Gorakhpur: Three years have passed since the tragic deaths of infants in a Gorakhpur hospital due to a shortage of oxygen on August 10, 2017. The nation was shaken, but the truth of the incident has yet to be revealed.
The police investigation has been completed and the matter is now in court. All the nine accused are out on bail. However, Dr Kafeel Khan, one of the accused, has been in Mathura jail for the last six months, charged under the National Security Act (NSA).
Except for Khan, none of the accused has ever commented on the incident, either from inside jail or outside it. Only Khan has been vocal about the scandal. Since he has spent more than a year in jail over the last three years, it begs the question: Is Kafeel Khan being punished for speaking out?
The incident on August 10 and the aftermath
On August 10, 2017, the supply of liquid medical oxygen was cut off at Gorakhpur’s B.R.D. Medical College at about 7:30 pm. Jumbo oxygen cylinders were arranged in compensation, but the supply of oxygen was inadequate and 34 infants lost their lives between August 10 and 11 in the encephalitis and neonatal wards of the hospital.
Nine people were accused in the matter: Manish Bhandari, director of the oxygen supply company Pushpa Sales’ Dr Rajiv Mishra, the then-principal of the College; his wife Dr Purnima Shukla; Kafeel Khan, assistant professor of the paediatrics department; Dr Satish Kumar, the then-chairman of the department of anesthesia; Gajanand Jaiswal, chief pharmacist; Sanjay Tripathi, assistant accounting clerk; Sudhir Kumar Pandey, assistant clerk; and Uday Pratap Sharma, junior accounts assistant. All of the accused were arrested.
On April 9, 2018, Manish Bhandari was the first accused to get bail from the Supreme Court. Following this, Khan was released on bail on April 28. Satish Kumar, Rajiv Mishra and Purnima Shukla were granted bail next and Gajanand Jaiswal, Sanjay Tripathi, Uday Sharma and Sudhir Pandey were the last to be released on bail.
A departmental enquiry was set up against all the accused except Sanjay Tripathi, Uday Sharma and Sudhir Pandey. On completion of the enquiry, Satish Kumar and Rajiv Mishra were reinstated in March 2020.
Three months later on June 30, Mishra retired from service. His wife, Purnima Shukla, had retired in August the previous year.
Satish Kumar is still employed with the B.R.D. Medical College and the reinstatement of pharmacist Gajanand Jaiswal is being processed, though he is scheduled to retire next month.
No departmental enquiry has been initiated against clerks Uday Sharma, Sudhir Pandey and Sanjay Tripathi as yet and they are still suspended from the hospital. On July 25, the director-general of medical education and training wrote a letter to the principal of B.R.D. Medical College, urging the early disposal of departmental proceedings against these three.
Meanwhile, Pushpa Sales, the oxygen supply company, has continued to function as it always did. In April 2020, the company received a contract to lay gas pipelines for two medical institutes. When the company’s connection with the August 2017 matter was highlighted in the media, the tender was cancelled and orders were issued for an enquiry.
The departmental enquiry against Khan was completed in August 2019, two years after the infant deaths. The investigation report was leaked in the media and revealed that Khan had been given a ‘clean chit‘ on two of the four charges against him, while in the other two matters he was partly convicted.
However, the Uttar Pradesh government did not accept the findings of the report and started a fresh enquiry. In addition, three charges against him in the district hospital of Bahraich are under scrutiny.
The state government claimed that Dr Kafeel Khan had not been given a clean chit and a total of seven charges of indiscipline, corruption, and gross negligence in duty are pending against him.
Meanwhile, Khan has been lodged in Mathura jail since February 13, detained under the NSA. Prior to being charged under the draconian Act, he was arrested in Mumbai at 11 pm on January 29 for allegedly delivering a speech on contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) at a meeting in the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Though Khan spoke about constitutionally guaranteed rights and peacefully protesting against these policies, the police claimed that the speech stirred religious sentiments.
However, he was not released even after four days of being granted bail in the matter and instead was charged under the NSA. After completing three months of NSA custody in May, his custody under the NSA was extended for another three months.
