“The lives of the parents who had lost their children remained the same—devastated”: Kafeel Khan on the Gorakhpur tragedy

17 December, 2021


In August 2017, a tragedy occurred at Baba Raghav Das Medical College, a hospital in Gorakhpur, involving the deaths of several patients—34 children and 18 adults due to a shortage of oxygen. The oxygen provider had allegedly cut off supply because of delayed payments by the administration.

In The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy: Memoir of a Deadly Medical Crisis, Kafeel Khan, a doctor who made several last-minute efforts to obtain oxygen cylinders during the crisis, puts forward his unanswered questions about what transpired. Khan is widely believed to have been framed in this case. He was accused under various charges, including negligence, corruption and running a private practice. Khan was arrested, granted bail in April 2018, but arrested again under the National Security Act in January 2020 for a speech at Aligarh Muslim University in the wake of the Citizenship Amendment Act. In September 2020, these charges were quashed. In November 2021, BRD Medical College terminated Khan’s position and currently there are cases against him in lower courts. 

In this excerpt on his time in prison, he reflects on how media reporting around him detracted from the tragedy that had occurred, as well as how he returned repeatedly to the question, “How could I, a junior professor still on probation, with only a year of service and no knowledge of the central supply system, be held responsible for a failure that was well beyond my grasp?”

My long journey–from a relatively happy-go-lucky doctor to an unjustly imprisoned professional dispensing medicine to fellow prisoners–had brought with it several realizations. In the weeks that I had spent in Gorakhpur Jail, I had discussed every detail of the BRD oxygen tragedy with my co-accused as well as several other inmates. This allowed me to identify several important threads. These helped me understand how the tragic events had unfolded and also how they could have been prevented.

Before 2013, the BRD Medical College received its oxygen supply from Modi Gas Ltd, a company favoured by the local member of parliament. After the installation of the liquid oxygen supply, the company was still supplying 300 to 500 cylinders per month to BRD. But when the new principal, Dr Rajiv Mishra, joined, he gave the contract to IGL in April 2017, an Allahabad-based company. Some said this was because of the company’s connection to a cabinet minister from Allahabad. The proprietor of Modi Gas was obviously angry. The decision to award the contract to a company so far away was a blunder, especially because oxygen is an emergency drug that should be supplied within hours of demand, preferably from within the city itself.

The BRD Medical College’s liquid oxygen supply was maintained by a three-way contract drawn up in 2013. This contract was between Inox (dealer), Pushpa Sales (middleman) and the BRD Medical College (buyer). The role of Pushpa Sales was confined to installing and maintaining the equipment, sending invoices to the hospital for payments, collecting payments and forwarding them to Inox after deducting a commission.

Questions were now being raised about why a middleman was even necessary.

This opened up a very important line of enquiry. When the liquid oxygen tender was floated, it was meant only for ward 100, a newly installed ward for treating encephalitis cases. So why had the ex-principal extended the supply to wards 12, 14, 8, 6 and the trauma centre? Who had given permission for this increase in the total consumption of liquid oxygen from 20,000 litres to 1.5 lakh litres? Had this consequently increased the liquid oxygen bill every month?

On 3 August 2017, a preparation meeting about the upcoming chief minister’s visit had taken place. It was conducted as a videoconference between the principal secretary of medical education, the DGME from Lucknow, the DM and the BRD college’s principal at the Gorakhpur District Court complex. The principal mentioned a legal notice that had arrived from Pushpa Sales on 30 July 2017. The notice stated that if the payment of his dues was not completed within fifteen days, he would stop the supply of liquid oxygen. According to the contract, BRD was supposed to pay his dues every fifteen days, and the overdue amount was never meant to be more than fifteen lakh. The DM and the principal requested the two officials from the Department of Medical Education to release the amount before the chief minister’s visit on 9 August 2017.

Finally, after having discovered so much about the web of intrigue that surrounded the supply of life-giving oxygen at BRD, I was back to my original problem—how could I, a junior professor still on probation, with only a year of service and no knowledge of the central supply system, be held responsible for a failure that was well beyond my grasp?

But I knew the answer to that was clear.

I could ask the ultimate ruler this question a dozen times a day as to why I was being punished. However, the rulers on the ground had their own reasons, and these could not be questioned.

I was in prison for drawing too much attention and praise for a mere humanitarian duty during a crisis.

When the entire state machinery singled me out, two things happened. One, the majoritarian media, eager for the approval of the government, began to make much of my being a Muslim, and how this meant that I was a potential terrorist and wrongdoer. Second, people with secular values began expressing outrage at how I was being victimised only because I was a Muslim.

Both these stands served to distract from the tragedy that had occurred on 10–11 August 2017.

I believed, and I have stated this at multiple forums, that I would have been treated in the same way whether I was Kapil John, Kapil Singh or Kapil Pandey. That is, whether I had been a Christian, Sikh or a Hindu doctor, I would have incurred the wrath of the authorities for actions which were thought to draw too much attention to the tragic events at the BRD Medical College.

The outrage over my religion being the reason for my persecution managed to distract from the negligence and corruption that were coming to light. Targeting me thus made complete sense. While those who followed the news on TV and the nation’s leading intellectuals were caught up in either attacking or defending my honour, the lives of the parents who had lost their children remained the same—devastated. Nobody even knew the names of those little ones who had died, what sacrifices their families had made for them, and how they had brought laughter and cheer to the hearts of their loved ones, before being snatched away by a man-made tragedy.

This was my most important realisation in jail—a period that allowed plenty of time for reflection.

By the end of September, I had begun to follow my own well-established routine in jail. After completing my fajr, I joined the 6 am queue for the counting. Next, I stood in the queue for the toilet, cleaned and used it, brushed my teeth, cleaned and swept the barrack and then sat down to have my tea. My breakfast was usually just fruits, following which I read the newspaper for an hour. If it was a meeting day, a Tuesday, Thursday or a Sunday, I would get ready and wait for Dadhi Kaka. Otherwise, I just walked around the barrack and talked to Dr Satish or Manish. I had a bath, washed my clothes, ate my lunch, offered zohar and went in before the barrack closed at 3 p.m. Then I cleaned and swept the barrack again, walking around and pondering over the same question: Why?

I offered asr and stood in the 6 pm queue for the counting, after which the barrack closed for the night. I watched some television with the inmates—serials like Gangaa or Bhabi ji Ghar Par Hai!, before offering maghrib. Then I read novels until it was time to offer isha, which was when I read the Hadith. Then, I continued poring over books for hours, at times going to sleep by 2 or 3 am.

The heat and humidity made me restless. Even though I drank lots of water and splashed my face and head with it many times a day, I was constantly reminded of the contrast between my life now and how I used to live before arriving in jail.

This excerpt from The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy: Memoir of a Deadly Medical Crisis has been published with permission from Pan Macmillan India.