“Father of DNA fingerprinting in India”, Dr Lalji Singh, passed away on Sunday following a massive heart attack while he was on his way to New Delhi. He was 70. “He complained of chest pain when he reached the Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport to board a flight for Delhi. He was taken to the BHU Trauma Centre but could not be saved,” said O P Upadhyaya, chief medical superintendent of Sunder Lal Hospital in BHU.
Singh, the 25th vice-chancellor of BHU and a Padma Shri recipient, hailed from Jaunpur district’s Kalvari village. He was cremated at Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi on Monday evening.
Popularly called ‘Bhola Bhandari’ by his colleagues at BHU, Singh had joined the university in 1962. He completed his BSc, MSc and PhD degrees from BHU. For a scientist of eminence, Singh used to make frequent visits to courtrooms. That was between 1989 to 1996, shortly after his return from University of Edinburgh, and before the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD) — the premier research laboratory for DNA testing — was set up in Hyderabad.
Singh, who had developed DNA fingerprinting techniques during his stay in Edinburgh — independent of the efforts of Alec Jeffreys, the geneticist mainly credited for this technology — had set up a small makeshift DNA testing infrastructure at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), which he was later to head for 11 years. Along with then CCMB director Pushpa M Bhargava, Singh tried to convince the government to set up a specialised DNA testing facility in India, but without much result.
“Having developed the (DNA testing) techniques, Singh realised the kind of applications it could be used for, including in criminal investigations. He wanted India to become the leader in this technology… But government was faced with more pressing matters… So, to convince everyone of the utility of his DNA techniques, Singh decided to make public demonstrations,” said J Gowrishankar, former head of CDFD.
Singh volunteered to help law enforcement agencies in investigating cases using DNA fingerprinting techniques. He educated investigators, lawyers and judges. He used to get samples from police and test the same at CCMB. He appeared as witness and expert assistant in several cases. A couple of criminal cases in Kerala were solved with his help. But the big turnaround came when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991.
Singh pieced together the blown-up body of the former PM, identifying its various parts, using DNA tests. A slew of very high-profile cases followed, including the Beant Singh assassination case, the Naina Sahni murder case and the Priyadarshini Mattoo rape and murder case.
“The first 20 cases, at least, in which DNA forensics was used in India, were all handled by Lalji Singh,” Gowrishankar said. The successful demonstration led the government to set up CDFD, which, for the first three years of its inception, was run by Singh.
Some of Singh’s other pioneering research came in the field of Indian population genomics. Along with his CCMB colleague K Thangaraj, Singh showed that the tribes in Andaman Islands were some of the first human beings to migrate out of Africa. They also showed that the first humans to arrive into the Indian sub-continent were from southern shores, much earlier than the second batch from the northwestern part. The current population, they proposed, carried a mixture of the gene pools of these two batches. This dealt a body blow to the Aryan-invasion theory.
“His studies threw new light on history of settlements in India, of past practices of marriages and endogamy and on the mixing of different gene pools,” said CCMB Director Rakesh Mishra.
Singh contributed to animal forensics as well. At CCMB, he set up Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species — the only facility in the world dedicated to forensics of endangered animals.
Recalling Singh, who returned to BHU as V-C (2011 to 2014), Professor H C Rathaur — the longest serving chief proctor of BHU (2007 to 2014) — said: “Dr Lalji was a lovely man… very innocent. He was a simpleton… His demise is a great loss to the nation because he had 10 more years of research in him.”
Remembering Singh as a man “without an ego”, he said: “He was open to meeting students. If he ever saw a student from an economically weaker section, he would fund his education. He used to tell me to ensure that no came to know about this…”
In 2013, Singh introduced the 24-hour cyber library for students. “I objected because law and order problems could have arisen, especially for girl students. But Dr Singh said ‘this is your incompetence… but the library will be open for the whole day’. And so, it was. I introduced nightly bus services on campus to ferry students to hostels and the library,” said Rathaur. However, G C Tripathi, who took over as V-C after Singh, cut short the library timings to 12 hours.
Vikas Singh, the first general secretary of the students’ council, said: “When we protested the rise in annual fees in 2014, Dr Singh slashed the fees immediately. It was under him that elections to the student council were held for the first time in 2011… G C Tripathi later banned student elections.”
Singh also introduced modular kitchens in hostels, wifi in cyber library, a three-tier vetting process to recruit teachers to bring about transparency and revived the traditional kavi sammelan at BHU. He was the first to introduce multi-storeyed buildings on campus, including a state-of-the-art international girls’ hostel.
V K Kumra, a professor at BHU’s Institute of Sciences, said: “He revamped the entire campus. He upgraded the Sir Sundarlal Hospital’s Trauma Centre and a super-speciality clinic of neurosurgery and heart diseases was built. He also upgraded laboratories…”