Initially silent, then punished for speaking up
For about six months after the 2017 scandal, Khan did not comment on the issue, even though serious allegations were levelled against him: that he was running a private practice and that he had stolen oxygen cylinders. Even allegations of rape were levelled against him.
His family also stayed silent after his arrest. In December 2017, I visited his family, but his relatives politely refused to comment on the matter.
On April 17, 2018, a month before his release from jail, Khan finally began to talk about the matter.
In a letter mailed from jail, he wrote that he and other doctors were being made scapegoats in a case of systemic failure.
He also narrated the incidents that took place on the night of August 10, 2017. He wrote:
“I did everything possible to save the lives of those innocent children. I madly rang up everyone, begged them, talked to them, ran from pillar to post, drove around looking for help, gave orders, shouted, consoled, spent money out of my pocket, borrowed money and cried. I did all that I could do in my human capacity.”
Khan’s letter then described his interaction with the state’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath on August 13, when the latter visited B.R.D. Medical College. He said the interaction 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 a hero? I will see it.'”
In this letter, Khan explicitly laid the blame for the deaths on Uttar Pradesh government officials: the district magistrate, the director general of medical education and the principal secretary of health and education. According to him, they had failed to act on the 14 reminders sent by the gas agency, Pushpa Sales, about the unpaid dues 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 (sic),” read the letter.
After spending almost seven months in jail, Khan was granted bail by the high court and released on April 28, 2018. When asked to comment, he reiterated the statement he had made in his letter.
After his release, on May 1, 2018, he told me in an interview that he wanted to devote all his time to his family and after the government reinstated him, he looked forward to working at the B.R.D. hospital once again.
I asked: What if the government did not reinstate him?
He replied that in that case, he would open a centre for the treatment of encephalitis.
A month and a half later, on June 10, assailants attacked Khan’s younger brother, Kashif Jameel, and shot him three times. The police allegedly hindered Kashif’s medical treatment, though he was badly wounded.
Khan succeeded in saving his brother’s life. But to this day, the Gorakhpur police have been unable to disclose the identity of Kashif’s attackers.
Khan accused a BJP MP to be behind the attack on his brother, stirring a huge controversy. In the following months, willingly or unwillingly, Khan continued to be embroiled in controversies. In September 2018, he intervened in the death of children from a strange fever in Bahraich and said that the cause might be encephalitis.
He reached the Bahraich district hospital on September 22 and visited the ward to get details about the disease but the police arrived out of the blue and arrested him.
Twenty-four hours later, when he arrived in Gorakhpur upon his release, he and his older brother, Adeel Ahmed Khan, were implicated in a case of cheating and arrested on September 23. He was released on bail after a month.
Subsequently, he focused on organising medical camps in the rural areas of Gorakhpur. Meanwhile, his popularity on social media grew. He was invited to different places to set up health camps.
In the summer of 2019, when Muzaffarpur was grappling with encephalitis (colloquially called the chamki fever), he arrived in the district and set up medical camps at several places. He also visited the flood-affected areas of Assam and Bihar and became associated with the ‘Health for All’ campaign.
According to his brother, Adeel Ahmed Khan, during the two years of his suspension, Khan held 103 free medical camps along with his team across various districts of the country, through which medical assistance was provided to around 50,000 patients.
While serving as a medical worker, Khan came in contact with several socio-political activists and attended their programmes and events. Towards the end of last year, he was also actively involved in the anti-CAA-NRC movement and addressed rallies at various places.
When he delivered a speech at AMU, the district administration deemed it provocative and filed a case against him. He was arrested from Mumbai and spent a month in Mathura jail before getting bail.
However, even four days after being granted bail, he remained in prison. Before he could be set free, the Aligarh district administration slapped the NSA charges on him.
Since then he has been lodged in prison. On August 13, it will be six months since Dr Kafeel Khan was detained under the NSA.
The appeal for release and the legal battle
Khan’s mother, Nuzhat Parveen, has challenged his custody under the NSA in the Supreme Court. While hearing the matter on March 14, the apex court referred the matter to the Allahabad high court.
Parveen then filed a petition in the high court. The case has been pending before the court since then and several hearings have been held on court appointed dates.
The petition mainly questions the state government’s actions on three points. First, why was Khan not released for four days after getting bail in the case registered in Aligarh?
