The doctor who normalised natural births before caesarean cursed Kashmir

Dr. Tahira Khanam

At a time when caesarean births have become a new normal in Kashmir, many are recalling the times and the role of a doctor for ensuring natural births.

By the end of the 1960s, a legendary doctor of Kashmir would report the growing clinical concern back home. Behind the anguish was the plight of the pregnant women of the valley. Due to the lack of facilities in the government hospitals, they would die of minor ailments. This put the medic on the women welfare mission.

Dr. Tahira Khanam would eventually open a maternity home in Srinagar opposite Iqbal Park. Hundreds of women would come and get treated there. 

“Unlike now, when doctors prefer caesarean section for delivery,” said Mushtaq Ahmad, Tahira Khanum’s son, “our mother would wait and monitor pregnant women for hours. She would ensure about 90 per cent normal deliveries.”

This is unlike Kashmir’s current medical practices driven by the rampant prescription of caesarean sections. These surgical strikes, so to say, at times create severe complexities. A Srinagar hospital lately faced flak and lock for one such mishandled procedure.

Back then, the thrust on the natural births made Khanam’s maternity home quite popular among masses. She eventually converted it into a full-fledged, well-equipped healthcare centre. 

However, before doing that, the celebrated cult took voluntary retirement from the government services. She became a role model and philanthropist apart from a memorable medic. 

But before becoming ‘Ammi Ji’ for masses whose lives she touched with her effective treatment, Khanam was born in a poverty-ridden Kashmir on December 1, 1933. In her birthplace Sarai-Bala area of Srinagar, Khanam was groomed in the budding grief. 

She was yet to join school when her father died. The headman’s untimely departure made Khanam’s childhood tougher and her elder sister Zohira Begum as a default family breadwinner. But despite odds and hardships, Khanam continued to study and became the valley’s first Muslim woman doctor, three years after the Partition. The marriage of her elder sibling made Khanam a sole support of her family.

In the late fifties, Khanam got married to Abdul Aziz Dar who was the first postgraduate (in Textiles) of Kashmir from Italy. In Aziz, Tahira found her supportive soulmate. 

“They shared a special love and respect for each other,” Mushtaq said. “They would work for 24 hours at a stretch, not only for themselves or their families but also for the people of Kashmir.”

The couple’s goal to make Kashmir a better place established hospitals, educational institutions and business units.

During nineties, when the armed strife crippled the campus activities in Kashmir, Khanam started her education campaign apart from focusing on health sector. “Back then,” Mushtaq said, “schools and colleges had closed and most of the teachers had migrated from the valley. This affected the education sector. The students seeking admissions in outside schools and colleges had to shell out lakh of rupees as donations. Keeping that in mind, my mother worked towards developing the educational sector in the valley.”

This is how a College of Education, a Higher Secondary School and a Paramedical & Nursing Institute was situated at Lawaypora area of Srinagar. Khanam’s paramedical/ nursing institute was the first private facility in Kashmir.

Stepping in the old-age, Khanam continued to find ways to serve the community. The facility created at Lawayoora mostly helped people of Srinagar and some adjacent villages. 

The matron, as per the family, even took education to far-flung areas and in the last decade, established High Schools at Panzinara, Gopalpora, Tral, Awantipora and Anantnag.

“With my father’s support, my mother started everything with a small income,” Mushtaq said. “She had no inherited property and had to take care of her family and work for the public welfare.”

Khanam’s healthcare and educational institutes in districts of Srinagar, Bandipora, Budgam, Anantnag and Pulwama have around 4000 students and over 600 employees on rolls. 

But while toiling hard for providing best healthcare and education, Khanam also invested in the silk industry of Kashmir, which was known for the production of quality yarns and providing employment to young men and women.

In the last decade, due to global open marketing, thousands of silk units rolled down the shutters, but Khanam’s unit continues to operate. “Even when her health had started to deteriorate,” Mushtaq said, “my mother tried to raise employment generating units, including a huge industrial set up for a Printing/ Surgical Cotton at Khunmoh.”

But after empowering masses and serving the needy, Dr. Tahira Khanam passed away peacefully in the morning hours of May 17, 2017. Her passage was mourned by masses. 

“The last lesson, I remember, she gave us was to serve our people,” Mushtaq said. “She loved everyone, treated young, old, poor and rich. That’s why her works still resonate with masses.”

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