Saturday, March 25, 2023
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If Pakistan wants moon landing, it needs to chase Nehru-built culture of science

Credit for India’s Chandrayaan-2 should go to Nehru. If Modi had been first PM, instead of astronomy, India would be pursuing astrology.

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MONDAY’S launch of the Chandrayaan-2 water-finding moon mission is a significant demonstration of India’s scientific and engineering capacity. It puts India firmly within a select group of countries prowling the solar system for commercial, strategic, and scientific reasons. Pakistanis naturally want to know where they stand in science — of which space exploration is just a small part — and why. What gave India this enormous lead over Pakistan?

It is natural that India’s Hindutva government should boast Chandrayaan-2 as its own achievement and claim continuation with imagined glories from Vedic times. But rightfully the credit goes elsewhere. Just imagine if history could be wound back by 70-80 years and prime-minister Jawaharlal Nehru was replaced by Narendra Modi.

Instead of astronomy, today’s India would be pursuing astrology. Its university departments would have many ganitagayons but few mathematicians, an army of rishis would outnumber physicists. The cure for cancer would be sought in yoga while floods and earthquakes would somehow be linked to cow slaughter. Instead of devising Chandrayaan, Indian scientists would be searching for the fictitious Vimana of Ravana.

Aiming for a culture of science will serve Pakistan better than trying to match India’s new moon shot.

The atheistic Nehru brought to India an acceptance of European modernity. For this Hindutva hates him even more than it hates India’s Muslims and Christians. Still, his insistence on ‘scientific temper’ — a singularly odd phrase invented while he was still in prison — made India nurture science. Earlier, vigorous reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) had shown the path. As long as Nehru stood tall no rishi, yogi, or army general could head a science institution.

Also read: Chandrayaan-2 ‘cheaper than Interstellar’, but India’s space ambition can’t be about cost

Will Pakistan also get a slice of the moon? That depends upon the quality of our scientists and if a culture of science develops. Of course, Pakistan never had a Nehru. A further setback happened in the Ziaul Haq days when Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s modernism had its remaining flesh eaten off by Allama Iqbal’s shaheen. As if to compensate the loss of appetite for science, buildings for half-a-dozen science institutions were erected along Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue. They could be closed down today and no one would notice. Today’s situation for science — every kind except agriculture and biotechnology — is dire.

The official website of the National Space Agency of Pakistan (Suparco) is silent on space exploration plans. Born a year before its Indian counterpart ISRO, Suparco lists its earliest achievement as the periodic launches of US-supplied weather monitoring Rehbar rockets between 1962 and 1972. The most recent activity listed is of July 9, 2018, when China launched two remote sensing satellites for Pakistan to monitor progress on CPEC. One of the two “was indigenously designed and solely developed by Suparco, and is primarily aimed at remote sensing”.

As a space-filler this pathetic website speaks in hushed terms about the Hatf and Shaheen-III missile programmes but falls short of saying what Suparco’s role was, if any. The last four chairmen of Suparco, together with their educational qualifications, are listed as Maj Gen. Raza Husain (2001-2010, BSc), Maj Gen. Ahmed Bilal Husain (2010-2016, MSc), Maj Gen. Qaiser Anees Khurram (2016-2018, BSc), and Maj Gen. Amer Nadeem (2018-present, BSc).

National achievements in space science being so lean, where should bright young Pakistani science buffs be pointed towards? Every day they read of some great achievement — spacecraft landing on asteroids, new planets being discovered, black holes colliding in distant galaxies, etc. But Pakistan’s three most celebrated scientists have precious little to offer. Let’s call them X, Y, Z.

X appears to have lost his earlier passion for bombs and missiles and these days is mostly concerned with finding religious cure to cancer as well as advising women on how to deal with menopause problems. Y is (or was?) under a NAB investigation because he spent Rs4.69 billion gasifying Thar coal but failed to produce a single watt of electricity. He may be in much hotter water once the Reko Diq investigation gets going and his role in the Tethyan Copper affair is revealed. Mishandling Reko Diq currently threatens Pakistan with a mind boggling $5.9bn fine. Z has clawed his way back to power but cannot explain why billions spent upon his institute have not produced a single useful pharmaceutical product.

Lacking guidance from knowledgeable elders, a few of Pakistan’s most gifted kids have found their own way. I have been astonished and thrilled to meet some. Aged 12-18, like hungry animals, they have gorged themselves on distance learning materials offered by Stanford, MIT, Coursera, etc. They seem to owe nothing to their environment, teachers, and even their parents. Some are village bumpkins, others are English-speaking urbanites. Natural genius propels them. But how far?

It’s good that such talent is achieving some recognition. Fawad Chaudhry, the newly appointed minister of science and technology, told me that he plans to start 1500 STEM schools for exceptional students. One hopes that the right students will be selected and that by some miracle good teachers can be found. Chaudhry should realise that the chance of failure will be one hundred per cent if students are graded by ratta-promoting local examination boards. Duffers must never be allowed to judge geniuses; alternatives must be explored.

More encouraging news: Pakistani doctors in the US are fabulously rich but are not known to spend their money wisely or well. That may be changing. Last month, at the annual meeting in Florida, the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) put out an appeal to create an institute that would identify and support young people with exceptional math/physics talent. Let’s hope that that pans out.

