DNA fingerprinting has revolutionised crime investigation across the world. The ability of DNA analysis to prove that a biological sample is a genetic match with the crime scene sample has unleashed the potential of this technology’s use in the criminal justice system. Criminals who commit rape/murder now face scientific evidence as well as a human judge. They might have been able to circumvent the evidence in the past, but with DNA fingerprinting it is almost impossible to escape the law.
The innocent people who are accused are also exonerated using this technology. It is due to this reason that the use of DNA evidence in court is accepted in most countries today. Further, the creation of DNA databanks for criminal investigation has empowered investigative authorities to get significant leads in their cases. This has helped tremendously in capturing the guilty, freeing the innocent and increasing the conviction rates, especially in sexual crimes. The success of DNA fingerprinting as a crime-fighting tool is known to almost everyone these days; however, the story of how DNA technology was introduced into the Indian Legal System is not often highlighted.
Sir Alec Jeffreys invented DNA fingerprinting at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom in 1984. It became a worldwide phenomenon when this technology was successfully used in solving the case of the rape and murder of two fifteen-year-old girls in England in 1987. After creating this technology, Jeffreys sold the patent rights to a private company. It was in 1988 that Dr. Lalji Singh created his probes through his research on using snake venom for DNA profiling in India at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad. After successfully experimenting with the technology in his laboratory, he offered this revolutionary new technology to be used in a case involving the dispute over the identity of a child by two different couples.
Thus, India became the third country in the world after the UK and the US to have the technology for human DNA fingerprinting. Prof. P.M. Bhargava encouraged and supported Dr. Lalji Singh in using this technology for providing forensic DNA evidence in the courtrooms to help in fighting crimes and putting the criminals behind bars.
As Prof. Lalji Singh writes in his book “My Travails in the Witness Box”, it was not at all easy for him to deal with the legal system, and he had to face many challenges. He relates that initially when he went to present his scientific evidence in the court, it did not even have a projector to enable him to explain his results and he had to use his own projector. His expertise was also severely questioned by the defence teams and the long hours of cross-questioning could have demotivated any other scientist, but Dr. Singh persevered in his quest with unquestionable integrity and made sure that many powerful men got convicted. He never compromised on his duty and went to the courts as an expert scientific witness giving the testimony as per the DNA test results.
In the famous case involving Swami Premananda, the defence team brought in an ‘expert’ from the UK to contest the DNA evidence presented by Dr. Singh. However, all doubts were laid to rest when it was shown that the methods used by Lalji Singh were much more scientifically rigorous than the questionable evidence produced by the foreign scientist who was privately hired by the defence to give counter testimony. The immense patience in dealing with the due process of law and the scrupulous analysis of the DNA evidence ensured that the courts in India acknowledged his expertise.
Dr. Singh was instrumental in establishing the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting in Diagnostics (CDFD) which is still the best laboratory of DNA analysis in India and has a place of pride in laboratories doing DNA analysis work in the world as well. He and his team delivered DNA analysis and expert scientific testimony in thousands of cases across the length and breadth of the country.
But they were not content in sitting in their laboratories only; they also ensured that their contributions benefited the people and empowered the judiciary to deliver justice through law. Some of the high-profile cases in which the government used their expertise are the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, the assassination of the former Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, Naina Sahni murder case, Priyadarshini Mattoo murder case and Swami Shraddhananda case.
Lalji Singh came from a humble rural background. He was born in a village in Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh. After completing his schooling, he went to the Banaras Hindu University where he completed his B.Sc., M.Sc. and PhD with distinction. He then secured a Commonwealth Fellowship and went to finish his post-doctoral work at the University of Edinburgh, UK. He returned to India in 1987 and started working at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad. Besides being a scientist of world repute, he was also a distinguished public servant for which he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2004. He served on many committees and became the Vice Chancellor of his alma mater, Banaras Hindu University in 2009 – where he drew a token salary of just one rupee.
Besides his pioneering work in DNA profiling, his zeal to serve the country led to the establishment of a laboratory for the conservation of endangered species (LaCONES) in 1998. The research he conducted also led to a significant contribution on the knowledge about human migration and evolution in the Indian subcontinent. He was also very motivated in using genetic technologies for the benefit of Indians and took a keen interest in working on the diagnosis and treatment of genetic diseases – leading to the establishment of a non-profit organisation called the Genome Foundation. Unfortunately, Prof. Lalji Singh passed away in December 2017 due to a heart attack.
The legacy left behind by the ‘Father of DNA Fingerprinting’ in India is a testament to the scientific temper that needs to be inculcated in every citizen along with a passion for social justice. He embodied the ideal scientist working in the service of humanity in this era where science and technology are increasingly being marketised. The contributions of Dr. Singh enthuse researchers to contribute their knowledge for a social cause and to solve many problems faced by Indian citizens. He was a champion of dialogue between various disciplines and always worked together with the legal and law enforcement authorities to improve the criminal justice system in India. His story is an inspiration and shows what individual scientists can achieve when they make up their mind to serve the nation. We need many more researchers to follow in his illustrious footsteps.