Dr Aziz ki Ajab Khani (The strange tale of Dr Aziz)

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Dr Aziz ki Ajab Khani (The strange tale of Dr Aziz)

Naved Masood*

This ‘tale’ is about Dr Aziz-ur Rahman (1928-73) an Indian Chemist who left the country on account of career related frustrations and found name, fame and meteoric rise in of all the place in Argentina, becoming a Vice Chancellor and one of the founding fathers of research in Chemistry in that country. It is also a tale of the strange quirks that life took in a particular family. The moral of our story is that it proves that truth is indeed at times stranger than friction.

Even a small biographical essay on this maverick scientist cannot start without a minimal reference to his extraordinary family history. In 1856 the then ruler of Bhopal, Nawab Sikandar Jahan Begum undertook a voyage for Haj with an entourage which included her principal Adviser (Vizier) Munshi Jamaluddin (of Phulat near Meerut) who was a disciple of Syed Ahmad “Shaheed” in his Jihad against ‘infidel Sikhs’ in what is now the border of Pakistan with Afghanistan. Like his old mentor, Jamaluddin was an adherent of Ahli Hadees sect which his son in law “Nawab” Siddiq Hasan Khan (later to be the second husband of Sikandar Jahan) did much to expand in India. Jamaluddin appears to have induced his employer to terminate the sea voyage at the Yemeni port of Al Hodeidah (then recently established by the Ottoman Government) instead of the more convenient Jeddah with a purpose. Hodeidah was a center of learning Hadis under its Qazi Shaikh Mohammed who was a prominent pupil of the great Yemeni Scholar Allama Mohammed Al Shawkani (1759-1834). Jamaluddin is believed to have persuaded the Qazi to send a member of his family with the ‘Bhopal party’ for Haj and thence back to Bhopal to propagate knowledge and teaching of Hadis. The Qazi agreed to let one of his younger brother Zainul Abidin accompany the pilgrims to Hejaz and then to Bhopal where he was designated the Qazi of the State. Zainul Abidin was later joined by another elder brother Shaikh Hussain who started teaching Hadis in an institution run by Bhopal State. The brothers kept traveling back and forth to Yemen till they permanently settled down in Bhopal with their families in 1879.

Dr Aziz-ur Rahman’s father Habibur Rahman was the grandson of Shaikh Husain. Dr Rahman was born at Bhopal on 29th March, 1928 a few months after his father, a qualified Civil Engineer, working as Building contractor, was found mysteriously murdered at Raisen in Bhopal State – apparently by a business associate whose corrupt practices he had exposed. Dr Rahman’s mother, Memooda Begum, went back to her parents in Lucknow along with her two children. Young Aziz had his entire education in Lucknow completng High School and Intermediate courses from the Christian College with First Division in 1941 and 1943 with a good grounding in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics along with Persian language and literature. He did his B.Sc and M.Sc in Chemistry from Lucknow University in 1947. At that stage Dr Omar Farooq Professor of Chemistry at AMU took him under his wings as a research scholar. Prof Farooq was much more than a research guide – he was in loco parentis to the young man barely out of his teens who had seen no father – indeed, till his departure for Germany Dr Aziz continued to stay at the place of Dr Farooq. The large-scale migration of teachers in the wake of partition of the country led to his appointment as Lecturer in Chemistry at AMU in 1947 itself. He became prolific researcher publishing his works co-authored with his mentor. He obtained the degree of PhD from AMU in 1953 and proceeded to the University of Tubingen for research in Biochemistry under Professor Alfred Butenandt (1903-1995) recipient of Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1939 and equally well known as among the few top-notch scientists who had formally become Nazis by joining the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. He obtained the degree of Doctor of Natural Sciences (Dr.rer.nat) of that University in 1955. While in Germany he married Hilde Garcia with whom and a young daughter he returned to Aligarh apparently with the intention of carrying out and guiding research of international standards.

He started doing research in right earnest in Aligarh despite financial constraints of a family with a European spouse at the measly salary of a Lecturer in an Indian University which led him to supplement his income reportedly by doing some work for some industry in the city. While coping thus he underwent the trauma of being denied promotion to the post of Reader when a senior colleague, with no research degree, was preferred over him. The trauma appears to have been aggravated as its ostensible source was someone who was a father figure to him. Speculations aside he was determined to make a break with the institution which according to his lights he had served well and which had let him down for no good reason. Around that time he attended a conference in the US where he met Dr Lelong, a Franco-Argentinean who had just joined as Director of the newly established Department of Chemistry at the National University of Bahia Blanca. Dr Lelong seeing a disgruntled, experienced teacher and researcher, made him the outlandish offer of a Research Professorship at the nascent University apparently promising him all the infrastructural support. Argentina then was a major magnet for professionals wishing to leave parts of Europe that had not yet fully recovered from the after-effects of the World War II – in the words of his son it was the “emerging US of Latin America” – in short a land of hope and opportunity where the disappointed young scientist from Aligarh dreamed of building up a career as a teacher and researcher. The migratory genes which brought his great-grand father from Yemen to India apparently made him take the plunge in terra incognita of Argentina.

