“Sometimes I ask myself, am I really guilty? And the answer pops out straight from the core of my heart. No, no – a big no.”
This is just one line from a 10-page letter written by Dr Kafeel Khan on April 18, which The Wire has accessed. Khan has been in jail without a single bail-hearing in the high court. The sessions court rejected his bail once.
In August 2017, 23 children had died overnight at Gorakhpur’s B.R.D. Medical College, all allegedly due to lack of oxygen. Khan was subsequently arrested on the charge of ‘attempt to murder’.
Though Khan had been on leave that day, he began to gather oxygen cylinders from nearby hospitals and companies when he heard about the tragedy, in a desperate attempt to save other patients.
Khan’s health is reportedly deteriorating. Shabistan Khan, his wife, has said that he suffers from heart disease. He was taken to a government hospital this week, to visit a cardiologist after complaining of palpitations.
Through the 10-page letter, Khan describes the night of the tragedy, his efforts to save the children by sourcing oxygen cylinders from places outside the hospital, the poor conditions of the jail in which he is lodged, his inability to get bail and who he thinks is really responsible for the tragedy.
Trying to find oxygen
“The moment I got that WhatsApp message on that fateful August 10, 2017 night, I did everything a doctor, a father, a responsible CITIZEN OF INDIA would/should do. I tried to save each and every life that was in danger due to sudden stoppage of liquid oxygen,” he writes (the text has been lightly edited for clarity).
Khan is a paediatrician and had been on leave on the day of the tragedy. He is among the nine accused of the deaths. The owners of the oxygen-supplying agency, who had withdrawn the gas’s supply to the hospital over non-payment of dues, had been granted bail.
But Khan, the principal of the college, the principal’s wife, another doctor and a few hospital administrative staff have not been granted bail. The principal and the other doctor were travelling outside Uttar Pradesh during this episode. In November, the police investigation dropped the charges of corruption and running a private practice against Khan.
He says he called the concerned authorities that day in August and informed them of the situation; these authorities include the head of department, the principal and acting principal of B.R.D., the district magistrate of Gorakhpur, the chief medical superintendent of Gorakhpur and B.R.D. Medical College, and his other colleagues.
He also called local oxygen supplier agencies and “begged” them to immediately arrange for oxygen cylinders at BRD, and called nearby hospitals.
Khan’s letter describes the two days of chaos as he tried to restore the oxygen supply. He was able to scrape 250 cylinders together, paying for them himself and promising the suppliers that he would arrange for the rest of the payment soon.
He was able to transport some of them in his car. He approached the deputy inspector general of police, whose response according to Khan was “quick and supporting”, and arranged for a truck and manpower from the Armed Border Force (a.k.a. Sashastra Seema Bal, SSB) to deliver the others.
Their combined efforts meant the oxygen supply was restored around 1:30 am on August 13, three days after Khan had received the WhatsApp message that set him in motion.
However, to this day, the Uttar Pradesh government has maintained that the oxygen shortage is not why the children died, that they died instead of natural causes. This contradicts the jail terms being served by Kafeel Khan and others.
“They worked for 48 hours continuously. Their spirit boosts ours. I salute SSB and am thankful for their help. JAI HIND,” he wore about the efforts of his fellow doctors and the team put together by the police.
“I yelled/screamed to everyone to focus on saving lives. I cried, actually everyone in the team cried to see the havoc created by the administrative failure to pay the dues to the liquid oxygen suppliers – resulting in such a grave situation.”
A brief encounter with Adityanath
Khan’s letter then describes his interaction with the state’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on August 13, when the latter visited B.R.D. Medical College, an interaction that he writes turned his life “upside down”.
“He asked: So you are Dr Kafeel? You arranged the cylinders?”
“He got angry: So you think by arranging cylinders you became hero? I will see it.”
“Yogi ji was angry because this incident had come into the media.”
Khan then describes the fear his family felt as the police began coming home, “howling, threatening, torturing my family. People warned that they would kill me in a encounter. My family, my mother, my wife, my kids were so scared that I do not have words.”
He describes his life in prison as “hell”, where 150 prisoners are cramped in one room, with “millions of mosquitoes at night and thousands of flies in the day. Trying to swallow food to live, bathe half-naked with shit in the toilet with a broken door. Waiting for Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday to meet my family.”
“I surrendered to save my family from the humiliation, misery, thinking that when I have not done anything wrong, I should get justice.” Then, towards the end, he asks again: “So now again that question haunts me: Am I really guilty? No, no, no.”
He says he was not involved in the purchase, tender, order, maintenance, supply or payment of liquid oxygen cylinders at the hospital. Instead, he points the finger at Uttar Pradesh government officials: the district magistrate, the director general of medical education and the principal secretary of health and education. According to Khan, they had failed to act on the 14 reminders sent by the gas agency, Pushpa Sales, about the unpaid due of Rs 68 lakh.
“It was a total administrative failure at a higher level, they did not realise the gravity… They made us the scapegoat and put us behind the bars so that the truth will remain inside Gorakhpur jail.”
He ends his letter thus, “A helpless, brokenhearted father/husband/brother son/friend, Dr Kafeel Khan.”
Note: This article originally stated that Khan had been in jail without a bail-hearing since August 2017. He was once granted a hearing in a sessions court. The mistake was corrected on April 23, 2018.