Rejoicing As Abdullah Dynasty Suffers Another Blow
26 July 2003
The Hindustan Times
Srinagar: Jammu and Kashmir's most prestigious medical institute, conceived by the late Sheikh Abdullah, is currently at the centre of a controversy that has turned it into a nightmare for the Kashmiri leader's heirs. The Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences was the strongest icon of the Sheikh dynasty for decades. Sheikh Abdullah, the founder of the National Conference party, conceived it as a dream medical institute in the late 1970s. The state government recently issued orders for the complete takeover of the institute and its affiliates, including the Soura medical institute, a multimillion rupee shopping plaza in the heart of Srinagar city, a high profile nursing home, a medical college and a polyclinic. The institute and its affiliates are owned by a family trust headed by Ali Muhammad Mattu, the son-in- law of the late Sheikh and brother-in-law of former chief minister Farooq Abdullah. 'It was a very convenient family arrangement. The trust ran and owned the entire show, but the government had to pay all the funds to support the institute,' said a jubilant doctor at the institute where hundreds of employees reportedly distributed sweets to welcome the end of what they called 'dynastic rule'. 'Though Mattu was only the vice-chairman, but according to the trust deed, all the powers wrested in him. The state government had little option other than to provide all the financial support as the cleverly drafted deed made the chief minister the ex-officio chairman of the trust with cabinet ministers as ex-officio members of the trust. 'This is like you feed the cow and I take the milk,' said the doctor who did not want to be named. Habibullah, a trade union leader at the institute, said: 'It is an irony of fate that Mattu, a simple medical graduate, was heading a prestigious medical institute where he would decide the fate of super specialists like those holding doctorates in medicine and surgery. 'Mattu also had the last word in making purchases worth millions of rupees each year. Interestingly, some of the valuable medical equipment and other items like laptop computers, television sets, digital cameras and digital players finally landed in the houses of influential trustees and politicians belonging to the Sheikh family.' When the late Sheikh conceived the institute in 1978, he was told by then prime minister Morarji Desai to reconsider his decision as the amount of money that would be needed to create it would otherwise suffice to provide each Kashmir village with a five-bedded hospital. 'The Sheikh wanted to create a powerful family icon that would carry his name for centuries, but he could never have imagined that one day Kashmiris would rejoice over the dismantling of one of his mightiest icons,' said another doctor. Sensing trouble immediately after the new political dispensation took office here, the Abdullah family had been planning to dispose off the assets of the trust. 'For example, they secretly leased out the Srinagar Nursing Home to a group of doctors who reportedly paid them Rs.30 million,' said Health Minister Chowdhary Lal Singh. Singh said the government had to organize a night swoop to seize the trust's properties so that trustees did not dispose of everything. Prime land in Srinagar's most fashionable area was leased to the trust by the government in the mid-1970s for the specific purpose of running a medical laboratory to cater to local patients. After 1996, when the Sheikh's son, Farooq Abdullah, came to power, the laboratory was demolished and a multi-storeyed shopping complex was raised in its place for which the trustees reportedly took hefty premiums for leasing out accommodation. 'So far as the faculty and infrastructure is concerned, the medical institute is second to none in the country, but the Abdullah family's intervention over the years had changed it into a fiefdom, with many doctors being forced to act like court jesters for the dynasty,' said a dean at the institute. 'For example, a senior cardiologist remained confined to the sick rooms of the late Sheikh and later to his wife till the very last, not administering medical advice, but acting like a nurse to rise in the profession.' Sheikh Nazir Ahmad, general secretary of the National Conference, has said that the takeover of the institute and its affiliates was 'an unlawful act' against which the trustees would shortly move court. National Conference leaders have been describing the takeover as a 'witch-hunt and a political vendetta'. 'If protecting public interest is witch-hunting, if saving the assets of the people from being slyly auctioned is witch-hunting, then we are proud of doing it,' said health minister Singh.