Aziz-ur Rahman joined the University of Bahia Blanca on 1st February, 1959 as Professor with no knowledge of Spanish, the medium of instruction. According to his student Professor Julio Podesta during the first year he would deliver his Lectures in German or English with someone doing simultaneous translation in Spanish! By the second year he picked up enough Spanish to be able to manage on his own. He started his researches in right earnest and within a year the University emerged as a significant center of Chemical research in Argentina. He ensured that two of his research students at Aligarh, Ausat Ali Khan and Mohammed Sami Khan were given Fellowships to continue their researches under him at Bahia Blanca. These two young Indians thus became pioneers of Chemistry research in Bahia Blanca! The Department of Chemistry of the University soon became the epicenter of quality research in Argentina. The young Professor enthused with his success decided to throw his lot with the country that had provided him with all that was denied to him in his ‘home country’ obtained the nationality of Argentina.

The maverick Indian did not go un-noticed either, President Arturo Frondizi (1905 – 1995) himself from an Italian migrant family, appointed the Indian migrant as the Rector (Vice Chancellor) of the University, a post which he held with distinction till 1967 though with a tumultuous termination. By all accounts the young Rector rose to the occasion and soon his University claimed a position of excellence in teaching and research in several disciplines. In 1964 he was also appointed President of the Inter University Council of National Universities i.e. Central Universities of the country – a position that gave him a role in evolving higher education policies and maintaining standards of tertiary education in his adopted country. The position of leadership did not dampen his penchant for research; during his tenure as Rector he contributed as many as 15 papers as the first author for International journals and continued to guide research making the Department of Chemistry of the National University at Bahia Blanca the preferred destination for serious students of Chemistry in that country. A recent historical review of education and research of the subject in Argentina identifies Prof Aziz-ur Rahman as one of the chief benefactors of Chemistry education in that country.

Argentina, like much of Latin America saw acute turmoil in the 1960s. Quite apart from radical leftist movement in the wake of the Cuban revolution and the exertions of the charismatic Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928 – 1967) throughout the region, the country bore the additional burden of that confused ‘hybrid ideology’, Peronism and a politically ambitious military, the country became a cauldron of strife. Dr Aziz being a rank outsider, had occupied a necessarily ambivalent perch: While his lack of political affiliation was an asset; it was also the Achilles heel with his imperfect understanding of local history and culture. With Universities in the 1960s becoming the crucible of all political movements – after all students in the 60s of the last century were the storm troopers of political uprisings all over the world – the Rector, born and brought up in genteel Muslim middle class of India, was increasingly at sea. He tried to come to grips with a situation that was obviously alien to the Chemist cum academic administrator. He tried in vain to stand his ground with the radical leftist students. It all resulted in his losing the position of head of the University sometime in 1967. He attempted to retrieve the lost ground by trying to buy peace with the then President, the dictator Juan Carlos Ongania, (1914 – 1995) to no avail. As his son Prof Shahid Rahman puts it; “The Peronists saw him as an enemy; the radicals did not like that he had an interview with the dictator; the dictator mistrusted him; and the left wing students (who had supported him) felt betrayed.”

His last few years in Bahia Blanca were an anti climax – a reversal of the first eight years. The family became increasingly isolated and his colleagues minimized their contacts for fear of falling foul of the establishment. A few years later he accepted an offer of a Visiting Professorship – ‘Invited Professor’ – at a Private University at Guadalajara (Mexico) to be away from a violence ridden Argentina where the family was feeling insecure on account of threats from various quarters. The unpredictable man that he was, Dr Aziz also enrolled himself as a Medical student! The family has the impression that he had in the meantime applied, and secured, Professorship in Munich. At any rate he succumbed to a heart stroke on 9th July, 1973 where his mortal remains were interred.

The subsequent story of the privations suffered by a now impoverished family are beyond the scope of this piece; suffice it to say that the family had to return to Argentina and his elder son (three siblings, a daughter and two sons) had to work as a cleaner in the University Library where his father was the Rector with the family supplementing his meager earnings by letting out a part of their house.

This brings us to the end of a most unusual, or shall we say a strange, story. The story has many facets – the unusual enterprise of a scientist who, having found himself wronged, thought nothing of transplanting himself in a completely alien soil; the strange course of the life of his paternal family; his own destiny which took him to the right place at the right time and left him stranded at the wrong place at the wrong time! At a different plane it is an instructive story of the feudal mindset that prevailed – and continues to prevail – in older Indian Universities. We are told to refrain from hypothesing about what would have happened had a particular event not taken place or taken a different course. We will, therefore, not attempt to surmise the course of the Dr Aziz’s career if he had made it as a Reader in Aligarh in 1958 – may be he would have ended up in places like Libya or Nigeria like many of his contemporaries or he would have stayed put as a venerable Professor in Aligarh much like a couple of other scholarly souls with European spouses. Since we are not allowing ourselves the liberty to speculate, we may conclude that the tale is indeed strange and the likes of Dr Aziz-ur Rahman appear but rarely on the scene – certainly not amongst the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent.

