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Obituary: P.M. Bhargava: Man of science who never bowed down to authority

From The Indian Express: One of the most outstanding biological scientists in India and the founder director of CSIR-Centre for Cellular Molecular Biology (CCMB), Pushpa Mitra Bhargava was a perennial and powerful dissenter and never bowed down to authority. He was suffering from multiple health problems. He is survived by a son and a daughter.

Amitabh Sinha, The Indian Express

It was an irony that the man credited with introducing modern biotechnology in the country was also responsible, almost single-handedly, for blocking the production of genetically modified foodcrop in India. But Pushpa Mitra Bhargava, who died on Tuesday at the age of 89, was never afraid to take positions and never known to play safe. He was suffering from multiple health problems. He is survived by a son and a daughter.

One of the most outstanding biological scientists in India, Bhargava was a perennial and powerful dissenter and never bowed down to authority. He opposed the Kudankulam nuclear power project, dragged the then Murli Manohar Joshi-led HRD Ministry to court against its decision to introduce astrology as a subject in universities, and returned his Padma Bhushan award two years earlier in protest against the “climate of intolerance” in the country.

He even took on the scientific community for not being questioning enough and bowing down to political authority. In a 1997 article, Bhargava made a case for banning the annual Science Congress, or suggested that it should be renamed “Anti-Science Congress”. He argued that the various science academies in the country could be wound up “without any damage being caused to Indian science”.

He had opposed the Indira Gandhi government in a famous 1981 essay, ‘A Statement on Scientific Temper’, that he had co-authored with nuclear physicist Raja Ramanna and P N Haksar. The authors wrote: “…We are witnessing a phenomenal growth of superstitious beliefs and obscurantist practices. The influence of a variety of godmen and miracle makers is increasing alarmingly…. Myths are created about our past…. The ancient period of our history is interpreted to inculcate chauvinism which is false pride; the medieval period is misinterpreted in a way that would fan communalism; and the struggle of our people for freedom is over-simplified as if it was the handiwork of a few great leaders…”

Then 53, Bhargava had already left a deep imprint on Indian science. He was instrumental in setting up a separate Department of Biotechnology and the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, which he continued to head until 1990. “Dr Bhargava’s pioneering vision and efforts led to the founding of the CCMB in 1977 as an institution for research in basic biology and for seeking its applications for the benefit of society,” CCMB said in a statement on his death on Tuesday.

Bhargava obtained his Masters in organic chemistry and a PhD in Synthetic Organic Chemistry. He made a shift to biology after working in the US. He started out with biochemistry, then dug into molecular biology and cell biology. He started publishing research papers on genetic engineering in the early 1970s. He has more than 125 research papers to his credit and won several awards.

He was confined to a wheelchair for most of last 10 years but never ceased to fight. He was responsible for ensuring that GM Brinjal did not get approval for cultivation. It is his scientific evidence that activists and anti-GM groups have been relying on to protest against GM Mustard as well.

With Sreenivas Janyala in Hyderabad.

Ex-Padma Bhushan Pushpa Bhargava’s Half A Century Of Dissent
Jacob Koshy, HuffPost India
Pushpa Bhargava, who’s perhaps become the first Indian scientist to return the Padma Bhushan, has a long history of being opposed to the government. Whether it was filing a writ petition in the Supreme Court contesting Murli Manohar Joshi’s attempt to introduce astrology in universities, or being a strident critic of the UPA’s push to launch genetically-modified food crops in India, the 87-year-old Bhargava has ridden research and controversy in almost equal measure.

The case for banning GM crops
Pushpa M. Bhargava, The Hindu BusinessLine
India has too many enviable strengths of its own to do something only because a group of other countries is doing it. But it will be great folly for it not to take serious note of the fact that, recently, 17 out of 28 countries of European Union (EU), along with large regions of UK and Belgium, have said ‘no’ to genetically modified (GM) crops. Today, there is substantially large and incontrovertible evidence that genetically modified crops are harmful to human and animal health, environment and biodiversity. The commonly used Bt gene when put into cotton or brinjal plant leads to a deleterious effect on growth and development of the plant. GM food has been shown to even cause cancer in rodents.

A Country’s True Commitment to Science Will Restrict the Practice of Religion
Pushpa M. Bhargava, The Wire
The present government at the centre is largely under the influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is committed to making India a Hindu country. Further, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government does not seem to understand science or give it any kind of priority, say from the point of view of funding. In other words, the present government is religion-oriented rather than being science-oriented, and it therefore becomes interesting to compare science and religion and identify the points of similarity and difference between the two.


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