Remembering Dr Kotnis

An Indian Fighter in China

M Bapuji

More than two crore Chinese people, including thousands of military leaders, died in the anti-fascist war. Kotnis was not a big leader either but Mao had specially sent a warm note of tribute to the "Indian friend" for his "international spirit."

China then as also now greatly valued Kotnis and friendship with India, as seen below:

Zhou en-lai, who was to become China's Premier later, had said: " Dr Kotnis is a symbol of friendship between the great Chinese and Indian nations and a shining example of the Indian people, who are taking an active part in our common struggles against Japanese militarism and world fascism. His name will live forever in the hearts of the two great nations to whom he dedicated his life."

Another prominent Chinese leader, Madame Sun Yat-sen, paid her respects to the revered doctor by saying, "His memory belongs not only to your people and ours but to the noble roll-call of fighters for the freedom and progress of all mankind. The future will honour him even more than the present because it was for the future that he struggled."

A bronze statue of Kotnis was formally unveiled in China in September 2020, even while the LAC stand-off was the staple news in India. China on October 11,2020 commemorated the 110th birth anniversary of Kotnis, who served in China during the Chinese revolution headed by Mao Zedong and the World War II, and saved hundreds of lives. Surprisingly,the events were largely ignored by the India media.

Remembering physician Kotnis acquires importance in India at a time when the medical profession is being gripped by commerce and corporates fleecing people as well as younger doctors, when jingoism dominates the India media, and when the present dispensation in Delhi is out to dump this anti-fascist legacy in favour of an alliance with world imperialism, reaction and fascism, as against China.

It was exactly three years ago, in a rare gesture, China restored the handwritten calligraphic condolence message that was sent by Mao Zedong to the family of Kotnis. The restored message was handed over to the Solapur museum in 2017 January, Times of India reported. The document, which has been penned in traditional Mandarin using a special ink, is about 3-ft long and has been made from traditional rice paper. The restoration work by Chinese experts took nearly two weeks. Explaining the importance of the document, Zheng Xiyuan, consul-general of China in Mumbai said: "The calligraphy artefact sent by Chairman Mao is priceless and shows the historical friendship between the two countries and the regard for Dr Kotnis. (TNN, January 8, 2017).

Ke Dihua, the Chinese name of Kotnis, is a "household name in China", reported Xinhua 2020-08-24, more than six decades after his death.

It may be recalled that Modi and Xi in their Chennai summit had agreed to celebrate the 70th anniversary of India-China diplomatic relations with year-long events. PM Modi had said, that the Mahabalipuram summit (October 11-12, 2019) had begun "a New Era of Cooperation between the two countries".

Modi had famously said, about his summit with Xi Jinping: "We have decided that we would prudently manage our differences without letting them turn into disputes, that we would be sensitive to each other's concerns, and that our relations strive towards world peace and stability."

"The two sides decided to designate 2020 as year of India-China Cultural and People-to-people Exchanges" and to deepen all-sided relations, Modi had said.

But it was all forgotten and instead replaced by a hate-China campaign in the Indian media, aided and abetted by Trump and US agencies including its media, and fueled by India's own hawks. It is of course only one type of hate campaign the Sangh Parivar indulges in, and the Modi regime winks at. Is this the Indian culture and civilisation they seek to project? They, including BJP Ministers, rather represent the fascist Hindutva mindset, did not hesitate to call agitating farmers Khalistanis and bracketed them with Left wing extremists. When it boomeranged, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, as part of double talk, said it was not proper to call them that way.

Kotnis was a great symbol of friendship between India and China. Following is a brief compilation of his life and work that are a role-model for the young generation.

Kotnis was an Indian physician, a great surgeon, a teacher who wrote text books on the subject, an internationalist who learned to read and write Mandarin and married a Chinese colleague. He was an anti-fascist fighter who laid down his life while serving that cause, and an enduring symbol of India-China friendship. He was remembered and celebrated in China, as they do every year, even as the LAC stand-off was raging between the two countries.

Dr Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis (born 10 October 1910 in Solapur, India–Died 9 December 1942 in China), also known by his Chinese name Ke Dihua, was one of the five Indian physicians dispatched to China to provide medical assistance during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938, that was part of the anti-fascist war.

Kotnis hailed from a middle class family of Solapur, Maharashtra. His father Shantaram Narayan Kotnis was a clerk in a local textile mill. Being a public spirited man, Shantaram became the vice-President of Solapur municipality. Dwarakanath completed his MBBS at the Grant Medical College in the University of Bombay (Mumbai) with the aim to "practice medicine in different parts of the world." In 1938, Kotnis had just graduated from his studies and was preparing for the post-graduation course. When he heard of the opportunity to work in China, he informed his family of his wish to volunteer abroad before going for higher studies. The ordinary family was not familiar with China at the time except for the fact that it was a war zone.

