The death of 70 infants at a government hospital in Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh) two years back suddenly brought Dr. Kafeel Khan into national spotlight – for two days hailed as a hero for saving many lives, and then vilified for allegedly being responsible for many deaths. After 9 months in prison he was released on bail, and till date remains suspended from his job at the hospital – neither able to work there, nor set up private practise since he remains a government employee. Over the last year he has been increasingly involved in activism around healthcare, and two members of the GroundXero team caught up with him on 8th July in Kolkata.
GX: Yesterday you were saying at the People’s Film Collective meeting that your arrest wasn’t because of your being a Muslim, but because of the corruption and the need to find a scapegoat. But generally how do you feel living as a Muslim in Yogi’s Uttar Pradesh, where place and station names are changing, and so on?
K: See, it’s not only about the minorities. As I said, the oppressed classes are the women, minorities, Dalits, adivasis. All these communities are being victimised. The thing Yogi is playing at is to get a bigger role in BJP, so he can become a leader after Modi in 2024. So he’s saying things like “Bajrangbali chaihye ya Ali chahiye” (Do you want Bajrangbali or Ali)? But if you go through his criminal history – there are already 22 cases against him, including murder and attempt to murder. Now people haven’t chosen Yogi, they have chosen BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Only thing he had was the Hindu Yuva Vahini, and he forced his way to the Chief Ministership, with RSS backing. As a whole if you see, in the whole of India, the election was on the basis of pseudo Hinduism. The leaders have won by poisoning youngsters in the name of religion, saying that if they have to survive they have to do so by opposing a particular community. It is by opposing the particular community that they are getting votes. That is their agenda. And this agenda has started since 1925, when the RSS was born. So it’s already been 90 years. I always say that if someone else was there in my place maybe Yogi would have done the same thing. Because I have so much evidence to prove the guilt of the perpetrators, and they would be behind bars. Just to save them, he made me a scapegoat. Only thing, you will remember I told you, that it was easy for people to buy that a “Dr Kafeel” could have been guilty. If you remember the 11th and 12th of August, 2017, people were talking about why 70 kids died, why the amount wasn’t paid, who were the culprits, who was the principal, why was there such a shortage of beds, medicines and doctors at the hospital. But after the 12th, when I met Yogi Adityanath, everyone was talking of “Dr Kafeel” “Dr Kafeel”. They forgot about the 70 kids who died. They forgot about the real culprits.
I will show you some papers … See on 6th April, 2017, this letter, addressees include the Chief Minister and Health Minister, and the incident happened on 10th of August, so there’s April, May, June, July that went by. And this is not the first letter, 14 similar letters we have, from Pushpa Sales, who were the suppliers of liquid oxygen, they were asking for their dues, saying they’d stop if dues weren’t paid. But they didn’t pay, they wanted 10% commission – all of this the supplier has given in writing to the court.
And this document lists the numbers of the liquid oxygen cylinders that we got [ourselves, to stave off the crisis]. Then see this document, it says that on 7:30pm on 10th of August the liquid oxygen ran out. This is a government document, obtained through an RTI application. 13th 2:15am liquid oxygen supply was restored. So for 56 hours there was no liquid oxygen. We worked liked pigs, you could say. We couldn’t go home. Even though we were trying hard, still kids were dying. We were getting some cylinders, they were getting finished, and we had to go back again. That’s why I always call it a man-made massacre. So to save those people who are responsible for this mess, he made me a scapegoat. And it was easy to buy their story [because I am Muslim], that is all.
GX: In that vein, regarding communal profiling, specifically in the health sector, how do you see it happening? For instance, in how doctors treat patients from different religions (for instance, Mamata Banerjee gave a statement recently saying that doctors see the surnames of patients before treating them), or experiences inside the medical education sector, or in terms of how doctors are treated by the medical fraternity. In your experience …
K: I don’t think there is a problem in doctor-patient relations in terms of religion. For every doctor, I don’t think we treat after seeing the surname, I am not agreeing with Mamata Banerjee’s statement. In my life I haven’t usually realised who is a Hindu patient, and even that night I wasn’t thinking like that. I don’t think any doctor would do that.
[The bell rings in his hotel room. Earlier Dr. Khan had asked a hotel staff member to bring up some cold beverages, when he’d just arrived after two different events around 2:30pm, and before he started two rounds of interviews with us and then another news portal, and then went out for the Press Club brief scheduled at 4pm.]
