Over a decade ago, when Dr Kafeel Khan (28) was studying paediatrics at Manipal’s Kasturba Medical College, a professor told him that he will “learn development milestones in toddlers, such as their first walk and word, when he too becomes a father”.
While Khan has two children — a four-year-old girl, and a boy who turns two next year — he says he’s heartbroken that he missed those “milestones” as he was in prison both times in different cases.
“I went to prison, got beaten up, was kept hungry, lost my job… But the most pain that the Yogi Adityanath-led government gave me was depriving me of my children’s growing up years,” said Khan, seated inside the coffee shop at India Islamic Cultural Centre in Delhi, where his youngest brother got married Thursday.
The same day, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal moved by Uttar Pradesh government against the Allahabad High Court order that dismissed charges filed against him under the National Security Act (NSA) early this year. “I wore the sherwani I had bought for my brother’s wedding to the SC too… I was so overwhelmed when the verdict came,” he said.
In September 2017, following the deaths of 63 children at Gorakhpur’s BRD Medical College and hospital, allegedly due to oxygen supply shortage, Khan — who was in-charge of the ward — was suspended, and then arrested. At first, he was hailed a hero for arranging oxygen cylinders with his own money.
In 2018, he was arrested by Bahraich police for “creating nuisance” at a district hospital. On January 29 this year, he was arrested over a speech he gave at an anti-CAA protest in Aligarh, and soon the NSA was invoked. Khan was released from prison in September, after which he moved to Jaipur with his wife, their children, and his mother.
“My mother has been very strong through these three years but I think the mental agony got to her and when I got out, she said, ‘bas karo’. I decided to spend time with my family and moved to Jaipur… I’m not running away from UP, I’m not scared, and I will go back. Gorakhpur is my birthplace, I am not leaving it,” said Khan.
Khan’s wife is also a doctor. Two of his brothers are businessmen, one is a doctor, his sister in Muscat holds a PhD, and another in Lucknow is a microbiologist. Their father, an engineer, died in 2003.
Three years after the BRD hospital tragedy, Khan still tears up when he recalls the sound of parents wailing, the beeping of ventilators attached to bodies of children, and the chaos of arranging oxygen cylinders. “It was August 10-11 and mothers were begging us to save their children, some attendants held my collar, others abused nurses and ward boys… I remember a three-year-old girl died in front of her parents’ eyes… We all cried. I don’t regret what I did… I would do it again today if it saves even a single life,” said Khan.
Khan said that he arranged 500 oxygen cylinders with his own money, and on August 13, he was told that the Chief Minister wanted to meet him. “I thought I would get a pat on my back for doing my best but he was furious…Maybe because the news was out in the open. When an FIR was registered against me, I realised that even though I am from an upper-middle class family, and I am a doctor, who did good work, I was penalised. My privilege didn’t protect me. The CM changed the narrative from deaths of children to me deliberately,” said Khan.
Those two days in 2017 that he spent running around trying to arrange oxygen changed his family’s life, said Khan. “My brother’s business was successful but then people started disassociating and he suffered losses. We have a lot of land in Gorakhpur, including a shopping plaza, but no one wants to buy it. I don’t have a job. It took my youngest brother three years to get married… People are afraid of what associating with me will do to their lives,” he said, as two guests at the restaurant insisted on taking a selfie with him.
It was during his time in prison in 2017 that Khan started reading — from writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh to Marx and Lenin, from Indian history to World War I & II. “I was not a political person before the BRD hospital tragedy. I was just a doctor… In 2018, I started travelling and realised that all governments in the past too, not just the BJP, ignored basics such as good education and healthcare. All previous governments ignored it too but this one just talks more about CAA, Pakistan, Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir,” said Khan.
In 2019, he said, he gave at least 100 speeches at anti-CAA protests. He was arrested from Mumbai airport in January this year for a speech he gave at Aligarh Muslim University. “They said I gave a speech that incited hate between two communities. I didn’t. While being taken to UP from Mumbai by the UP STF, I was beaten up… They made wild accusations. I was put in jail and then Covid struck. I couldn’t meet my family for months, the conditions inside prison were dismal,” said Khan.
As far as his BRD Hospital employment status is concerned, Khan said he remains suspended. “The year when 63 kids died at that hospital, eight lakh kids died in India. The BRD tragedy was just the brutal face of a healthcare system in shambles… This is what I want to work on fixing,” he said.
Another thing that Khan seems to be working on is his relationship with his two children. “In 2017, my daughter was 11 months old when I went to prison and she could barely speak and walk. When I got back, she was 1.5 years old and could run. In 2020, when I was arrested, my son was eight months, and when I got back after nine months, he didn’t even recognise me… It pains me, I must fix it now,” said Khan.
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