Pakistan’s chance of a moon shot — unless on the back of a Chinese rocket — will stay zero for a long time. There is no reason to cry about this. Much more important problems need to be addressed. Solving them needs a strong scientific base at every step. Creating this base calls for developing scientific attitudes and dumping non-scientific ones. Symbolically this amounts to putting Sir Syed ahead of Allama Iqbal as a national icon. Impossible? Maybe. But, as they say, you can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

This piece was originally published in the Dawn

Also read: Chandrayaan-2 launch proves India is a major player in the race for space dominance


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  1. Pervez is a good person and an intellectual to the core. But he has grossly over rated Nehru who committed inuumerable blunders, Kashmir, Tibbet, going to UNO for Kashmir, rejecting Security Council membership offer, ignoring threats from China, having prejudices against majority Hindus and overdoing appeasement of minority Muslim community etc etc, the list is endless and his comments about Modi are absolutely Rubbish. Modi is the most computer savvy and methodical PM, India has ever produced.

  2. Sure, the credit should go to Nehru. But for this, Modi should not be discredited. Since the beginning of his first term, he has encouraged and supported ISRO.

  3. Thankfully, author did not go on to predict that Modi will close down ISRO soon thanks to his so called Hindutva ideology or order DRDO to produce Ravana Viman instead of Tejas! So long as he talks about Pakistan, it is fine but his analysis of India is all confused. Nehru is not liked by Hindutva brigade for his mishandling of Kashmir and China issues and interfaring in practices of Hinduism while doing nothing about other religions. No one ever had problems with scientific temper that was supposed to Nehru’s gift to India! Wish a physicist that he known to be, would analysed this with scientific temper.

  4. Pakistan cannot have a Nehru, who loved minorities more than the majority community. But in space studies and satellites launching, China definitely helps Pakistan. The proposed moon mission of Pakistan will be a Chinese one, labelled as that of Pakistan.

  5. One thing is certain if a right wing Hindutva govt. had taken over from British, India would be where Pak is to-day as Churchill n many other british ruling sceptics had predicted.

  6. Another Atheist author
    failed to bring secularism in Pakistan also Nehru’s daughter Indira failed to bring European Secularism instead this current Indian secularism which only respects religions rather than separation.

  7. Nehru appointed a ‘maulana’ as the first education minister of India. BJP’s first education minister was a PhD in Physics. Speaks volumes.

  8. Nehru showcased India as a land of snake charmers. The author is either misinformed or is deliberately trying to attribute our scientists’ achievements to an abysmally low in IQ Nehru, who only managed to get a compassionate pass from Cambridge. Nehrutards will credit even their birth to Nehru.

  9. I dont blame Parvez. After all what can you expect from a Pakistani writer? The Print cut, paste and post, just because you also hate the current govt. Shameless indeed. When enemy for India is within, why blame outsiders?

  10. What kind of report is this? The writer wanted to give credit to Nehru for Chandrayan2 is like ISRO did nothing and it was all because of Nehru. You may praise Nehru for what he was. But why undermine the current Prime Minister as mocking him as not pro-technology. Hope author spent little time in Modi govt getting Israeli technology in water management and agriculture in Gujarat when he CM. Too much of apeacesment to dynasty politics. Shekarji, do you need writers like this underming The Print.

  11. What else can you expect from a Pakistani writer. Their love for Nehru who created Pakistan and hate for Modi never stops to amaze me.

  12. I agree with Prof.Hoodbhoy that a rightwing government would have messed us up forever in those early years. Even now i think the only reason that some of these organizations like ISRO, BARC etc are able to function independently is because of the looming specter of rising China that we have to try and compete with.
    Am not so sure about the link between scientific temper in society and elite scientific achievements. One only has to look at USA to recognize that scientific achievement can come despite societal ignorance. Also, look at the way Russia has today reverted to orthodox christianity despite years of Soviet attempts to build scientific temper and probably some of the best education. There is something about humans that longs for something supernatural and rigid dogmas. Perhaps its the false certainty that then allows some people to become arbiters of all morality that is the driving force.

  13. Pervez Hoodbhoy should learn to criticize his own military on Pakistan’s current state of affairs and keep off from passing remarks on India. Who India votes to power is India’s sole affair and not for Hoodbhoy to poke his nose in it.

  14. The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad. It feels pity for his one sided view. Wrier learnt from books which were written by English to have clerks. He xan be good clerk instead of of professor as without knowing history he has written like Salman Rashdy.

  15. Why is an inaccurate account published in a now third-rate Pakistani paper being copy pasted here? Nehru-built culture of science? India’s Hindutwa government? Fictitious vimana of Ravana?
    Did Nehru establish the ISRO? Is Nehru the Father of India’s space program?

    A country that sells buffaloes is out to lecture us now about how to go to the Moon. By the way, it was in the fear of this very “Hindutwa government” that Pakistan suspended all flights over its airspace causing agony to everyone around.

  16. Iam surprised why you want attribute everything to either Nehru or his family? You feel the whole country is filled with hopeless people who did not know anything? Try to be realistic and give credit to all who were instrumental. Added to that you don’t have anyone to write articles such that you are going for a Pakistani writer?

  17. The author, in order to establish his credentials with his people, has to first thrash HIndus or Hindutva as a propitiating ritual and then proceed with his critique. Otherwise he will be raked over the coals. Even so he is unable to go any further and assail a society which is in such a grip of the fire-breathing mullahs, the real cause of backwardness.

  18. Thank you very much The print for articles of pervez hoodbhoy,He is one of my favorite intellectual…

  19. Writer must have received a hefty amount in Italian currency from 10, Janpath. Congratulations.

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