For a doctor a patient is a patient. We have all taken an oath, in the name of Apollo, to treat patients irrespective of their caste, religion, gender or socio-economic status. We have RSS friends who are doctors, and they also treat Muslim patients equally. Now if you talk about doctors vs doctors and how they have been communalised, I agree with that. Yesterday I gave a statement right, that the more intellectual you become, the more your mind becomes corrupted. My WhatsApp, I can show you, some IMA group, some IFA group, they write for instance that “Muslims have been taught that if they slit the throat of a Hindu then they will go to heaven”. We have never been taught like that. Then there are images such as some guy with a Muslim headgear standing with the cut head of a cow, and they will also circulate such images. They are doctors, they know these are fake news! But they are circulating. So mind has been corrupted. And yes, there was a genuine uproar all over India that why the same IMA (Indian Medical Association) that was so supportive of the one intern who was beaten up in Kolkata, and went on a nationwide strike, but did not come out for Dr. Kafeel. When I was victimised, even though the High Court and Supreme Court has given me a clean chit, and High Court has said that UP government could not provide a single piece of evidence against Dr. Kafeel, and still I remain suspended, and the IMA is not coming out in support. I have written so many letters to IMA. After this uproar I got a letter, and now 10th of July they have called for a meeting. [Dr Khan subsequently tweeted that he was assured IMA support at the meeting]
GX: And in education?
K: I don’t think so. As a teacher when I teach, I don’t feel about for who all are sitting there. I think other doctors also, they do the same. Only thing you can say is that there is some rivalry or friction between teachers who come through reservations and those who come through the general quota. In medical colleges I have also seen this, there is rivalry around promotions, and then things said such as “you are only getting this because of reservations”. But between teachers and students I don’t think so.
GX: Could you speak about your work around Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) in Bihar and Gorakhpur?
K: See, first of all I will tell you about this Health for All proposal. This we have made with 25 health activists. And they all are not only doctors – some are CEOs, some are Supreme Court lawyers, some are journalists, and we have come up with this proposal. Because I realised that BRD hospital tragedy was just the brutal face of a broken healthcare system. So firstly we asked for the data from the Modi government, and when we couldn’t get the data we went to UNICEF and World Bank and UN. The data which we got is very startling. So for instance 8 lakh infants have died in 2017; that is, every day 2200 kids have died. 50% of kids in the country are malnourished. 1 doctor is seeing 51,000 people. How is this possible? The doctor is also only a human being. 4.5 lakh people are dying because of tuberculosis, while all over the world the disease is seeing the last of its days. There is a stark divergence – when you go to Delhi, Kolkata and all the other metropolis, 1 doctor is seeing 334 patients. When you go to Jharkhand, Haryana, there are hardly any doctors. If you go to a rural area there is a bigger difference. 80% of hospitals are serving 28% of the Indian population. They are concentrated in some places. So we have come up with the proposal regarding how to solve this. And we want the Right to Healthcare, that public expenditure has to increase to 3% of GDP, and some other demands – so I am working on that.
About the camps, it’s not that I did camps only in Muzaffarpur, I am doing camps every week. I have done more than 50 camps since I have come out of jail. I have gone to Wayanad, Kerala, I have gone to Mumbai – wherever people call me, I go. Medicines I get from people only, they send. I don’t take money, but if they send medicines I take them. And I distribute free medicines. I want to educate the poor people about vaccination, about hygiene, about how to combat common diseases. All the 8 lakh kids who died, they would have died of common illnesses, and WHO says they were preventable. So I’m just trying to educate. Yesterday I talked about the 7 “P”s: poverty, lack of pure water, poor sanitation, personal hygiene, poor vaccination drive, etc… so all those are related to poverty. This is the genesis of all the diseases, at least communicable diseases. Non communicable ones such as hypertension, diabetes and carcinoma are lifestyle diseases. So I’m working on that. And then we have started the “Dr Kafeel Khan Mission Smile Foundation”. If you know about Gorakhpur, in 25 years 25,000 kids have died. 25,000! And more than 1 lakh have been disabled, all because of encephalitis. So we are trying to set up a 500 bed encephalitis centre, with the help of some NGOs, and also some foreign funds. But right now Yogi government has put a hold on this also, so I’m not able to do it. But broadly this is what I have been working on.
GX: You have been involved in all this activism, and you were saying all this started after your incarceration, so could you talk a bit about how you got involved? What your relations are to health activism, or activism in general?
K: See, before this incident I was just a doctor. Going to the hospital and coming back. And whatever happened that night, I did just as a human being, you know. Anyone who has a heart beating in their thorax, can’t see kids dying in front of their eyes. But when I was in jail I realised, why there is so much hatred. Why there is so much crime against each other, you know. Insaan jo he insaan se nafrat karne laga he. When India was founded it was founded on pluralism and everything. I read a lot. So many books. Robin Sharma, (laughs) spirituality, humanity. Babasahab, Mahatma Gandhi, and others. Maybe that changed my life. But what has changed really is that when I came out – and 9 months when I was in no one came to meet me, I only had those books and my family, that is all – but when I came out I got so much love and affection from people outside. See wherever I go, people pour their love. They pray for me. That motivates me. And when I started travelling around India, I thought that this BRD was just one example. And this has been happening everywhere, every day. So that motivated me to come to this. And I started meeting people. I met some health activists, and we came up together and made this thing.
