A hero, a target, and a never-ending public trial: An interview with Dr Kafeel Ahmed Khan

Kafeel Ahmad Khan in Gorakhpur (Photo-Siddhant Mohan/TwoCircles.net)
 By Siddhant Mohan, TwoCircles.net

Earlier this month, we had conducted a two-part investigation in and around Baba Raghav Das Medical College, where dozens of infants had died in August last year due to a critical shortage of liquid oxygen in the hospital.

Read our investigation here:

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As our investigation showed, the college, as well as the administration and the government, are not equipped to fight the outbreak of an epidemic such as encephalitis in Tarai region encircling many areas of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar as well as Nepal. Irrespective of this fact, patients keep pouring in at Gorakhpur, and most of them directly go to BRD Medical College without consulting any other health services.

What happened in August 2017 was certainly an administrative failure which led to the deaths of several innocents. However, several investigative committees went on to say that deaths did not happen because of oxygen shortage and toed the line that the state government asked them to.

 Piles of letters and reminders written to authorities showed that Pushpa Sales, the firm responsible for supplying oxygen, was constantly pursuing BRD authorities for the payment of the dues. But those requests went unanswered. Even on August 9, the day before oxygen supply was cut off, Yogi Adityanath was in the BRD Medical College and Gorakhpur District Magistrate, State’s Health Secretary, and apparently, Yogi Adityanath as well were aware of the fact that Medical College was fighting for the dues, but none listened to the demand.

 The most crucial, debated and/or appreciated role was that of Dr Kafeel Ahmed Khan, a young paediatrician and assistant professor at BRD Medical College, who ran to the medical college on the night of August 10 and tried to save lives of the children by arranging jumbo oxygen cylinders on his own capacity. While the messages of oxygen shortage were flashing on WhatsApp groups of Medical College and Dr Khan was talking to authorities for immediate relief measures, authorities had already decided whom to make culprit.

Dr. Kafeel Khan ( Photo Twocirccles.net)

 I met Dr Kafeel on a rainy evening at one of the Gorakhpur’s hotel. Dr Khan reached the hotel in a black SUV wearing a pink-white striped shirt with a dark blue tie—one of the several markers to identify him—and said, “I am just coming after concluding a free encephalitis health camp outside of Gorakhpur.”

 Ever since his arrest and subsequent suspension from the BRD Medical College, Dr Khan does not have any concrete work to do. At the beginning of the conversation itself, Dr Khan says, “I do not like to hang in between. Either authority should terminate me or reinstate me at the medical college.”

 Dr Khan’s suspension is about to complete a year. He is firm in his opinion that he can earn to feed his family since he is a doctor, but the only thing that is stopping him is his suspension because of which he cannot conduct private practice. “I will be happy if they terminate me. After all, I have not been able to earn a single penny since my suspension.”

 He further says, “I can start my practice right here and can feed my family. But the thing is I have a desire to work for the children and to strengthen the government set up at BRD Medical College so that more and more patient can get benefit from the medical college.”

 But authorities have no reply about when and if the suspension order of Dr Khan and other doctors will be revoked. I raised this with Dr SK Tiwari, the chief medical officer of Gorakhpur, to which he responded that only higher authorities would have a say in it.

 Another interesting fact is that since their jail term and bail, only Dr Khan has spoken in front of the media and various other platforms. Other doctors, who are out on bail, have chosen to remain silent. But Dr Khan can be seen frequently on the public platforms and forums, most of which are organized to “attack fascism” in the country.

 His latest and most visible association is with United Against Hate, an organisation which has been talking to deliver voices of Muslims of the country. United Against Hate is the organisation which is under the guidance of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, but that is not a problem for Dr Khan.

 “When should one speak? When all end?” asks Dr Khan, “When the tragedy took place last year in medical college, I was scolded by Yogi Adityanath in a closed room. He said if I was trying to be a hero by arranging a few oxygen cylinders. No, I was not trying to be a hero that day. I was just trying to save the children who were dying that day. Any human could have done that.”

 But following a media trial, all actions of Dr Khan were reduced to his much-debated private practice. “Since so many news reports were going on about me and whatever I did, my colleagues and seniors at Medical College told me that I should take leave and spend some time in silence until Yogi Ji cools down. I did so, but the situation worsened. I was jailed for something I did not commit,” he says.

