New Delhi: A criminal case was lodged in Uttar Pradesh against Doctor Kafeel Khan on the charges of allegedly publicising his book on the 2017 Gorakhpur oxygen tragedy especially among Muslims with the intent of tarnishing the image of the Adityanath government and instigating the minority community for communal riots in the state.
Khan – who has faced a relentless witch-hunt by the state government since 2017 for highlighting the discrepancies in the Baba Raghav Das Hospital in Gorakhpur — appeared bemused by the FIR lodged on December 1, 2023, as the memoir written by him was published in 2021. He linked it to the presumed depiction of his own experience of August 2017 in the recent blockbuster movie Jawan starring Shah Rukh Khan. Many fans, and Khan himself, believe that a part of the film where a doctor (played by actor Sanya Malhotra) who was falsely blamed for the death of several children at a hospital, was loosely based on the Gorakhpur paediatrician’s life.
“This FIR seems to be an impact of the appreciative letter I wrote to Shah Rukh Khan after the release of the movie, which was a big hit,” Khan, who has relocated to a city in south India to escape state harassment in his native UP, told The Wire.
Khan’s book, The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy: A Doctor’s Memoir of a Deadly Medical Crisis, is described as his first-hand chronicle of the events of the fateful night in August 2017, when several infants died in the BRD Hospital in Adityanath’s political turf allegedly due to lack of oxygen supply. It also documents the persecution he faced at the hands of the state in an attempt to allegedly scapegoat him to divert attention from administrative negligence.
The FIR against him and four-five unidentified others was lodged in the Krishna Nagar police station in Lucknow on the complaint of a local resident Manish Shukla, who trades in flex painting. He told The Wire that he was a social activist and claimed that he had no affiliation to any political party, even though the description in his police complaint was heavily tilted in favour of shielding the image of the state government.
In his police complaint, Shukla starts by describing how he overheard four-five unidentified persons in a market-place discussing bringing down the government and rioting. The men, of whom he has not provided any markers, talk about Khan’s book and of him “secretly” distributing it in the state and collecting funds from his community, mentioned as ‘apne log’ (Muslims), for a “secret plot”. Though he does not explicitly mention Muslims, the import of the references are clear as Khan is a Muslim.
Shukla claimed that the men were discussing that Khan was trying to reach out to as many people of his community with the book before the 2024 Lok Sabha election and was “secretly meeting” people to publicise the book. “Under any cost, a pro-Hindu government should not come to power at the Centre, and the Yogi government should also be uprooted, even if it requires inciting riots,” Shukla said, quoting the alleged conversation of the mystery co-accused.
Describing his reaction to the alleged conversation, Shukla said he felt “Dr. Kafeel’s people can spread hate among the public at a large scale and disturb peace; they could also incite riots or even be terrorists.”
Shukla said he did not confront the men and decided to call his friends first. But when he, along with his friends, confronted the co-accused, they escaped in the dark, dropping a copy of the book written by Khan. “We did not run after them fearing that they might be carrying bombs,” Shukla said in the FIR.
In his complaint, Shukla said the book falsely held the Adityanath government responsible for the Gorakhpur oxygen tragedy. The book was written to “enrage” a “specific community”, to spread riots and “class hatred”, and depicts an “imaginary plight” of UP’s health system, leading to fear among the people, he said.
Shukla also claimed that Khan penned the book based on “unverified material and forged documents” to garner sympathy over the criminal cases he faces over the Gorakhpur incident as well as for protesting against the CAA-NRC.
The FIR charges Khan and others under a dozen penal clauses, including Aections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings), 465 (forgery), 298 (uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace) of the Indian Penal Code. The FIR also invokes Sections 3 and 12 of the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867.
Khan said the charges against him in the FIR, based on the conversation of some unknown persons about him and his book, was absurd. “Bewakoofi ki baatein hai (This is stupid),” he said. “Everyone and anyone can buy and read my book. The kids who died in the Gorakhpur hospital were not from one community. They were all from poor families.”
Khan also found absurd the fact that though his book, which is today available in six languages (English, Urdu, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil and Marathi), was released in 2021, the police complaint against it was filed now. “The government has not banned the book,” said Khan when asked to react to the various allegations levelled in the FIR over the motive of the memoir.
He feels the FIR could be motivated by the publicity he garnered following the success of the movie Jawan. In October, in a public letter to Shah Rukh Khan, the doctor said the movie’s “poignant portrayal of the tragic Gorakhpur Encephalitis incident has left an indelible mark on my heart”.
Khan wrote: “As someone who has had a personal connection with the incident and its aftermath, I was profoundly moved by your decision to bring this story to the screen. While I understand that ‘Jawan’ is a work of fiction, the parallels it draws to the Gorakhpur tragedy serve as a powerful reminder of the systemic failures, apathy, and, most importantly, the innocent lives lost. It underscores the urgent need for accountability within our healthcare system.”
Khan also refers to the manner in which the character played by Sanya Malhotra encapsulates his own experience but also distinguishes between the attainment of justice on reel and in his real life.
“It was heartening to witness the real culprit of ‘The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy’ got caught , though sadly in real life the real culprits are roaming free , me still struggling to get my job back , and those 63 parents who lost their little ones still waiting for justice,” he wrote.
After being terminated from his services over the events following the Gorakhpur tragedy as a government doctor in BRD hospital in November 2021, Khan is still fighting a legal battle in the Allahabad high court to get his job restored. He was initially hailed as a hero by a section of media and civil society for trying to save the lives of many infants through his own resources during the oxygen shortage incident but was booked and arrested by the government for attempting to commit culpable homicide and other charges. In April 2018, while granting bail to him after he spent seven months in jail, the Allahabad high court said there was no “no material on record, which may establish medical negligence against” him individually in connection with the death of infants in the Gorakhpur hospital in August, 2017.
In 2019, an internal inquiry absolved Khan of the major charges against him in the 2017 BRD hospital oxygen tragedy, but the government later said that he had not been given a clean chit yet and initiated a fresh inquiry against him for spreading “misinformation” about the probe report and for making “anti-government” political comments during the period of his suspension.
In September 2020, the Allahabad high court set aside the National Security Act order passed against him for allegedly making inflammatory and provocative comments in a speech against the Citizenship Amendment Act at the Aligarh Muslim University in 2019 December.
The court termed the NSA order illegal and directed the state government to forthwith release him from jail. Khan had been booked under the stringent law on the day he was expected to be released on bail from Mathura jail where he was lodged after his arrest in the case on January 29, 2020.