GX: Could you talk a bit about the legal battle that is going on, and how you plan to move forward?
K: Legal battle is complicated actually. It starts from the lower court of Gorakhpur, to Allahabad High Court, to Supreme Court. The High Court, when they gave me bail, they have clearly written: “having considered the submission advanced the court notes there is no material on record which may establish medical negligence against the applicant individually.” [stress added by Dr. Khan, while reading from the document] There is no evidence. Still Yogi’s Government has put charges under 308 on me. 308 is for culpable homicide. That is going on now. When they put me behind bars they placed about ten charges on me, including corruption charges. Those have been dropped by the court, [he reads out from the judgement:] “The court also notes that the charges against … under the … Prevention of Corruption Act against the applicant have been dropped in the course of investigation, and that court also noticed that he was not stated to be a part of the tendering process that resulted in the enlistment of the entity which was charged with the supply of medical oxygen.” So the court has dropped all the charges. (laughs) But still the lower court is not listening. I have submitted this to the lower court, that the High Court has given me a clean chit, please close my file. But the lower court, there is no judge to hear my file, so the file is still open. Every 14 days I have to go, or my advocate goes. Then I have one more case in Bahraich, if you remember, there were 78 deaths in September, 2018. And Yogi said that it was all mysterious disease. So I went there and found out most of them were encephalitis cases, and I wanted to do a press conference, but before that they arrested me, saying I have gone to the hospital and created a ruckus. They kept me behind bars for one month. These two criminal cases are going on against me, in the lower court. Then in High Court I am fighting two cases. One is against my suspension. On 7th of March, 2019, High Court has given an order to the Yogi government that they should decide on my suspension within 90 days. Actually Supreme Court rule is that you can’t suspend a government employee for more than 90 days. It’s already two years now. Anyway, the 3 months from the High Court order deadline was June 7th. But they have not replied to my letters or the court order. So I am moving for contempt of court against the Yogi government in the Allahabad High Court. Another battle I am fighting in the Allahabad High Court is regarding my brother who was shot on 10th June, 2018. It’s already more than a year, and there has been no investigation, no chargesheet, no arrests. And the assault happened when the Chief Minister was present only 500 metres away, at the Gorakhnath temple. So that fight I am fighting. Then in Supreme Court I moved for the same suspension. Supreme Court has ordered on 10th May, 2019 – a double bench of Justice Kaul and Justice Indira Banerjee – that Yogi government should pay all my suspension allowance. That is around 16 lakh rupees. I have given the letter to the Principal and the DGMA and the Health Minister. Because I have to also live, I have to earn my livelihood, how long can I go with my brother and all. But they did not give the money. So I am moving Supreme Court for contempt proceedings against the Yogi Government. My lawyers in the Supreme Court are Meenakshi Arora and Fuzail Ayubi. So this is the legal battle.
GX: Also, more generally, aside from you of course many people are being targeted. From your experience, what kinds of support structures do you think are needed for political prisoners, or people targeted in various ways, whether it be legal, political, emotional, …
K: Yes, yes, all kinds we need. Maybe you can name more and I can say yes I need that. Emotional support, yes, yes. We need all that. Then financial support. One lawyer takes 50,000 rupees to appear in High Court, just to stand and argue. Where will you get the money? In Supreme Court the fees is from 1.5 to 4 lakhs, for one hearing. Then yes, we need a quick response team. My brother was shot, and the Yogi Government’s police, they came, and they took my brother, who was bleeding and crying in pain, in a van and roaming the city for four hours. So we need a quick response team who can help us in situations like this. And in the jail they tortured me like anything. They used to lock me near the toilet, and I couldn’t breathe for 12 hours at a time. For 9 months they gave me muli ki sabsi and daal and chapati, and I couldn’t … you can’t imagine. And there was a small hall, and there shouldn’t be more than 60 prisoners in there, but there was 180. One toilet for all of them. Where is human rights? So we need, everywhere we need. When I got out of jail, I got a call from your Chief Minister also, I got a letter from Rahul Gandhi, I got calls from all political parties, saying that we support you. But on the ground level when we are fighting, no one is there. Are you getting my point? Still, at 2’O clock, someone will throw a stone and disappear; still I get a call asking me to “stop speaking out against Yogi ji”; SSP and SP City should be the protectors but they also tell me to stop speaking out against Yogi, or else I’ll be thrown back into prison. So we need support everywhere.
(All photos of Dr Khan by GroundXero. All document images as shared by Dr. Khan. Cover image: Dr Khan in his hotel room in Kolkata)