 While media and human rights organisation were writing and protesting for the “wrongful booking” of Dr Khan and his imprisonment, he did not speak a word until April this year, when he wrote a letter from jail claiming that he was charged and jailed based on false charges. This was the first time he made any statement about his involvement in the case. In the same month, police took him to the hospital for a check-up, where he told media that he was being made scapegoat in the case.

 “It was the time to speak. People were thinking that I had quietly accepted all the charges and accusations, but that was not the case. I have to speak more and more for profiling the real culprits of the oxygen tragedy, which is not even a scenario for the authorities,” Dr Khan told me. “That is why I frequent public forums and platforms. And I feel I have to do that more and more.”

 He further says, “People are right in saying that I was not speaking earlier. But it is time now. See the mob lynching and false terrorist cases in the country, don’t you think one should not speak even now?”

 In a response to questions asked under Right to Information Act, the public information officer at BRD Medical College has said that Dr Kafeel Khan brought oxygen cylinders from Anand Lok Nursing Home, Gorakhpur on the night of August 11. The response apparently refutes the administrative claims that there was no such critical shortage of oxygen in medical college that night.

 In our investigation, we managed to get images of the pressure gauge of the liquid oxygen cylinder tank which showed zero pressure during the critical night of August 10-11. The doctors at the paediatrics department, albeit anonymously, confirmed that Dr Khan extended help going beyond the way, but he was implicated because of very few at the medical college like him. “Dr Khan is senior to me. I personally saw him running everywhere that night to get help. But his colleagues and seniors do not like him at all, even our head Dr Mahima Mittal is very critical of him. But he did not do any wrong,” said one resident doctor in the paediatrics department.

 Dr Khan’s younger brother Kashif was shot by unidentified gunmen couple of months back while his other brother Adeel Ahmed has been implicated in a case of fraud. Dr Khan’s jail term and legal help have cost him money, and as he claims, his family has to sell out ten pickup trucks they owned.

 A month back, Dr Khan started an online fundraising program to generate money for him and his family. While most of the people pitched in to donate, many condemned him for “using his popularity” to make money. He told me, “There is no denying that I come from a wealthy family. You saw me coming in an SUV, right? But the scene is different now. We are in a large amount of debt. My family has acres of lands, but we cannot sell them to anyone, because no one in Gorakhpur to Lucknow is ready to buy seeing controversy behind me and my brothers. The businesses of my brothers have been collapsed and, as I already said, I am suspended. I have to make money to feed my family and get rid of debt.”

Kafeel’s fundraising drive on Twitter

 Dr Khan further said, “I have completed my target of crowdfunding, and I am thankful to the people living in the gulf from where I have received the largest part of the donation.”

 Dr Khan is still struggling with his two-year-old daughter not recognising him because he spent more than eight months in the prison. He said, “The problem is in the system of the healthcare. Authorities have been trying to hold anyone they want responsible for the deaths of the children that night…I was one of the many. But there are few attempts on their part to create awareness in the rural areas of the region.”

 Contrary to our findings and whatever Dr Khan reiterates, there are still many who believe that doctors at BRD Medical College took help of the media to encircle Yogi Government for the deaths. College Principal Ganesh Kumar and Paediatrician Dr RN Singh are some of them. Ganesh Kumar, without naming any doctor, said, “Actually, doctors helped media to smear the name of the medical college.” Even after I pursued him on the question of “which doctors”, he said nothing more. However, Dr RN Singh, the 70-year-old Yogi-fan paediatrician, said, “Dr Khan wanted to be a hero, and he became one.” He further said, “But whatever followed him later, certainly made him into a zero.”

 After a failed assassination attempt on JNU student Umar Khalid last week, a message flashed on the cell phone of Dr Khan telling him that he could be the next target. He told me, “I don’t know when they will try to kill me.”

Death threat to Dr Khan (Photo – Kafeel Ahmad Khan/ Twitter)

 But Dr Khan is apparently not paying heed to these talks and is busy conducting more free encephalitis camps across Gorakhpur region. Towards the end of the conversation, he says, “I have to treat children, that is what I am trained into. And I have to talk to people, that is what a citizen must do.”