Post Mortem

The UP government’s farcical investigation into the Gorakhpur tragedy

01 June 2018
In April, the Allahabad High Court granted bail to Kafeel Khan—a doctor widely believed to have been framed in the case of the deaths at a Gorakhpur hospital last August.
indian express archive
In April, the Allahabad High Court granted bail to Kafeel Khan—a doctor widely believed to have been framed in the case of the deaths at a Gorakhpur hospital last August.
indian express archive

On 25 April, the Allahabad High Court granted bail to Kafeel Khan—a doctor widely believed to have been framed in the case of the deaths at a Gorakhpur hospital last August. A substantial amount of reporting suggests that many patients—34 children and 18 adults—died because of a shortage of oxygen. The oxygen provider had cut the supply after the administration repeatedly delayed payments. Instead of questioning officials responsible for procuring the oxygen, the state government has accused doctors of medical negligence. “After observing the presented facts,” the judge Yashwant Verma said, “it is the opinion of this court that there is nothing in the records that can prove Dr Kafeel guilty of negligence on an individual level.” Verma added, “The court should also keep in mind that in the affidavit … presented to the court by the state government, shortage of oxygen has not been given as the cause of death.”

The court was pointing out a glaring contradiction in the case against Khan and other doctors. The Uttar Pradesh government has held in court that patients at the BRD Medical College hospital died not because of a shortage of oxygen, but of natural causes. On the other hand, it also accused several doctors of medical negligence. If the state believes patients died of “natural causes,” how can a case be made for medical negligence?

This is just one of many discrepancies in the case against the nine accused in the tragedy. Even the chargesheet filed by the Uttar Pradesh Police reflects this. The police have gone back on its statements multiple times, the identical statements of several witnesses seem clearly scripted, and the evidence furnished to prove charges mostly comprises things “heard” or “seen” by the witnesses. The investigation seems to have been less focussed on identifying the causes and culprits of the tragedy, and more on making scapegoats of those initially accused. While Khan, the doctor Satish Kumar, and Manish Bhandari—the director of the oxygen-supply firm Pushpa Sales—have been given bail, six others are still in jail.

The most startling aspect of the chargesheet are the testimonies of the parents who lost their children on 10 and 11 August 2017. Many of them had told media organisations that their children had died due to an oxygen shortage. However, in the chargesheet, the investigating officers put the same question before all the parents: “Did your child die because the oxygen supply was cut?” The recorded responses are almost identical: “Shortage of oxygen did not kill our child. When there was a shortage of oxygen, an oxygen cylinder and an AMBU bag was provided. Our child has died because of a serious ailment.”

The investigating officer in the scandal, Abhishek Singh, filed the chargesheet against the nine accused within three months of the incident. The police then asked for more time to investigate an “anomaly” in the giving of the tender for liquid oxygen supply to Pushpa Sales, even though this had no direct relation with the 10 August tragedy. After four months of investigation, the police found everything “alright” with the tender process.

Manoj Singh is a journalist based in Gorakhpur. He runs the news website Gorakhpur Newsline.

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