With Our Shared Histories, Why Isn’t Indo-Pak Science Diplomacy on the Table?

It is time India and Pakistan take steps to encourage and motivate their fine scientific and technological minds to work together unto mutually beneficial and peaceful ends.

Alladi Ramakrishnan (left) and his wife with Abdus Salam. Credit: Alladi Krishnaswami

Alladi Ramakrishnan (left) and his wife with Abdus Salam. Credit: Alladi Krishnaswami

Aswin Sekhar is an Indian astrophysicist based at the University of Oslo, Norway.

India and Pakistan have tried various forms of diplomacy – including those of mangos, kebabs, cricket and music. However, it is ironical that there has not been an active and sustained ‘science diplomacy’ between these two scientifically rich countries. Modern day science and engineering thrives on international collaborations and exchange visits – and they are conspicuously absent between India and Pakistan today.

(Matters are fortunately better on the social sciences front: economists, diplomats, etc. from both countries have opportunities to interact with each other in world forums and multilateral events.)

In the early 1960s, the Indian physicist Alladi Ramakrishnan invited Abdus Salam (later a physics Nobel laureate for his work explaining the electroweak force) to his home in Madras for seminars and stimulating scientific discussions. Both these gentlemen had great respect and admiration for each other – from academic as well as humanitarian points of view. At the end of the first visit, Ramakrishnan gifted Salam a portrait of Lord Krishna, which the latter accepted with grace. In return, Ramakrishnan returned his appreciation by attending namaz with Salam at a mosque in Madras.

The astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (who won the 1983 physics Nobel for his theory on stellar masses and stability) had a similar regard and open minded attitude to scientists from other countries, irrespective of borders or their politics.

But such days are long gone now: when scientists from India and Pakistan respected and discussed each other’s professional work instead of getting hemmed in by the politics and border disputes, or by their personal religious beliefs and values. Today, there exists an unspoken stigma in both countries that prevents them from collaborating with each other – not just in academic matters but also when it comes to coauthoring papers, accepting speaking invitations or setting up joint research initiatives.

It is notable that a part of the stigma also draws from a state-driven wariness about trading secrets on defence technologies or the nuclear programme. The number of people working on such sensitive issues in both countries makes up a small fraction of the total, and there are reasonably good safeguards and layers of insulation in place already. When those with the power to make a difference don’t acknowledge these layers, it is tantamount to dismissing the progress that can come of Indian and Pakistani scientists and engineers working with each other, especially given their shared history, geography, culture and politics.

Also read: Doctors With(out) Borders: How Partition Affected Scientists in India and Pakistan

A few years back, during a meeting in the UK, a Pakistani chemist told this author that both him and an Indian colleague in the UK wished to collaborate on a pharma project but that they had decided against it for fear of what their home countries, funding bodies and governments would think. Both of them had also had a difficult time navigating the visa system to visit each other’s labs, so they decided to meet and discuss their work in the UK or the US instead because it was easier that way. Such outcomes are true of a large number of scientists from both countries: their respective establishments look at any joint Indo-Pakistani research project only with suspicion. In fact, and unfortunately, the onus lies on the scientists to establish the peaceful nature of their research as well as forces them to focus on and highlight any direct benefits the collaboration is likely to yield.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (left) and Abdus Salam. Source: YouTube

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (left) and Abdus Salam. Source: YouTube

Going back into the past: Ramakrishnan had intervened and helped Salam found the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, in 1964 for the advancement of fundamental research in the developing world. This institution has facilitated and funded numerous research visits and collaborations for Indian scientists over the years. And Salam had previously helped Ramakrishnan start and develop the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai (then Madras). Today, both these institutions are internationally renowned for their scientific excellence and open academic atmospheres, and are standing monuments to the rewards of cross-border science discussions.

It is time India and Pakistan take steps to encourage and motivate their fine scientific and technological minds to work together unto mutually beneficial and peaceful ends. Science diplomacy can only be a good thing.

Today’s award-winning and epochal science discoveries are more and more the result of large, multinational collaborations. Notable examples include the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory Collaboration and the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider. Both these experiments, and many others like them, were able to succeed because they transcended local politics and belief systems. In this context, science diplomacy can be an effective tool to thaw tensions between strained neighbours. Another example is the Sesame particle physics experiment in Jordan, which includes scientists from such conflicted lands as Egypt, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and Palestine.

For an entire year (in 2014), the Nobel Peace Prize Centre at Oslo displayed elaborate posters highlighting the work and photographs of Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai side by side. That is a good indication of the collective strength and energy present in both countries.