“He Returned From US To Make India Self-Reliant In Biology”: Tribute To Obaid Siddiqi, The Renaissance Man

Posted on August 2, 2013

By Sukant Khurana:

Late Obaid Siddiqi (January 7th, 1932-July 26th, 2013), who many consider the father of modern Indian biology and the last of the giants of the South Asian science was much more than just a top league scientist. While he was the last of the league of Meghnad Saha, Homi Bhabha, and CV Raman from India, in both scientific achievements and institution building, what made his connection unique with the young India was his commitment to preparing young scientists.

Obaid Siddiqi

He started out as an agricultural scientist, who reinvented himself as a geneticist and a molecular biologist, then as a physiologist and neuroscientist and then as a behaviourist. Obaid’s scientific career spanned from studies that led to one of the first fine mapping of a gene, to revelations on the nature of genetic code in the form of codons, insights into bacterial gene exchange, to important findings on synaptic transmission, to the genetic basis of taste and smell. In 1962 at the top of his career, he packed his bags from US to return to India, to take the perilous journey of creating advanced biology settings in India from scratch. He did for biology what Homi Bhabha did for nuclear technology, making India self-reliant. He founded the first biology unit at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and later the National Center for Biological Sciences, alongside advising the formation and running of many other institutions of advanced research across the country.

While doing all the institution building and cutting edge research, he retained his passion of personally preparing the next crop of scientists. He believed that if he could get a small number to become future scientists or even spread scientific thinking that will be his small contribution to the society. Obaid saw his students as extension of his ideas. He was like a banyan tree extending his intellectual branches through the students he trained. Unlike single tracked dry biologists that are the norm, he managed to find time to enjoy, history, visual arts, learn both vocal and instrumental Shastriya sangeet, even giving some public performances and enjoyed the sports of cricket and tennis.

When he saw the country going down the road of religious fundamentalism, whether torn apart by majority or minority, then he took to activism. He vocally opposed how religious forces had brought in the rubbish of astrology into the official course work of the University of Delhi, an institution supposed to be a central university of a country still secular in name. I guess he was not willing to give up on the jokes that most universities in India have devolved into. He found time to write educational material for the underprivileged mid-school kids in Hindi for free, when he found the quality of science books in Hindi subpar and availability insufficient.

He represented the genuine idea of sub continental unity, sharing ideals of Hegel, Bhagat Singh on an egalitarian vision of society and views of Einstein, Maulana Azaad and Homi Bhabha on the need for an educated and tolerant world. Obaid encouraged healthy irreverence and questioning of everything and everyone, including himself, over a blind and servile obedience, which is the norm of Indian education. He represented what India can do when it takes the path of enlightenment instead of petty individual, ethnic, regional and religious differences. Instead of reverberating the flowing but meaningless tributes of politicians, if Indian youth pick up the torch of questioning and science against blind faith, it will be a true tribute to a true son of soil.

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