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‘Toh Tu Dr Kafeel Hai? Dekhta Hu Tujhe’: Words That Changed Kafeel Khan’s Life

Dr Kafeel Khan talks about the 2017 Gorakhpur tragedy, his incarceration, time spent in prison, and his family.

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(This story was originally published on 30 December 2021. It is being republished from The Quint's archives on the anniversary of 2017 Gorakhpur oxygen tragedy.)

Cameraman: Athar Rather

Video Editor: Mohd. Irshad Alam

Production Assistant: Ribhu Chatterji

In his 300-page memoir on the 2017 Gorakhpur oxygen tragedy, in which 63 children and 18 adults had died at the BRD Hospital, Dr Kafeel Khan recalls those 54 tense hours in the hospital, his subsequent incarceration, his time in prison, and his fight for justice. He speaks to The Quint about other inmates, the fears of his family, and fighting depression.

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"The time in prison was humiliating, but what pains me the most is that I couldn't see my own children growing up. When I was released from jail in 2018, my daughter didn't recognise me. She thought I was a stranger. When I went to prison, she couldn't walk or crawl. When I returned home from jail after many months, she was walking and crawling. I missed those milestones in the lives of both my children," said Khan, seated outside his Delhi home on a balmy December afternoon.

The book, titled The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy: A Doctor's Memoir of a Deadly Medical Crisis," published by Pan Macmillan, was released earlier this month.

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As we walked towards a tea stall nearby, Khan was swarmed by passers-by, who instantly recognised him, and asked him for selfies. He obliged them, and in return, they blessed him and praised him. "I ask people why Dr Kafeel Khan's story touched their lives. They tell me that if I can be incarcerated after doing good work, and being well-educated doctor, then what will happen to their own children?" he said.

Khan said that he wrote this book for two reasons – one, to put everything that happened in August 2017 at the Gorakhpur hospital and after in one place; two, so people remember the lives of the aggrieved families. In the book and the interview, Khan recalled the story of Bhumika, a child who survived the tragedy, and is now five years old. He also spoke about a couple who lost their child in the hospital – one they had yearned for 18 years. "Everyone talks about Dr Kafeel, but no one even knows the names of those children....When the name Khan comes, it's easy to sell the story. As soon as my name came up on 13 August 2017, all the questions around the tragedy went away, sadly," he said.

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Khan also addressed the speculation around his political ambitions, especially in relation to photo-ops with Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav in the past. "I am not joining any party, but I do believe that good people, young people, should join, especially those who can change the system that is becoming so corrupt now," he said.

With this statement, Khan added a caveat. "I will, however, ensure that Baba (Yogi Adityanath) goes back to what he was doing five years ago. I ask the people: what development have they seen in the last five years? We should talk about roti, kapda, makaan, health, education, and employment. But this Chief Minister only talks about Ali, Bajrang Bali, Shamshaan, Kabristaan, and Abbajaan. This has to change," he said. Khan said that his ambition, right now, was "Mission Smile hospital, a pediatric hospital with no billing counter."

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Recently, Khan got terminated from the BRD Hospital, but he wants to fight that termination. He said, "It’s about justice. I am just a symbol, a face. People know my story, but there are thousands languishing in jails, and no one knows their story. If God has given me that privilege to fight, why not make an example out of that?"

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