'Yogi ji will tell you if my Muslim identity was the reason for punishing me'
Gorakhpur paediatrician Dr Kafeel Khan, currently out on bail, talks to Sonia Sarkar about the fateful night that changed his life
- Published 6.05.18
When I meet him, he is trying to cajole his little girl, Zabrina, into playing with him. First, he tosses her in the air, then pulls her onto his lap and thereafter, rocks her back and forth. But she is not interested, shrugs off his overtures and runs away.
"My daughter cannot recognise me anymore," says Kafeel Khan, the 38-year-old paediatrician from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, who is just back home after spending eight months in jail.
Zabrina was barely eleven months old when Kafeel was arrested last September. She used to crawl then; now she can walk, climb and run. She could barely say "Papa" then, now she can string whole sentences. Says Kafeel, "As a paediatrician, I always tell parents, never miss the milestone moments of your child. But I have missed all her milestones. I couldn't even celebrate her first birthday."
Kafeel, who was assistant professor at Baba Raghav Das Medical College (BRDMC) in Gorakhpur, and eight others were held responsible for the deaths of at least 60 infants over a span of five days.
It all started on August 10, 2017, when the agency, Pushpa Sales, stopped supplying oxygen to the government-run hospital because of non-payment of dues worth Rs 68 lakh. Apparently, the company had sent 14 reminders to the authorities, including BRDMC principal Rajiv Mishra, UP health minister Siddharth Nath Singh and chief minister Yogi Adityanath to clear dues, but nobody paid any heed.
When the hospital ran out of its supply of liquid oxygen by 7.30pm, an alert was put out on the WhatsApp group of the doctors. Kafeel was on leave, but upon getting the message he rushed to the hospital.
As he goes over that day's incidents with me at his three-storey house - with an armed guard stationed at the entrance - in UP's Basantpur, Kafeel claims he called the head of the department of paediatrics, Mahima Mittal, and Mishra, but nobody responded.
He says he arranged cylinders from a local hospital and a local agency. "There was no oxygen available in the hospital from 11.30pm to 1.30am. Every day, 12-13 children were dying of premature birth or because of Japanese encephalitis. But on August 10, 30 infants died. I cannot deny that the sudden stoppage of oxygen supply was one of the reasons for these deaths."
He picks up his phone to show me an image from that fateful night. Four living infants along with a dead one cramped into a single warmer at the hospital's neo-natal intensive care unit. He also shows me screenshots of the calls he made to the higher authorities and the cash memos for the oxygen cylinders he bought from local vendors.
Along with his colleagues, Kafeel procured over 250 cylinders in 48 hours. The oxygen tank finally arrived on the night of August 12. By then, television channels were running his images and hailing him as the saviour. But on August 13, when Adityanath arrived to inspect the reason for the deaths, he blasted Kafeel.
"He told me, 'You are Dr Kafeel? You bought cylinders? You think you are a hero? I will see...' He thought I had informed the media about the mess in the hospital. At that point, my life turned upside down," he recalls.
And before he knew it, Kafeel had moved from being saviour to villain. Charges of corruption were levelled at him; it was alleged that he was running a private nursing home and diverting oxygen cylinders from the medical college to this nursing home. He lost his post of nodal officer under the National Health Mission at the 100-bed acute encephalitis syndrome ward at BRDMC. Well-wishers warned him that he could be killed in an encounter.
Fearing for his life, he left for Delhi on August 17 and stayed at an undisclosed location for a fortnight. Since he was untraceable, the police allegedly harassed his family. Kafeel's daai, the elderly helper at his Basantpur home, tells in chaste Bhojpuri how the cops would often come around at night, banging on their door, when no male member was present in the house. When she refused to let them in, they barged in and ransacked the house.
On September 1, Kafeel's elder brother, Adeel, was detained by the special task force (STF) in Lucknow. Realising that things could get worse, Adeel asked his brother to return. Says Kafeel, "I surrendered before the STF in Lucknow on September 2."
The STF took him to a government guest-house in Sahjanwa, 251 kilometres from Lucknow, before handing him over to the police. He says, "They threatened to slap on me charges under the National Security Act. It was Id al-Adha that day, but I was not even allowed to offer prayers."
