next thing the Japanese produced a car the size of Mini Morris but instead of 1000 c.c. engine power, it was 600 c.c. with the same amount of engine power. How could that be? Twenty years ago, an American professor Townes invented the transistor and was awarded the Nobel Prise for this revolutionary invention. To find out the true nature and internal working of the transistor, the Japanese started work in the Tokyo University right away. These Japanese efforts bore fruit in such a short span of time that since then the Japanese are considered to be the masters in the field of electronics. Not only did they rediscover the transistor but also they published the secret of the transistor in a magazine so that any Pakistani, Arab or Iranian may make use of it in case he wanted to develop the transistor technology a little further. These champions of knowledge who are they anyway? Would you believe that these Japanese are the people who did not know the art of making a horseshoe. It is said that the American Admiral Percy came to Japan with his armada of ships, the Japanese tried to block his entry into the harbour but the American bombardment forced the Japanese to let Percy’s ship enter into the harbour. One night, a horse was stolen from the Admiral’s ship and returned the next day. The mystery behind this strange theft was that the Japanese wanted to see the horseshoe as their science of metallurgy had not been developed to a point where they could make horseshoes in Japan.

In Japan, the exam season is considered to be a suicide season for Japanese students as the admission for higher studies depends on the results of Matriculation examination. The standard of this exam is so high that none of the school children in any other part of the world sits for such a tough series of exams in physics and chemistry. During the exam period no body ever leaks the contents of the questionnaire, no one goes on strike, nobody breaks windows of the building where these exams are held. The entire nation, parents as well as students are gripped in exam frenzy and they all accept the outcome of exams with the usual Japanese style.

Sometime ago, I was fortunate to visit the People’s Republic of China. A Chinese student enters grade 8 (or middle school) at the age of 12 and at 17 his school career is just about over. These grade 8 schools are equivalent to Intermediate College in Indo-Pakistan. Education in these five years is compulsory and every Chinese student has to study 12 subjects of which none is elective: Nationalism, Chinese Languages, two foreign languages (English, Russian, or Japanese), Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Agriculture, History, Geography, Arts drama, Music and Workshops. Every student has to study these 12 complete subjects. Chinese educationists have made up their minds that every student must study science as well as arts.

Perhaps one may surmise that due to compulsory teaching of science and art the level of 16 or 17 years old students would be lower as opposed to our intermediate level. To find out the truth myself I attended the Math and the Physics classes in a school in China. I was awe-struck to find that barely 14 year olds were learning orders in infinity. In our part of the world, we learn orders of infinity at the B.A. level.

Chinese people are now determined to introduce every new industrial technique in China. Their national life started two years after ours, but their determination and sheer resolve has resulted in the fact that during these 40 years they have learnt and mastered the science of electronics to its fullest. They started iron casting at 40,000 tons a year and it is now equivalent to 200,000 tons a year. They can now manufacture sophisticated machine tools. Every Chinese student spends one day in his school or university workshop in order to practice his craft. The afore-mentioned school I visited had 14 to 16 years old students making transistor components. Another group was bringing the mineral potassium carbonate to its grinding titration and packing it in bottles for marketing purposes. A group of 4 students, aged 12 were repairing shoes for the rest of their classmates. One of the girls in the group said that we should look at windows of the particular room, which was adorned with curtains. The girl said that when they started repairing shoes they were sort of shy and felt repulsive to repairing smelly shoes. To overcome this problem they covered the windows with curtains. Gradually they got used to it and now no one is shy at all. I believe that it is imperative for our school children to be productive during their school years. In all of China, students and teachers from various schools, colleges and universities spend their summer holidays in factories and in farms in the countryside.

