Nergis Mavalvala and Umar Khalid

I admire Dr. Nergis Mavalvala as much as the next person. Anyone with a similar track record and set of accomplishments deserves to be admired. What I find incongruous is the Pakistani media taking ownership of those accomplishments simply because she was born and educated up to high school in Pakistan.

There are so many ironies here that it is painful to even point them out. To start with, Dr. Mavalvala has given up Pakistan – by her own admission she has not visited Pakistan much in the last thirty years since she left after high school. No blame is to be attached to her on that account – if she wanted to be and progress as an astrophysicist, she could not have done so in Pakistan.

But beyond that, there was really no reason for her to visit Pakistan since most of her immediate and extended family had settled abroad. Nergis Mavalvala left Pakistan since it could not provide an education in astrophysics – that is typical of poor countries. But Pakistan closed the door to her involvement with the country by divesting itself of her entire immediate and extended family, indeed an entire community, as well – a community that had a tremendous contribution to the civic, aesthetic, and corporate culture of Pakistan. That eventuality had very little to with poverty and everything to do with intolerance. It is indeed odd to drive an entire community away and then lay claim to its accomplishments.

Consider next how fortunate Nergis Mavalvala was to have attended high school in the best institution in Karachi. Would she have achieved as much if the luck of the draw had consigned her to Government Girls High School No. 2 in Abbottabad? Or, if out of financial necessity or misplaced love for Pakistan, she had continued on at DJ Science College instead of going on to Wellesley? Could one stretch the logic to claim that she would have been even more fortunate if she had been born and attended high school in the US in the first place?

What exactly are we celebrating when the truth of the matter is that Pakistani schools and colleges are holding back if not entirely suffocating hundreds of potential Nergis Mavalvalas every year? Nergis Mavalvala was among the lucky few who escaped the destiny of the majority of students in the country. Isn’t that the real question that needs to be asked when reflecting on the achievement of Dr. Mavalvala?

Consider how Nergis Mavalvala became interested in her subject in the first place:

I was pretty young when I started to learn about the night sky. I used to live in the Clifton neighbourhood in an apartment building and would go to the rooftop of the building on certain nights of the year when there were meteor showers and look at meteorites … I had this kind of typical wonder about the universe. I was also extremely interested in how the universe began. That was formed because I did not believe in any other religious explanation for these things even as a child.

Imagine a promising student of science at a college in Pakistan stating that he or she did not subscribe to any religious explanation for the creation of the universe. The very attitude that Nergis Mavalvala identifies as the cause of her later achievements would have led to a fate worse than death for the Pakistani student. Once again, what exactly is being celebrated when the curiosity that is essential to scientific endeavor is simultaneously condemned as tantamount to blasphemy?

This kind of schizophrenic blindness and unexamined duality is rife in Pakistan. Take, for example, the boastful claim that Indian classical music owes its greatness almost entirely to the contribution of Muslims while at the same time insisting that music is un-Islamic? Amir Khusro is Hazrat Amir Khusro when accomplishments are to be appropriated while he is at the same time the inventor of the accursed sitar and table that contributed to destruction of Muslim rule in India.

Shamsheer-o-sana awwal/Taoos-o-rubab aakhir
(First the sword and the spear/At the end the zither and the lute)

Just a little bit of study into the history of music and of the Mughal Empire in India would show how bogus and misplaced such claims are. Not surprisingly, we have eliminated the study of history from the curriculum, there are no worthwhile doctoral programs with qualified faculty to supervise research, and no students who would want to risk their lives with unsafe subjects that would brand them as anti-national and anti-religious at the outset of their careers. At the same time, people hold on to very strong opinions without wanting to subject them to any kind of open inquiry. Even asking a simple question might help initiate a promising discussion if thinking were encouraged as a safe habit: Why was the Mughal Empire in India replaced by the rule of those whose religion allowed not only music but dance and wine much more and openly so compared to that of the Mughals? One might uncover some new and surprising aspects of our history just as Dr. Mavalvala uncovered some new aspects of gravitational waves.

We will never do so because the very act of thinking has become synonymous with being anti-national in Pakistan. There is no protection for the questioner from the guardians of the faith and no safe space for questioning like Government College, Lahore used to be in the 1940s. That India is in the danger of following suit was a point articulated very eloquently by Umar Khalid during the on-going controversy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. It was quite fitting for him to conclude his address with the call “Anti-nationals of the world unite.”

Thinking of Umar Khalid, imagine a student making a speech like his on a campus in Pakistan. Imagine him or her saying what Umar Khalid said including the statement that he did not think of himself as a Muslim. What would his or her fate be?

Let us celebrate the achievements of Dr. Nergis Mavalvala by all means, keeping in perspective that such achievements are the norm in institutes of higher education in countries where students and researchers are allowed to think and question all orthodoxies. But more than that, let us use the occasion to reflect on why everyone who wants to think independently has to leave Pakistan or fear for their lives to do so. Let us reflect on the need for a protected space like that of Jawaharlal Nehru University and heed the words of Umar Khalid at the same time.

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