Here, I ask him, if he was made a scapegoat because he is a Muslim; the ideological inclinations of the Adityanath regime are, after all, known to all. He pauses. His eyes, restless and sleep-deprived, are fixed on the floor for a few seconds. "When Mohammed Akhlaque was killed for allegedly storing beef and Junaid Khan was killed by random men during an argument over a train seat, I condemned them on Facebook. But when it happened to me..." He does not complete his sentence.
After another pause, he says, "Only Yogi ji will tell you if my Muslim identity was the only reason for punishing me. Yes, after a point, I thought I won't be able to get out for the next five years, as long as he [Adityanath] is there."
Kafeel's wife, Shabista, and mother, Nuzhat Parveen, met the chief minister to plead his case, but all that Adityanath apparently told them was - "Justice will be done."
The family remained silent for many months, but on April 9, when Manish Bhandari, the owner of Pushpa Sales and one of the nine accused, got bail, they realised they needed to expedite Kafeel's case.
On April 18, Kafeel wrote a 10-page letter, explaining his role and appealing for justice. He wrote, "I surrendered to save my family from humiliation and misery, thinking, when I have not done anything wrong, I should get justice."
The family released the letter to the national media. A week later, Kafeel was granted bail by the Allahabad High Court, which ruled out charges of "negligence" against him. "I still consider those 48 hours [from August 10 night to August 12] more harrowing than the eight months in jail. I am out now, my mother has got her child back, but those parents will never get their kids back," says Kafeel.
Indeed. Some of the families I spoke with are still not convinced about Kafeel's innocence. Some hospital officials believe he did nothing to save lives. It is uncertain if Kafeel will ever be back in the hospital; his suspension order is yet to be revoked. He says, "If they call me respectfully, I will go back. But I am not desperate to join them. I have suffered so much humiliation and misery."
He plans to open a hospital to treat children suffering from Japanese encephalitis. Gorakhpur badly needs one. Right now, BRDMC is the only one that caters to ailing infants from UP, Bihar and Nepal. Primary healthcare centres in Adityanath's constituency are tardy, hence the pressure on this hospital. "My hospital would cater to the needy," promises Kafeel, fiddling with his goatee.
In eight months, his beard had grown longer than usual, but now the goatee is back. He is dressed in a white shirt, a pair of black trousers and a chequered tie, perhaps attired for a television interview earlier in the day. He has lost around 10 kilos.
In jail, he found solace in books. He read Ken Follett's The Pillars Of The Earth, S.J. Whitcomb's The World Never Ends and Robin Sharma's Who Will Cry When You Die. Says Kafeel, "My biggest lesson from these was, I should never run away from a situation."
Our meeting is interrupted by visitors. As he shares his ordeal with them, I enter his mother's room. She is busy surfing news channels. All these months, she has been glued to the television, hoping to hear some news related to her son's case. But they never showed anything on him, she complains, except when he was arrested and released.
Even Kafeel thought people had forgotten him. But on the day of his release, hundreds greeted him carrying banners saying "Dr Kafeel is our hero" and "Congratulations". "I realised I am no longer tainted," he says.
It's Shab-e-Barat, the night of forgiveness for Muslims. I urge him to take a family photo before he leaves to pray. He stands next to Shabista, who has been stirring biryani rice in the kitchen. He drags an unwilling Zabrina into the frame too. In a few seconds, however, the child leaves their side and rushes to feed a cow at the main door.
Looking at her fondly feeding the bovine, I wonder, what Adityanath would have to say.
1979: Khan is born to an engineer father and a homemaker mother in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh
1998: Completes school from the Mahatma Gandhi Inter College there
2000-2012: Completes MBBS and MD from Manipal University, Karnataka
2013: Returns to Gorakhpur and joins Baba Raghav Das Medical College (BRDMC) as a senior resident for three years
2016: In August, is appointed assistant professor in the department of paediatrics
2017: Gets embroiled in the controversy that follows the BRDMC infant deaths. Goes undercover for a while but emerges thereafter and surrenders to the police
April 25, 2018: Is granted bail after spending eight months in jail