Sunanda Autopsy Allegation Puts Spotlight on AIIMS

Thursday, July 03, 2014
Dr. Sudhir Gupta, Head of the Forensic Sciences Department, AIIMS (photo: The Hindu)

A forensic doctor battling for his position, a socialite wife of a minister who dies in mysterious circumstances, and a landmark change in government – all this adds up to a whodunit that even Hercule Poirot would find baffling.

The drama began in January when Sunanda Pushkar was found dead in a hotel room in New Delhi, barely hours after she had accused a Pakistani journalist of having an affair with her husband, then Union minister Shashi Tharoor.

The autopsy was conducted the next day by a 3-member team of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) led by Dr Sudhir Gupta. The autopsy report identified the cause of death as “poisoning” and labelled the dozen injury marks on her upper body as “scuffle marks”. Gupta noted that Pushkar’s death was sudden and unnatural.

The investigation into her death has still not reached anywhere in the six months that have passed since.

It therefore came as a surprise this week when Gupta alleged there was pressure from “top officials of the institute (AIIMS) and then senior Congress ministers” to make Pushkar’s death appear natural in his autopsy report.

He claimed that since he had not bowed to their pressure, there was a bias against him and the institute was trying to remove him from the post of head of forensic medicine.

“Three days before the Congress government fell, there was an order to appoint another HoD in my department which was submitted before the institute body, and I went to CAT (Central Administrative Tribunal) against this order,” Gupta told The Indian Express.

After his allegation was made public, AIIMS called a press conference to deny there had been any “pressure”.

“The AIIMS administration categorically denies any such allegation that there was any attempt to pressure Sudhir Gupta to change the post mortem report. We have no evidence that he was under pressure from outside and how he reacted to that,” AIIMS spokespersons Amit Gupta and Neerja Bhatla told the media.

The situation is complicated by the recent change of guard at the Centre. After the spectacular showing by the BJP in the general election in May, there are no longer any Congress ministers around. The new Health Minister Harsh Vardhan of the BJP has sought a detailed report from AIIMS regarding the controversy.

Gupta’s allegation does show the Congress party in a bad light, seemingly trying to ensure a ‘natural death’ report for the wife of a minister just months before a crucial election.

But the controversy also shines a light on the functioning of AIIMS itself, which, despite being the country’s premier public hospital, is still run as a sarkari outfit where an assistant professor has to wait 15 years to become a professor. However much AIIMS denies his allegation, some of Gupta’s muck will stick.

Yet Gupta does not appear to be above reproach himself. With his allegation only surfacing once his position was under threat, the timing does not do him any credit. According to Hindustan Times, there are also claims that the doctor used "political clout" for his promotion in 2012.

Perhaps the new administration should use this controversy to sweep the broom at AIIMS and usher in a professional meritocracy at the institute. Only then will there be less pressure from above, less inclination to bow before it, and less bias against those who don’t.

- Karan Singh

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