Perhaps you may think that I am exaggerating the situation a bit but believe me that if someone had told me that such a vast country like China is running smoothly like a calm ocean, I would not have believed it either. How can I deny what I have observed with my own eyes? Not once but three times I have travelled to China. Still it is not possible for me to believe that 700 million humans sacrifice their personal interests for the sake of their nation, and besides this they have inter-twined their personal self into the national self. Every person of that vast land works tirelessly day and night. Their cities were once filled with filth and flies and in Peking once a thirty feet wide Dragon sea canal ran right behind the Royal Palace, full of flies and disgusting filth and was, perhaps, not cleaned during the past 300 years. But now Peking is one of the cleanest cities and the credit does not go to the sweepers but it was cleaned by lawyers, teachers, students, politicians and store-keepers. This job was done by student unions and in fact they were at the forefront of this movement.

It is true that the Chinese system is working in such an efficient manner because it is equalitarian. A Chinese government minister goes to his office on his bike and he will use an official car only when he is to receive a foreign visitor. The effect of this exemplary behaviour is that the Chinese nation is willing to sacrifice. However, the fact that the Chinese nation is determined to learn technology has no bearing on the system itself.

While talking about China, I have digressed from my main topic to some degree. I was relating to you that the British people invented and introduced industrial techniques and they disseminated the same through proper education. If Japan can teach skills to its workers without having natural and other resources, if the Chinese consider their citizens to be mental slaves and they expect from every child to learn some sort of science and skill and to teach them to others as well, and if all these nations are endeavouring to eradicate poverty through these methods, then is not there a lesson for us?

One might say that poverty itself is a menace because if a man is hungry, then he has no time or inclination to develop his mental faculties. In this context, I cannot help but relate to you an incident that took place in Germany some forty years ago. In 1947 I was a student at Cambridge University. Germany had lost the war and the entire German nation was feeling the distressing effects of this crushing defeat. The American Control Commission invited students from Cambridge and other European universities to visit Germany and see the plight of the German nation. Around 500 students from all over Europe arrived in Munich. Not a single building structure was left intact in the city and it seemed that the inhabitants of Munich were living in pigeonholes.

We were to stay in huge tents in a city park. I had learnt from someone that a German scholar was looking for me. One day, I met this scholar who was just a human skeleton. He was employed in a German war camp where there were some Punjabi prisoners as well. He learnt from these Punjabi soldiers that I had arrived in the city. He was learning the Punjabi language from these soldiers as he was compiling a German-Punjabi dictionary in 1947. The books that he had in his possession were Heer of Warith Shah and an old copy of Dullah Bhatti published from Lahore. As he was experiencing difficulty in understanding some verses from these books, he decided to meet me so that I could explain to him some of the difficult passages. Unfortunately those passages were rather difficult for me as well and consequently I could not be of much help to him. Now think about this incident for a moment. I do not know whether that dictionary was ever published and if it was, then how many people made use of it but this is a story of knowledge loving people. A nation whose total GNP is but the knowledge of science, technology and languages. The people of such a great country know that compiling a German/Punjabi dictionary may be fruitless but they will not waste time in playing cards or going on strikes or watching useless movies. They consider their time during the university years to be extremely valuable; they learn and teach others, perhaps there is a great lesson for us.

In this context, I would like to relate a story which was told by the great Chinese leader Mao-Tse Tung and invariably you will hear this from almost every person in China.

Once upon a time, an old man lived in Northern China whose name was Mr Unlettered. The old man’s house faced south and there were two huge mountains Bang and Wang situated right in front of his house. One day, he suggested to his children that they should start digging these mountains away. His neighbour whose name was Mr Intelligent said to his foolish neighbour that he knew that he was stupid but not so stupid as to remove those mountains by digging away with his hands. The old man replied: ‘My friend you are right but remember if I die, it will be carried on by my kids and this digging will go on and on and on. These mountains are not going to grow any taller. Everyday we dig they will be reduced in size and hopefully this menace will be completely removed from the front of the house’. On hearing the old man’s tale God Almighty sent two angels who immediately removed those old mountains in no time.

Our society is inflicted with menaces like these two mountains. Try to remove them from your surroundings with patience. God will have mercy on you one day. Do not be afraid if your endeavours do not bear fruit, but keep on doing your job and God will indeed bless your efforts.

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