New Delhi: Dr Upendra Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit and one of India’s most renowned cardiologists, was summoned by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) last week for questioning in a terror-funding case. What brought him on the NIA radar was a misunderstood SMS, as reported by ThePrint earlier.
However, the night before he was to appear before the investigating agency, it wasn’t the summons he was bothered about.
As his 92-year-old father stayed up fretting about the summons, received earlier in the day, Kaul, a Padma Shri awardee, was preoccupied with a presentation he was due to make at the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) the next day at 1 pm.
“The presentation was weighing on my mind because, after all, it was worth a Rs 3 crore grant,” he told ThePrint in an interview.
As luck would have it, the headquarters of the DBT is located right opposite the NIA’s at the CGO Complex near Lodhi Road, where Kaul had to appear Friday at 10.30 am.
“Things fell into place quite conveniently. I was out of the NIA by 11 am, went for some tea at the India International Centre and then went for my presentation at DBT at 1 pm,” Kaul said.
“I think my presentation went fine, I didn’t show any nervousness. In the meantime, my phone kept ringing continuously because of all the journalists curious about the NIA questioning,” he added.
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A high-profile doctor to some of the country’s most prominent politicians, including at least two former chief ministers of Jammu & Kashmir, Kaul currently serves as the chairman and dean of academics and research at Batra Hospital and Medical Research Centre in Delhi.
As with any success story, it has been a long journey of hard work for Kaul, who completed four decades in medicine last year, forging a career that is celebrated as much for his acumen as his compassion.
Kaul, who was born in Kashmir, came to Delhi with his family when he was two-and-a-half-years old.
His father worked at a modest insurance company and the Kaul family lived in a one-room house in Delhi’s Prem Nagar area.
According to Kaul, when children in his neighbourhood, mostly of workers at the nearby Birla Mills, went out to play, he mostly stayed in and kept to his books.
The hard work paid off. In 1978, Kaul became the first Kashmiri to obtain a Doctor of Medicine (DM) in cardiology.
Kaul’s patients over the past four decades have included the late former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
“Farooq Abdullah (another former CM and now MP) has also consulted me at times about his diabetes,” Kaul said, before adding with a laugh, “His son Omar Abdullah is quite fit so doesn’t need medical attention.”
It was, in fact, one of Kaul’s long-term patients that got him on the NIA’s radar — Kashmiri separatist and former militant Yasin Malik.
The NIA summons to Kaul reportedly stemmed from a text message he had exchanged with Malik. The message mentioned “INR 2.78” — which the NIA is said to have interpreted as information about a hawala transaction.
“They thought that 2.8 INR (crore or lakh) hawala money was being sent to Kashmir through me, for stonepelting and making disturbances in state,” said Kaul. “I wasn’t shown the message so I don’t know which year this was sent.”
However, the INR mentioned in the text stands for International Normalised Ratio (INR) — a medical term that determines how efficiently an individual’s blood clots and is of critical importance for all heart patients who have been administered blood thinners, as Malik was.
Kaul said he was rather bemused by the confusion at play, adding that his natural reaction was to laugh.
“After that, other officers who were supposed to interview me didn’t come. They just spoke to me on the phone about the nature of my relationship with Malik,” Kaul said. “I was done with the whole thing in 20 minutes or so.”
Just another patient
Talking about how he came into contact with Malik, Kaul said it was through former Intelligence Bureau special director and RAW chief A.S. Dulat — “an intelligence agent like those questioning me” — in 1996, two years after Malik gave up the gun to join the mainstream.
“One fine day, Dulat came to my home at 6 am and asked me to help the government and if I could bring Yasin to AIIMS for treatment,” said Kaul, who was working at AIIMS at the time.
Malik was diagnosed with a leaking aortic valve, and operated upon at AIIMS under Kaul’s supervision.
The separatist eventually took a liking to Kaul. According to the doctor, Malik went on a hunger strike at the hospital this one time and refused to take anything, except if brought by “Dr Kaul”.
It was only when Kaul gave him some orange juice, said Kaul, that Malik agreed to end his strike.