Acknowledgements and Notes

This brief piece has taken almost two years to complete though the idea germinated more than a decade back during a chance conversation with the late Prof Gurbux Singh an eminent Chemist (in fact, the first Indian with a PhD in the subject from Harvard) and former Vice Chancellor of Hyderabad Central and Delhi Universities. The late Professor regarded the exit of Dr Aziz from Aligarh as symptomatic of the ills of AMU.

Prof Julio Podesta a student of Dr Aziz and one of the most distinguished Chemists of his country, was most helpful. His article on history of Chemistry Department University of Bahia Blanca was most helpful. I am grateful to Dr Shad Naved for translating the relevant portions of that article from Spanish to English.

Prof Shahid Rahman, the eldest son of our ‘hero’ and Professor of Epistemology and Logic at the University of Lille, France was kind enough to have not only shared many family details but also patiently replied to many queries of this writer. Indeed in remembering the times past he had to re-live many painful memories. I had the minor satisfaction, however, of putting Shahid in touch with a few relatives of Dr Rahman.

Late Mr Yahya Ansari of Chicago, a cousin of Dr Aziz, was someone whom I never met but his Urdu book “Gulzar-i-Yaman” (Karachi 2001) provided many insights into the Yemeni diaspora of Bhopal. I could also seek his advice through the mail. It is a great pity that he passed away last January before this piece could be finalized.

Mr. S.M Afzal, Inspector General of Police Madhya Pradesh kindly arranged to get hold of the last available copy of “Gulzar-i-Yaman” from Bhopal.

Dr Mohammed Sajjad furnished the title of PhD thesis of Dr Aziz from AMU Library.

Prof Hisamuddin Faruqi former Professor of Zoology of AMU shared many snippets about Dr Aziz including the juicy bit that his students affectionately referred him as “Aziz Bitya” (on account of his loveable nature and rather short physical stature).
Lastly, a couple of retired teachers of Chemistry also deserve ‘mention in dispatches’ for their reticence to speak about the circumstances leading to the departure of our ‘subject’ from Aligarh out of touching devotion to the mentor of Dr Aziz in Aligarh. Their sense of loyalty/ decency is admirable at one level – it does, however, indicate a mindset where the feudal notion of honour makes truth and objectivity subservient to notions of ‘honour and loyalty’.

*Mr. Naved Masood is an AMU Alum and a senior Civil Servant in Govt. of India and he is based in New Delhi. He can be reached at naved.masood@gmail.com

Dr Aziz-ur Rahman

Dear Masood Sahab, Assalamoalaikum

Masha'Allah. Wonderfully written. I can see that it is hard work to write this and it took you 10 years. Sad to know the end of this genius and what happened to his family. I had to fight tears on a couple of occasions while reading this.

This story reminds me of 2 persons. One was the Soviet Botanist Nikolai Vavilov who was a pioneer in his time and he traced that apples orginated in kazakastan. He worked to reduce famine in the soviet union but ironically died unceremoniously in a russian prison of hunger. The other person is the protagonist in the hindi film 'Ek doctor ki maut' which is based on a true story. Infact Dr. Aziz's story could be a good storyline for a similar movie. I am a bit reserved on this as my knowledge of movie scripts are next to nothing.

Anyways congratulations on writing a wonderful piece and sharing it with us.

Allah Hafiz

Dr. M M Siddiqui

Last degree from AMU: SSSC 1996

Present Location: Poole, UK

Dr Aziz-ur Rahman

Dear Colleague(s)

I am thrilled to read about Prof Dr Aziz sahib. I reviewed informative article on late Prof Aziz sahib at least ten times. Allah un ko jannat de AAmeen

Could you please kind enough to send me complimentary book at the following postal address.

Thanks and wassalam

Prof. Dr. Alay Ahmad (Alig)

Dr Aziz-ur Rahman

This is indeed a strange and unusual story of a distinguished Alig. The chance encounter of the writer with Prof. Gurbux Singh, germination of idea a decade ago and the efforts of the writer to persist with this subject and the time of two years taken by him to ultimately succeed in producing such a historical, lesson giving piece of writing and that too not in the life of late Dr. Aziz are the elements stirring the soul of an Alig. I am really struck by the lightening of this extraordinary piece of writing.

Thank you Naved Sahab for putting so much into it and enlightening us on such a remarkable life of an Yemeni Aligarian. The book, Gulzar-e-yemani by Yahya Ansari, a cousin of Dr. Aziz should contain treasure to explore more on the issue.

On my next visit to Delhi, I will try to meet you and see the book in your possession if possible. Prof. Hisamuddin Faruqi former Professor of Zoology of AMU has been my provost during my stay in Sir Syed Hall at Aligarh. His reference in the article has led me to recall various debates and discussions we used to have in his presence on the topic of objectivity /truth/ reality V feudal mindset / notion of honour and loyalty. That time in Aligarh, we had lot of world known marxists and we were under the influence of left wing ideology.

With warm regards,

Naushad Ansari
M.Sc. (1980)

Sir Syed Bi-Centenary


Hamiduddin Farahi


ZH Chowdhury

Satish Chandra