When Kafeel Khan walked out of Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura jail after seven months in prison on September 1, he was at the end of a long and difficult journey.
Kafeel, a pediatrician from Gorakhpur, first came into the media spotlight after stories emerged that he had arranged oxygen cylinders on his own to save the lives of children at the government-run BRD Medical College hospital on August 10, 2017.
As many as 60 children, including newborns, died within a period of four days at the hospital allegedly due to oxygen shortage. Pictures of Kafeel carrying a sick child in his arms had flooded social media; stories of his efforts had made it to the local and national press. In a high-profile and horrific case of medical negligence in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s own hometown, Kafeel had become an unlikely hero.
However, within 48 hours the whole story was turned on its head. Kafeel was now painted as a villain who had indulged in private practice and was accused of taking oxygen cylinders from the government medical college to his nursing home, contributing to the deaths.
He was suspended along with others, an FIR was lodged against him and he was arrested a few days later. He spent nine months in jail before being released on bail. Two years after the incident, an official inquiry gave him a clean chit.
But his ordeal was far from over. In December 2019, he was arrested on charges of delivering an ‘inflammatory’ speech against the Citizenship Amendment Act to students of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Though he was granted bail by a lower court, the government booked him under the National Security Act (NSA) hours before his release.
Months later, the Allahabad High Court not only quashed the NSA case against him but also observed that his AMU address gave a “call for national integrity and unity… and deprecated any kind of violence”.
Kafeel says he has been hounded by the UP government, his family humiliated, and he’s financially broken after a long legal battle and suspension. He fears being implicated in another false case and being arrested again. Such is his apprehension that he has taken refuge in neighbouring Congress-ruled Rajasthan to be ‘safe’.
Some in UP’s Opposition parties feel Kafeel was targetted because he was a Muslim. Others have said that he was made a scapegoat to save influential senior doctors at BRD Medical College. While many have held that Kafeel’s outbursts against Adityanath and the UP administration have cost him dearly.
Whatever be the case, his newfound celebrity has made him a political catch for UP’s Opposition parties, who see him as a potential face to win Muslim votes. The Congress seems to have stolen a march over the SP and the BSP for now. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who had earlier written to Adityanath seeking Kafeel’s release from jail, appears to have succeeded in ‘convincing’ him that the Congress is with him. The doctor is said to have travelled to Rajasthan on Priyanka’s advice.
It remains to be seen if Kafeel, whose release from jail has left the BJP government red-faced, takes the plunge into active politics. With Assembly polls in UP less than two years away, perhaps the doctor is on the cusp of a whole new journey.