Kaul said had always treated all his patients like patients, including Malik.
“I never discussed politics with him, never tried to reform him,” he added. “Never tried to ask him what his mission is, everyone knew what his mission was — azadi. I was just being a doctor.”
Ever since Kaul’s questioning, a picture of him with Malik and his wife Mushaal Hussein Mullick, taken at his home, has been doing the rounds on the internet. It appears to be an intimate photo, with Mullick seated next to Kaul’s mother.
But Kaul was quick to explain the ‘setting’ of the picture, which he guesses had been leaked by some friends.
“I was asked by the government, right from Indira Gandhi’s years to Vajpayee’s, to act as some sort of intermediary between the government and Malik,” he said.
“That picture is from the one time many officers had come to dinner to my place to interact with Yasin Malik, who was also invited,” he added.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a tough time for Kashmir as a Pakistan-backed insurgency made violence an everyday occurrence in the Valley.
One of the communities worst affected by the insurgency was the Kashmiri Pandits, Hindus of the Valley who were driven out in droves under the threat of violence.
This period propelled many Pandits into a phase of deep uncertainty, as they vacated ancestral property to find shelter in rehabilitation camps and alien places.
According to Kaul, his popularity rose in Kashmir during this time as he accommodated and gave jobs to “at least 100 people”.
Kaul said he gave specific instructions to the OPD at AIIMS that all Kashmiri patients had to be accommodated at the hospital as and when they arrived.
Gradually, he added, he came to be known all over Kashmir as one of the most compassionate doctors. “They would call me the healer. Haath me shifa hai iske (He has healing powers in his hand),” Kaul said.
Kaul has co-authored Tandon’s Textbook of Cardiology — considered the Bible of the field. He said he will soon write a book about his life.
‘Not sure if summons was vendetta’
The NIA summons to Kaul came days after he appeared on an NDTV talk show and questioned the lockdown in place in Kashmir since 5 August, when the abrogation of Article 370 was announced.
On the show, Kaul had asked if the lockdown was revenge for what happened in 1990 (the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits), and speculation soon arose that his questioning was linked to his statements on Kashmir.
— Fahad Shah فهد شاه (@pzfahad) August 30, 2019
.@OnReality_Check | Kashmiri view: 'Silenced' by fear?
— NDTV Videos (@ndtvvideos) August 7, 2019
Kaul said he couldn’t be sure if the summons was political vendetta. “But the timing does suggest that it could be the case,” he added.
The lockdown in Kashmir has hit Kaul hard. “This is because Kashmir is in my heart,” said Kaul. “Putting 80 lakh people in a virtual jail pinches me. It also pinches me that very few people are vocal about it, that 20 crore Muslims of the country are not making a strong statement against it.”
In 2019, he added, it was inhuman to deny someone access to phones and the internet.
“The governor says phones are of little use for us. But that’s not true, everyone is used to having phones,” he said. “Who will send their children to school amid a communication lockdown?”
Though Kaul stands by his views on Kashmir, he does regret calling the 1990 exodus of Pandits “debatable” during the NDTV debate.
“That wasn’t what I was intending to say. I wanted to explain that people started running away from Kashmir after some people were killed, which was followed by class war between the haves-vs-have-nots,” Kaul said. “But I couldn’t explain that properly.”
Kaul said the Modi government — or any other party, for that matter — had done nothing to help the community.
And it isn’t just because the community is too small to count as a vote bank, he said. Part of the reason, according to him, is that the community is already well settled.
“Most Kashmiri Pandits are doing so well, why would they want to go back and live in some gali in Srinagar? Except, of course, for symbolic reasons — like I bought a home in Srinagar a few years ago,” he said.
The home, he added, is looked after by his Muslim neighbours in his absence.
Kaul said one of the reasons why people aren’t empathetic to the woes of Kashmiris is because everyone wants to be a “so-called nationalist”.
“You don’t have to constantly show you are a nationalist. If you care about your country, work hard and increase the output of your work,” said Kaul, whose day starts at 6.30 am and ends around 12.30 am. “That’s nationalism for me.”
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