After spending seven months in prison, Dr Kafeel Khan was finally released from Mathura jail at midnight on September 1. He was arrested for the first time exactly three years ago on September 2 in the oxygen shortage tragedy at Gorakhpur’s BRD Medical College that led to the deaths of more than a hundred children. He had spent more than six months behind bars before being granted bail at the time.
Before the oxygen shortage scandal, Kafeel Khan was an ordinary man. Until a photo clicked while he was frantically attempting to save the lives of children on that day in 2017 changed his life.
A resident of Gorakhpur’s Basantpur locality, 46-year-old Khan had spent 12 years of his life at Manipal Institute of Medical Sciences in Gangtok. He received his primary education from Amar Singh Children’s School in Gorakhpur and finished his high and intermediate education from Mahatma Gandhi Inter College, where his elder brother also studied.
Their father had hoped that both his sons would become doctors. After clearing his intermediate exams, Khan was selected in both Combined Pre-Medical Test (CMPT) and Manipal Institute of Medical Sciences with an all India ranking of 30. Fulfilling his family’s wishes, he went to Manipal.
At Manipal, after an MBBS and then an MD, Khan stayed on as an assistant professor in the paediatric department. He returned to Gorakhpur in 2013 and married Dr Shabista Khan.
Between 2013 to April 2016, Khan worked as a senior resident doctor at BRD Medical College. The contract ended in April after which he worked at the family hospital for some time. In August, he was appointed assistant professor in the paediatric department of the BRD Medical College.
Khan’s father Shakeel Ahmed Khan, who worked as an engineer in the irrigation department, passed away on March 3, 2003.
Khan’s elder brother, Adeel, started his business after completing an MBA while his youngest brother is an orthopaedic surgeon. Another brother, Kashif Jamil, is also a businessman with degrees in MCA and MBA. In 2018, Kashif was attacked by assailants who shot him three times.
The day of tragedy
The BRD Medical College administration was already in the know that the supply of liquid oxygen would be disrupted, and ultimately cut off, by evening on August 10, 2017, as the oxygen supply company had written about it to the BRD officials at 11.20 am that day. By evening, the news broke in the media as several reporters received copies of the letter on WhatsApp. Based on the letter, Gorakhpur Newsline published the story in the evening on August 10.
Neither the medical college administration nor the district administration could arrange for liquid oxygen for the plant or adequate number of jumbo cylinders as an alternative, resulting in the horrific incident that was triggered at 7.30 pm on August 10.
On August 11, when I reached the 100-bed encephalitis ward of BRD Medical College at around 11.30 am, I saw a tense Dr Khan speaking on his mobile phone, walking back and forth. Meanwhile, jumbo cylinders were being offloaded from a pickup truck outside.
There was deafening silence inside the ward while a photographer of a local daily and the stringer of another newspaper waited outside. Soon, a woman arrived at the hospital carrying a child and crying.
Khan saw the child outside the ward, immediately took him in his arms and rushed inside the ward. The scene was promptly captured by the photographer.
The next day, as the dreadful news of the infants’ death spread, some newspapers carried a brief snippet of the saviour doctor along with the picture of Dr Khan and the child. Readers, aggrieved and outraged over the oxygen scandal, were captivated with the doctor’s gesture. The picture immediately went viral on social media.
Till August 12, Dr Khan was nowhere close to being an accused in the oxygen fiasco. On the evening of August 11, when the then District Magistrate, Rajiv Rautela, was addressing the media regarding the incident in the encephalitis ward, Dr Khan stood next to him, sharing essential information.
During the press briefing, the DM announced the formation of a committee to investigate the matter. This committee submitted its report within 24 hours. Even this report did not hold Khan guilty. He only found mention in the concluding lines of the report where it was stated that Dr Kafeel Khan (Nodal 100 Bed AES Ward) had informed Dr Satish Kumar in writing that the AC in the ward was not functioning, but it was not repaired on time.
On August 12, state health minister, Siddharth Nath Singh and medical education minister, Ashutosh Tandon, visited BRD Medical College. That is where Tandon made the insensitive “children die in the month of August” remark while talking to reporters. The statement made by the minister was widely condemned. Later, he announced the suspension of the college principal, Rajiv Mishra.
A sudden change in the winds
On the evening of August 12, the situation did a U-turn with Dr Khan suddenly in the crosshairs. Having been in charge of the encephalitis ward, he was blamed for the paucity of oxygen. He was maligned on social media where people accused him of stealing oxygen and for a private practice. An old unsubstantiated allegation of rape, which an investigation had already found to be fabricated, was dug up and circulated. While posts on social media and random websites were busy regurgitating ‘mysterious revelations’ about him, the news channels did not hold back in painting him as the ‘villain’.
The media attention now completely swung from the BRD Medical College to the Medispring Hospital and Research Centre in Daudpur, a hospital run by Khan’s family.
