Late on the night of Wednesday, September 2, Dr. Kafeel Khan, a child care specialist, stepped out of jail while wearing his trademark smile and a striped T-shirt. His nonchalant exit made the moment look mundane, though in reality, it was anything but.
On January 29 this year, Khan was taken under preventive detention under India’s draconian National Security Act. According to the government of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a speech Khan previously delivered at a university there incited violence.
Under the Act, detainees can be held without charge for up to 12 months if authorities are satisfied that the person is a threat to national security or law and order
“These seven months were like hell for me, my old mother, my wife and my two children,” Khan told VICE News. “I was kept without food and water for five days in the beginning.”
In these seven months, Khan has become virtually unrecognisable. His usually clean-shaven face with just a soul patch goatee now has an unkempt beard.
While Khan’s release comes as a reprieve for many, questions are being raised on the state’s use of stringent laws, like the NSA, to curtail freedom of speech. “One is, of course, relieved that Dr. Khan has been released, but is this justice?” Manisha Sethi, faculty at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research in Hyderabad, told VICE News.
“His case illustrates well the maxim that the process is the punishment.”
In recent months, the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party government launched a clampdown against the opponents and critics of a new citizenship law, called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The controversial law hastens the process for non-Muslims from neighbouring Muslim-majority nations to gain Indian citizenship but has no provision for naturalisation of Muslims. Opponents see the law as discriminatory against Muslims and not in sync with India’s secular traditions.
Khan is a senior doctor in charge of the Japanese encephalitis ward at a public hospital in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district. Khan gained media attention when he was suspended and arrested for culpable homicide after 63 infants died in the hospital in August 2017.
Hours before his suspension, he had been hailed as a hero in the media for trying to save infants’ lives by arranging oxygen through his personal efforts.
It was only after he wrote a tell-all letter describing the sequence of events that he was granted bail after 8 months in April 2018.
“I only spoke the truth in that letter. I tried to help the infants by arranging oxygen, but the government persecuted me instead of going after the real culprits,” Khan told VICE News.
A government report cleared him of any negligence, but another departmental inquiry was instituted against him and his suspension was prolonged. Still, Khan continued his practice, organising medical camps in Gorakhpur and other parts of the country.
In the months following the controversy, he became fairly well-known for his principled stand and refusal to buckle under government pressure. He was being invited as a speaker at anti-CAA protests around the country.
His arrest under the controversial National Security Act took place 45 days after he gave a speech during an anti-CAA event at the Aligarh Muslim University, less than 200 kilometres (125 miles) from New Delhi, on December 12, 2019.
“In that speech, I spoke about non-violence propagated by Mahatma Gandhi and yes, opposing the anti-Muslim and anti-people citizenship act. I also spoke of health infrastructure and malnutrition. These are issues that the government doesn’t want to talk about”, said Khan.
The court order affirms that his speech cannot be held as incitement to violence.
Khan said that he is not eager to report the torturous conditions inside the jail, as the government and human rights bodies are well aware of them.
“The prison had three times more people than its capacity. It was degrading”, he said.
Maja Daruwala, a prison monitor of the National Human Rights Commission, said: “Any agent of the state who acts illegally and irresponsibly must be held to account. Oversight bodies must act speedily, certainly and rigorously. Otherwise, the system will continue to hurt and harm people like Dr. Khan.”
Madan Lokur, a retired justice of India’s Supreme Court, said that preventive detention has been described as a necessary evil, and added that it must be fought hard and quickly.
“Every order of preventive detention must be challenged, since it impacts the person not only in the present but will also do so in the future,” Lokur told VICE News.
At present, Khan and his wife Shabista are staying in Rajasthan, a neighbouring state, as they fear for their safety back home.
Hours after his release, Khan was seen hugging and assuring his mother that he will “not do anything that brings them suffering.”
“They have gone through more hardship than I have. I just want the government to revoke my suspension so that I continue giving medical care to children,” said Khan.
Follow Valay Singh on Twitter