On a rainy evening in Chennai, Dr Kafeel Khan takes the stage at the release of the Tamil translation of his book The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy: A Doctor’s Memory of a Deadly Medical Crisis. At the launch held on Sunday, September 3, Kafeel speaks about the harrowing experience of being targeted by the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh for bringing to light the deaths caused by lack of liquid oxygen at the BRD Hospital in Gorakhpur. But he also quietly observes how the ordeal turned him from a doctor to an activist. “Every time we talk about the Gorakhpur tragedy, only two people are spoken off — Yogi Adityanath and Dr Kafeel Khan. Nobody talks about the 63 children who died.” He pauses to pull up a photo on his phone of some of the infants who lost their lives. Showing it to the audience, he says, “I wrote the book for them. They came into the world not knowing what religion or caste they were. But they all belonged to one community — the poor.”
In August 2017, over 80 patients including 63 children died at Gorakhpur’s Baba Raghav Das (BRD) Hospital after the facility ran out of liquid oxygen. The hospital is in the very constituency of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath who had come to power only five months before the tragedy. A majority of the children were newborns. Kafeel Khan, who was a junior lecturer at the hospital’s Paediatrics Department, went to great lengths to contain the crisis. “The BRD Hospital tragedy showed the brutal face of a broken health system that was completely exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says.
As allegations of negligence and malpractice emerged against the hospital management, Kafeel found himself scapegoated. He was suspended, chargesheeted, and then incarcerated for eight months, before he was finally exonerated. He was also later sacked from his post at the hospital, a decision that he is still fighting to overturn.
The targeting of the doctor who helped expose a structural failure in the state’s health care system did not end there. He would be arrested again in 2019 for speaking at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This time he would be booked under the National Security Act (NSA) that allows detainment up to a year without trial. In 2020, he was exonerated in that case too.
Kafeel tells TNM, “I read a lot in jail. I read Karl Marx, Lenin, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth, and more. I never bothered to know until then why Gauri Lankesh was killed, or why there is so much poison based on caste or religion. My whole life, I had only studied medical books. In jail I realised what is happening all over the word. I realised that every Indian citizen, regardless of their profession, should speak against any injustice that happens to anyone else in the country. This is why I started speaking out. The tragedy changed me a lot.”
At the launch, Kafeel also recollects the custodial torture he was subjected to after his arrest under the NSA. “For four days they locked me up in isolation and beat me up without giving me food or water. My skin had peeled off in many places. I could not lie on my back for months after. I began hallucinating food. I ate the grass growing outside my prison from severe hunger. I’m a doctor, I could tell what was happening to my body as it went into dehydration. I was told that I had to stop speaking against Yogi Adityanath. But I believe somebody has to speak up. We cannot remain mute spectators. The minds of small children in the country are being poisoned,” he says.
Recalling the now-quashed NSA charges against him, he says, “I was accused of terrorism. How would I ever be unfaithful to my country? My family is living in fear and I think they have suffered even more than I have.”
Attacks against Kafeel also extended to attacks against his family, with his brother Kashif Jameel being shot on June 10, 2018. The doctor says, “He was shot barely 500 m away from the Gorakhnath temple where the Chief Minister himself was present. Two assailants came out of nowhere on a two-wheeler, fired four bullets, and disappeared. After all these years, nobody has been arrested. So yes, we are being hounded.”
Kashif Jameel, who was 34 years old at the time, survived the attack even though he sustained multiple injuries from the firing.
Since the past one year, Kafeel has been working at a private hospital in Chennai, slowly picking up Tamil in order to interact with his patients. He cheerfully reels off queries like “joram irruka”, “chali irruka” (do you have a fever/cold?) to his audience curious about how a doctor from Gorakhpur is managing to work in the Tamil state.
The doctor also opens up to TNM about his time in Tamil Nadu. “It’s been one year now here. I wanted to get away from the limelight to complete my second book. I’ve finished writing it now. South India is not new for me. I did my MBBS from KMC Manipal in Karnataka. The difference that I found in Tamil Nadu from north India is that even though people here are very religious and every home here has a picture of some god, they are not discriminatory. They feel religion is a personal issue, so they don’t discriminate between Hindus or Muslims. In this one year, I’ve never felt like I’m Dr Kafeel Khan, a Muslim doctor. I’m just Dr Kafeel Khan, a paediatric doctor. A kuzhandhai (child) doctor. It’s been a different experience. I cannot explain how much love and respect I’ve received here.”
He also adds, “In the hospital mess, people eat veg and chicken biriyani at the same table. Nobody says you cannot eat meat in front of me. This difference is because people have access to education. If you go to Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, girls are married off after they finish school.”
To TNM’s question whether he would ever feel safe to return to Uttar Pradesh, he says, “Uttar Pradesh is my home state, Gorakhpur my birthplace. When you have to fight the fight, you have to be where it is. But yes, my family is scared.”
Kafeel has also been fighting for special legislation to ensure healthcare for all. He says that he would continue to fight until such legislation becomes reality in the country.
Kafeel’s book came out in 2021 in English and was a tell-all of the tragedy as well a detailed account of his time in the Mathura jail. The book is being translated into other languages. The first translation came in Malayalam, followed by Hindi, Urdu, and Marathi. Kafeel recalls how the first Hindi translation was pulled from shelves after increasing political pressure on the New Delhi-based publishing house, whom he declines to name. Bharathi Publications in Chennai has now brought out the Tamil translation titled Gorakhpur Maruthuvamanai Thuyara Sambavam: Oru Maruthuvarin Ninaivugal.