Who is Dr Kafeel Khan? The Man Wrongly Accused of the Death of 60 Children in Gorakhpur


Who is Dr Kafeel Khan? The Man Wrongly Accused of the Death of 60 Children in Gorakhpur

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Two years ago a horrific headline flashed on our screens: Over 60 children had died in a Gorakhpur hospital over two days in August, after it ran out of oxygen. The incident came to be known as the Gorakhpur hospital tragedy, and led to several campaigns — both online and offline — putting pressure on the authorities to hold someone responsible for this grave negligence.

That someone happened to be Dr Kafeel Khan, a UP-based doctor, who was posted as a paediatrician at the BRD Medical College, where the disaster unfolded. A few days after the incident, and after Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath visited the hospital with a number of cameras, the state government released a report blaming the deaths on Khan. It said the doctor had “failed to take prompt action or warn his superiors about the impending crisis despite knowing about the situation.” As you’d expect, Khan was vilified by the media, made the scapegoat, and sent straight to jail for the crime.

Khan spent over eight months of the last two years in jail, and maintained his innocence throughout. These appeals had gone largely unnoticed until earlier this year, when he was granted bail by the Allahabad High Court, which ruled that there was no connection between him and the deaths. Today, another 15-page report compiled by the same UP government that had earlier blamed the incident on him, seemed to support the High Court judgement. It officially absolved Khan of any hand in the deaths.

The report, which was supposed to be submitted within 90 days, typically took over two years to be made public, but is making news because it points out some serious discrepancies in the original statement that blamed Khan for the crime. It, in fact, goes a step ahead and praises Khan for the way he handled the situation. 

For one, rather than “not take prompt action”, it was found that the doctor and his team had apparently spent quite a bit of their own money to source 500 oxygen cylinders over the 54 hours that the calamity was unfolding. It was instead, according to the report, the state government’s fault that the cylinders were not sourced on time. “The authorities admitted there was a shortage of liquid oxygen because the government didn’t pay vendors,” Khan said in an interview after the report’s release.

Dr. Kaleef Khan was vilified by the media, made the scapegoat, and sent straight to jail for the crime.

Meanwhile, contrary to the initial statement, which claims that Khan didn’t “inform authorities about the shortage” the new report says the doctor raised several red-flags about the lack of cylinders — signs that were apparently ignored until it was too late.

And if you think that’s bad, it wasn’t even his job to look after the cylinders in the first place. The initial report, which indicted Khan, listed him as the nodal officer in charge of the encephalitis ward, where the deaths occurred. That meant that he should have been the first to know about the shortage. But the new report notes — two years later, by the way — that this easy-to-verify public record statement was just not true: Khan was never put in charge of the ward. 

Eventually, the state’s report concluded exactly what the High Court’s judgement did earlier this year — that Khan was not guilty of any of the initial charges made against him. There was no negligence on his part, he was not involved in the tendering process of supplying oxygen, or any of the related corruption. 

This new twist in the case has obviously drawn a sharp reaction on social media, considering the same people who made the case go viral back in 2017, were once again left without answers. A number of them pointed out that Khan should now receive a formal apology from the state government and CM Yogi Adityanath, while a few voices were raised against what looked like a “clear-cut case of discrimination” against a Muslim person, in a state not often showcased for its plurality.

Khan meanwhile simply seemed to be relieved to be out of the mess. As soon as the new 15-page document was released, he put out a video on Twitter, which he starts by saying: “For two years I have been carrying the tag of ‘murderer’. Hopefully, it will be washed away now.” He’s also posted his mother’s tearful reaction to the news, and received a lot of support from the same people who once believed he was guilty.

So now that one man gets closer to justice, it’s time for the state government to think about the 60 children we lost two years ago, and answer the question: Who is actually responsible for the murders?