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Thinred line

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TT Bureau   |   Published 29.11.04, 12:00 AM

If a clich? could get worn out through overuse, this one would be in tatters. It?s invoked to salvage a sundering marriage, tackle sibling rivalry or calm down quarrelling neighbours. But when Pakistani nuclear physicist and now film director Pervez Hoodbhoy says the Kashmir problem will be solved only when people on both sides of the border ?learn to live together,? the much abused phrase takes on a fresh hue. It does so, for it comes from a man who believes that none of the proposed ?solutions? to the conflict over Kashmir will work. Instead, he alludes ? naively, some might say ? to a resolution emerging spontaneously as religion takes a back seat and as a culture of science and secular humanism seeps into both societies.

Hoodbhoy, who teaches physics to postgraduate students at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, was in New Delhi last week for special screenings of Crossing the Line: Kashmir, Pakistan and India ? a film he made jointly with Zia Mian, a physicist at Princeton University. Critics say it is a brutally frank look at facts and perspectives from both sides of the Line of Control.

What?s a nuclear physicist doing talking about Kashmir? But then Hoodbhoy never seems to run out of hats to wear. Armed with bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees ? all from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ? Hoodbhoy has been a teacher of physics since the mid-1970s. But he?s also championed workers? rights, chaired a company that publishes books in Urdu on education, environment and women?s issues, produced television programmes on science, campaigned against nuclear weapons and confronted irrationality in science ? he once had to argue why prayers won?t bring rain to Saudi Arabia.

As a scientist and activist in Pakistan, Hoodbhoy is admired by fellow scientists in India. ?I?d imagine it would be particularly difficult in Pakistan to engage in some of these activities. Some of his views won?t go down well with authorities there,? says Dr R. Rajaraman, emeritus professor of physics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. ?But that makes his work all the more significant,? says Rajaraman who has himself conducted research on the risks of nuclear weapons in the Indian subcontinent and encountered a certain degree of hostility from the establishment in India. ?Most of those in academic institutions in India who oppose nuclear weapons are dismissed as peaceniks,? says Rajaraman.

The level of dissent from within the scientific community may also depend on the issues under debate, says Dr P. Balaram, a senior scientist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and editor of Current Science, a journal published by the Indian Academy of Sciences. He recalls that a few years ago the move to introduce astrology as a science course in colleges had generated significant response from the scientific community but many probably felt ?less comfortable? arguing against nuclear weapons possibly because they felt they might have been branded anti-national.

As a faculty member at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Hoodbhoy found himself challenging the establishment during the 1980s when he noticed some bizarre, indeed hilarious, ideas creeping into the domain of science. It was the era of Zia-ul-Haq. The erstwhile army general had banned freedom of expression and had set Pakistan on the road to Islam. Hoodbhoy says the period also witnessed an Islamisation of science that Pakistan had never seen before.

Scientists began to write and discuss ?scientific papers? on such topics as the angle of God, the temperature of Hell, or the latent energy of jinns. One university professor of physics wrote a paper on the speed at which Heaven was departing from Earth. A nuclear reactor scientist argued that jinns were made up of methane gas and proposed that jinn energy may be tapped to meet Pakistan?s energy requirements.

The political climate in Pakistan has changed over the years ? and the Zia-ul-Haq-inspired brand of science doesn?t get the encouragement or protection that it used to. But it hasn?t entirely gone away, either, says Hoodbhoy. In fact, he argues that signs of regression are visible on a global scale. He cites a US survey two years ago which revealed that 32 per cent Americans believe in lucky numbers, 40 per cent Americans think astrology is a science, and 60 per cent believe in extrasensory perception.

He also cites attempts by the previous government in India to define astrology as a science and the prominence accorded to Vedic mathematics. ?When society loses faith in science, it weakens the power of critical reasoning and making the right decisions. It is easy to exploit ignorance in the absence of a culture of science,? says Hoodbhoy.

These experiences inspired him to write a book, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, in 1991. He also produced television films: Rastay Ilm Kay, a 13-part series on the problems of education in Pakistan, Bazm-i-Kainat, a six-part series on scientific insights into nature, and Asrar-e-Jehan dealing with mysteries of the universe.

The May 1998 nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan spurred him to produce a 35-minute documentary, Pakistan and India Under the Nuclear Shadow, that examined the dangers facing a nuclearised South Asia. ?This was a time of orgiastic celebrations on both sides of the border,? says Hoodbhoy. The film sought to bring home the reality of what nuclear weapons do, the aggression they engender and the deepening poverty caused by an arms race. ?He?s cleverly used communication of science as a tool in the campaign against nuclear weapons,? says Gauhar Raza, a scientist at the National Institute of Science Technology and Development Studies and a filmmaker himself.

Hoodbhoy?s efforts at communicating science to the masses got him the UNESCO?s Kalinga Prize in 2003 for science communication. As a part of the prize-related activities, he?s expected to tour and deliver lectures in several cities in India next January. The reception to Nuclear Shadow within Pakistan and elsewhere encouraged him to take on what would be a thornier issue ? Kashmir.

?It?s thornier because almost everyone can be made to agree that nuclear weapons are bad. With Kashmir, every side has a genuine story to tell with misery and suffering all around. But each side feels that only the suffering and sorrow of their own. As a Pakistani, I felt that our people have a right to know facts beyond what our government chooses to tell us,? says Hoodbhoy.

Crossing the Line is an attempt ?to set aside prejudices and preconceptions and let facts speak for themselves?. He argues that all conventional proposals to solve the Kashmir issue are problematic. Were India to get all of Kashmir, he says, Kashmir would be turned into a ?giant prison,? held by force of arms and where strife would continue. He says Pakistan?s getting all of Kashmir won?t solve the problem either and cites East Pakistan as ?proof that Islam alone can?t bind people.? Independence to just the Muslim-dominated valley would lead to a nation devoid of resources.

Hoodbhoy argues there is unlikely to be any solution ?as long as we define ourselves as Hindus and Muslims?. And that?s how, he says, science or rationality can help. Science can emphasise the oneness of humans across different cultures ? the stronger the culture of science, the greater the chance that communities can reach across artificial boundaries. ?Science is the one thing we can all agree on. We can disagree on Iraq or Palestine, but we can?t disagree that two plus two makes four. The human mind is built for rationality,? he says.

Truths that tumble out of the scientific quest might of course be simply ignored or undermined. But Hoodbhoy says, the history, heritage, language and culture shared by India and Pakistan should help both sides ?cherish differences?. Only then, as one Pakistani analyst says in the film, would Kashmir become a ?bridge between India and Pakistan rather than a bone of contention?.

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