Second, when Khan has been granted bail in all the cases registered against him, on what basis has he still been detained under the NSA?
Third, and most important, when prisoners were being released due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, why was the duration of his custody under the NSA extended?
The last hearing in the high court was held on July 27 before the bench of Justices Shashikant Gupta and Manjurani Chauhan. The date for next hearing was fixed for August 5, granting the petitioner’s advocate a week’s time to file an amended petition.
The bench of Justices Manoj Mishra and Deepak Verma heard the case on August 5, when Patanjali Sharma, senior counsel of the government, told the court that her office had received the copy of the amended petition only the previous Friday.
A period of 10 days was sought to furnish the reply. The court granted the next hearing on August 19, asking the senior government counsel to submit their response.
The court also directed the Centre to file its affidavit on August 19. In the high court, the matter was heard on June 8, June 10, June 16 and July 7.
Meanwhile, Parveen once again approached the Supreme Court, where her petition was scheduled to be heard on August 11. In this petition, the Supreme Court was requested to hold a time-bound hearing in the case.
Many campaigns demand release of the doctor
The battle to get Khan released from jail is no longer his family’s alone. Several organisations are constantly demanding his release, holding agitations and campaigns in their own way.
Political parties have also joined the struggle. The minority cell of the Congress has been running a campaign seeking the release of Khan for quite some time. In a door-to-door campaign, signatures are being collected for the release of Khan.
In addition, chadars are being offered on mazars, and there are prayer meetings, blood donation camps, memorandum programmes and a number of social media campaigns, all in favour of Khan’s release.
Priyanka Gandhi, the general secretary of the Congress party and in charge of Uttar Pradesh, wrote a letter to CM Adityanath, urging him to do justice in the matter of Khan.
Following Priyanka Gandhi’s letter, Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary wrote a letter to the prime minister on August 5, while another letter addressed to the President of India was issued on August 8 by Rajya Sabha member and AAP leader Sanjay Singh. All these letters demanded the release of Dr Kafeel Khan.
Khan’s wife Shabista Khan is also running a social media campaign for the release of her husband.
On July 22, the Advocate Forum of Allahabad held a demonstration in front of the high court, demanding the unconditional release of Khan.
Earlier, on July 19, the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), the All India Students’ Association, the Inquilabi Naujawan Sabha and Insaf held demonstrations demanding Dr Khan’s release in various districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar including Gorakhpur, Deoria, Balia, Lucknow, Mirzapur, Sonbhadra, Allahabad, Varanasi, Azamgarh, Mau, Chandauli, Ghazipur, Pilibhit, Lakhimpur Kheri and Rae Bareli.
From jail, Khan has written three open letters. In the first letter addressed to the prime minister, dated March 19, he expressed his desire to contribute to help contain the novel coronavirus and requested to be released from prison in order to be able to serve the people.
In this letter, he also stated that his detention under the NSA is illegal and completely arbitrary. He alleged that he had been falsely implicated and was being held in an undemocratic manner without any grounds or evidence at the behest of the Uttar Pradesh government.
In June, he wrote another letter just before Eid, expressing his apprehension that the COVID-19 virus would spread very fast and advised the government to carry out ten lakh tests per day.
He expressed his regret that during this challenging time, he was still lodged in prison and unable to serve the country. In a more recent letter, he also gave an account of the poor conditions in Mathura jail.
What happened to Khan must have instilled so much fear in the people around him that three years later, no one dares to talk about the oxygen incident.
The parties involved fear that speaking out may land them in trouble. Off the record, all of them say that Khan should have remained silent too.
Upon being released in April 2018, Khan had said that he should not have kept silent for so long after the oxygen fiasco. He had been told that if he kept his mouth shut, things would be streamlined. But he believed he was mistaken. He should have been articulate about the incident from the very first day, he said. In jail, he realised that it was necessary to tell everything he knew, even if it meant going to jail again.
Every time the government has initiated action against Khan during the past three years, it has bolstered the belief of a major part of India’s population that he is being punished for speaking out on the B.R.D. Medical College incident.
Manoj Singh is the editor of the website Gorakhpur Newsline.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman