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'Agonising, Humiliating, Senseless': Dr Kafeel Khan Looks Back on Time in Jail

"Everything I came to understand about the prison currencies...became clear to me over time," writes Dr Kafeel Khan.

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(This book excerpt was originally published on 29 December 2021. It is being republished from The Quint's archives on the anniversary of 2017 Gorakhpur oxygen tragedy.)

(This excerpt has been taken with permission from 'The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy: A Doctor's Memoir of a Deadly Medical Crisis' by Kafeel Khan, published by Pan Macmillan Publishing.)

Everything I came to understand about the prison currencies, and how prisons operate in general, became clear to me over time. I am writing about my experience here, in a single condensed account, but my time in prison constituted some of the most agonising, humiliating – and what I considered senseless – experiences of my life.

Separated from my family and prevented from practising the profession for which I had trained and worked for so many years, it seemed I had become the victim of a process that promised to deliver justice. Instead, everyone told me it was not a just process – but it would be over soon, after things had ‘settled down’.

But what was this ‘settling down’ and how would it happen? How could anything settle down when the media frenzy around me was daily being fed by further falsehoods? What was my antidote against the anchors who thundered from the safety of their TV studios day and night, assaulting my character?

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I would have been willing to clean the toilets and do all the prison-assigned tasks if I thought that in some way I had done some wrong, that I had committed a crime against my family, society and country. Instead, I felt like I had drawn the worst punishment only for doing the right thing in the most difficult circumstances, and then, for speaking the truth.

On Inmates and Isolation

On 7 September, I woke up for the counting and joined the toilet queue. My turn came only after an hour, but when it did, I took a broom and an old oil container, and began one of my assigned tasks. The stench was so terrible that I vomited while cleaning the toilet, but I still cleaned it properly. I swept the barrack with two more prisoners, brushed my teeth, had my tea and waited for the mulakat. Dadhi Kaka came at around 11 o’clock, but he brought disappointing news. I had no visitors. So Adeel bhai may have gone to Allahabad, but couldn’t Shabista have paid me a visit? What had happened to them? My mind collapsed once again into an ocean of questions and worries. I sat by myself in a corner until the noon bell rang, instructing us to go inside, after which I went into the barrack.

But how long could I continue my self-imposed isolation? Gradually, I began interacting with my fellow prisoners. One could say that I was finally able to absorb the trauma and shock of being in a jail, and I started noticing the different personalities around me.

Azad was a nineteen-year-old with grave charges levied against him under the POCSO Act. His story was similar to many who are charged under this act by hostile families. He was seventeen when he had a love affair with a teenage girl who was then fifteen. They wanted to marry each other and ran away from home to Mumbai until her family found them. The girl changed her statement under pressure from her family and an FIR was registered. The fast-track court sentenced him to seven years of rigorous imprisonment, which he was now serving.

I found him to be a very cheerful person who took care of Mantri-ji, as one of the inmates was called. Azad made Mantri-ji’s bed, served him tea, fruits and snacks, coloured his hair and washed his clothes. Most of the time, Mantri-ji was reprimanding or swearing at him, but Azad ignored it all and continued his work in the spirit of ‘jail me samay katna hai (one has to pass the time in jail somehow)’.

I could never get used to the lack of concern most inmates displayed about basic personal hygiene. On the other side of the barrack, waste from the toilet used to flow out into the open through the cracks in a broken pipe, attracting millions of flies. Just the thought of going there made me feel like retching. But it was a place that inmates habitually visited in order to take a leak under the open sky. I never figured out if this was because the toilets were very dirty, or they were just used to peeing in the open.

For me, having access to water and washing my hands with soap was so important that after a few days I got myself some paper soap that I could always keep on my person.

Meeting and interacting with Mantri-ji furthered my education in another direction.

Mantri-ji was a bahubali politician from Maharajganj in Gorakhpur. He was counted in the league of former well-known bahubalis of Purvanchal. His clout was immense, and he had been a minister in many UP governments, including those of the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP).

Mantri-ji’s fortunes turned after he allegedly had an affair with twenty-four-year-old poet and political aspirant, who, after getting pregnant, was found dead in her apartment. Both Mantri-ji and his wife were found guilty of conspiring to murder the girl, and were sentenced to life imprisonment, of which they had served sixteen years when I reached Gorakhpur Jail. I had heard of him even when I was working at BRD, because he spent a lot of time at the college roaming around freely. He had returned to prison only after the change of government in 2017, and his barrack had been reserved for him.

He was known to help other prisoners, but his habit of then insulting that person in front of everyone took away from his image of a generous man.

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A Former Resident of the Same Barrack...

I also faced my share of taunts from Mantri-ji. He would tell me, ‘You claim that you got the cylinders, and that’s why you are here. Once you stop talking about that day and stop asking “Why am I here?” you will be freed. If you keep repeating “What was my fault? So many kids died!” you will rot in this jail. Or, even if you get released, you will come back again.’

I was silent when this insight was revealed to me. What was there to say?

One day, Mantri-ji told me the story of Yogi Adityanath’s stint in prison in 2007, when he had been arrested under the charge of rioting.

‘He was an MP from the BJP when a communal riot broke out and an outfit torched many buses and public property. Even a rail compartment carrying handicapped students had been targeted. His supporters and he were jailed on charges of disturbing the peace and violating prohibitory orders. He spent fifteen days here, in the same Millennium barrack in which you are lodged...’

Other prisoners who had been present at the time substantiated Mantri-ji’s story. How strange, I thought, that he was once a resident of the same jail barrack I was in.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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