Within 48 hours between August 11 to 12, the doctor who had been hailed as a hero had become the villain. On August 13, Chief Minister Adityanath visited the BRD Medical College and addressed a press conference in which a journalist asked an out of context question about private practice of doctors. The CM rose from his chair with a taut expression on his face and claimed that strict action will be taken against whoever is found involved in such an activity. The same evening, Dr Kafeel Khan was suspended.
Director General of Medical Education, Dr K.K. Gupta, who had arrived from Lucknow and had been staying in Gorakhpur since the fateful night of August 11, appeared in interviews on almost all news channels the same day. He claimed that Dr Kafeel Khan had confessed before the CM that he was practicing in private. He also said that when there were 52 cylinders already in stock, what difference would the three cylinders arranged by Khan have made? Gupta also mocked the media for portraying him as a ‘hero’.
It is pertinent to mention that the matter of private practice had evoked much hue and cry at the time of the oxygen scandal, but in the subsequent three years, no action was taken against any doctor except in a handful of cases. There are several examples of government doctors running private practices in and around the BRD medical college.
Gupta travelled back to Lucknow and sent a detailed report to the principal secretary of medical education on August 22 and upon receiving a go-ahead from the government, filed an FIR at Hazratganj police station on August 23, 2017. The FIR named nine people as accused, including Khan.
Khan was arrested on September 2. During this period, neither he nor any of his family members stepped forward to clarify the allegations levelled against him. According to Khan, he had been asked to remain silent about the incident.
“Everything will be all right in a few days,” he wrote in his letter from jail. “I remained silent because I was scared. I kept silent even as I was arrested and for another six months in jail. But when Manish Bhandari, director of liquid medical oxygen supply company, Pushpa Sales, got bail, I decided that I should let everyone know about the truth of the incident. After this, when my wife Dr Shabista Khan came to meet me on April 17, 2018, I told her that I wanted to write a letter. I wrote the letter in an hour and handed it to my wife.”
The letter brought Khan’s version of the story before the public for the first time since the oxygen incident. It was through this letter that people came to know that he was on leave on the day of the incident. He was informed on WhatsApp about piped oxygen running out by a colleague who was on duty in the ward. At 2.30 am, Khan left for BRD Medical College from his home in Basantpur. While attending to patients throughout the night, he was trying to arrange for oxygen cylinders.
On August 25, 2018, a single bench of the Allahabad High Court ordered his release on bail.
Khan said in an interview then that he has no regrets about going to the medical college that night or for having arranged for oxygen cylinders, despite being on leave, although he was portrayed in a negative light for it. “If such a calamity strikes again, then regardless of the consequences, I will be there again, even if it means facing action,” he said.
After his release from the prison, he was confident that he would be reinstated soon. He said that if the government withdrew his suspension, he would like to resume his medical and academic services at BRD Medical College as before. When asked what he would do if his suspension was not revoked, he replied that he would set up an institute equipped with facilities for the treatment of encephalitis patients.
But neither was he reinstated nor could he set up his own medical institute. He kept getting embroiled in controversies which came thick and fast. An attempt was also made on his brother’s life. In September 2018, he was arrested again, allegedly for creating ruckus at the Bahraich District Hospital. Next, he was booked for fraud and arrested along with his elder brother. After his release from prison, he started organising medical camps across the country.
Another inquiry and the CAA speech
After a departmental inquiry gave him a clean chit last year in two cases against him, there was a glimmer of hope that Khan would be reinstated, but the state government initiated another departmental inquiry against him with fresh charges. The chances of his reinstatement further dwindled.
During a protest against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens, Khan delivered a speech on December 12, 2019, at the Aligarh Muslim University. The next day, on December 13, 2019, a case under section 153A was registered against him over the speech. Sections 153B, 109A, 505 (2) were later added to the case.
No action was taken in the matter for one and a half months. But on January 29, he was suddenly arrested from Mumbai. Though he got bail from the CJM court in the case on February 10, he was not released even after three days of getting bail.
On February 13, the Inspector of the Civil Lines police station informed the CO that the speech delivered by Khan on December 12 was provocative as it led to mayhem in Aligarh which continued for several days. Khan may pose a threat to law and order, the report claimed, and therefore, he should be booked under the National Security Act. The CO handed this report to the SSP the same day and the SSP in turn recommended to the DM that very day that the NSA should be invoked. The DM accepted the report and ordered the invoking of charges under the NSA against Khan.
The State Advisory Board also issued prohibitory orders against Khan under NSA. Three months later, the duration of his custody was extended for another three months. On August 13, NSA was once again extended for three months.
On September 1, the Allahabad High Court set aside his detention under the NSA. While recording its judgment, the high court said that the speech delivered by Khan was not about spreading hatred and violence. On the contrary, it encouraged national unity. The court said he should be released immediately.
Upon being finally released, Dr Kafeel once again expressed his desire to be reinstated at his job. He said he wanted to resume medical practice among flood victims. Yet the government does not seem to have changed its stance towards him.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.