In China, Dr Kotnis fell in love with a Chinese nurse, and a nursing teacher at Bethune Medical School (BMS), Quo (Guo) Qinglan (1916-2012). Guo first met Kotnis at the inauguration of Dr Norman Bethune's tomb and was immediately attracted to the Indian doctor. Kotnis was a doctor who could speak Chinese and even knew how to write Chinese characters. Guo was amazed when he even gave a speech to people. "He was vivacious, and liked singing. Sometimes I couldn't stop laughing when he told his jokes," said Guo in 2005, six decades after his death, recalling Kotnis with a smile. She worked with Kotnis.

He was impressed by the young nurse with an open-mind, whose mother, "did not force me to bind my feet as other mothers did to their daughters in their home town," Guo recalled. She was given modern education, and trained by American missionaries.

In December 1941, the two got married, and in the August of the following year, they had a son, who was born less than four months before Kotnis' death. Kotnis died of epilepsy; exhaustion and taeniasis led to repeated attacks, and he refused to leave his work place in a battle zone. They took a toll of him . His infant son was named Yin-hua, two Chinese characters literally meaning "India" and "China." She remarried later, but cherished and retained the Kotnis surname. Unfortunately, Yinhua died of a medical error in 1967 at the age of 24 shortly before graduating from medical college. She died in 2012 (aged 96) in the city of Dalian.

Guo has been to Kotnis' hometown in India five times and retained a good relationship with the Kotnis family. Guo's most memorable trip was in 1958 when she took the 16-year old Yinhua to India. Dr Kotnis' mother hugged them as soon as they entered her home. His brothers and sisters broke down and wept. Guo and Yinhua jointly planted a tree in memory of the doctor before their departure.

Today, Kotnis is commemorated together with the Canadian Dr Bethune in the Martyrs' Memorial Park in Shijiazhuang. The entire south side of the memorial is dedicated to Dr Kotnis. A small museum there has a handbook that contains vocabulary words that Kotnis wrote during his 17-day passage from India to China, some of the instruments that the surgeons used at that time and many photographs of doctors, some with the Communist Party of China's most influential figures, including Mao Zedong. China also made a movie on Dr Kotnis in 1982, called "Dr DS Kotnis."

In August 2005, as honoured guests, the doctor's extended family comprising 11 members of three generations arrived in Beijing to join the national commemoration of the 60th anniversary of victory in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45). And they travelled to places he worked.

"Now that it is more than six decades since he died, we really appreciate how the government and the people are giving him so much respect after so many years," said Manorama Kotnis.

Kotnis' youngest sister Vatsala studied acupuncture at the Bethune hospital in Shijiazhuang in the early 1980s and started an acupuncture clinic in India. At least four members of the Kotnis family are medical workers in India, who cherished the sacrificing life and work of Kotnis. (PLA Daily 2005-08-09/China Daily, 2006-11-23)

Known for his dedication and perseverance, Kotnis has been regarded as an example for India-China friendship and collaboration. Like so many foreigners joined the Spanish fighters in their war against fascism, Kotnis, the internationalist, had joined the Communist Party of China in 1942. After serving as a doctor for four years, he fell ill and died the same year at an young age of 32. He became an able surgeon by that age, and saved hundreds of wounded soldiers. Dr Kotnis died of epilepsy, brought forth by extremely strenuous conditions of work. Kotnis lies buried in the Heroes' Courtyard in Nanquan Village.

Kotnis going to China was linked with the then international situation. He was a member of a team of four other doctors-Nagpur's M Cholkar, Calcutta's BK Basu and Debesh Mukherjee and Allahabad's M Atal (team leader), who had earlier served in the Spanish civil war.

China in those war times was badly short of doctors. Acting upon a suggestion made by well-known writer Agnes Smedley, who was a friend of both countries, Chinese leader Zhu De wrote a letter of request to Jawaharlal Nehru, an anti-fascist. The Indian National Congress, under the leadership of Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose (he was elected AICC President in 1938 though he resigned soon), sent a five-member team of doctors on behalf of the Indian people to China to show solidarity with the Chinese in their fight against Japanese fascist aggression.

There was an aid-China movement in India, and the cost of the delegation was borne by mass collection of funds. Bose too, despite his different approach, had opposed Japanese onslaught against China. It is of historical importance to note what Bose wrote in an article, "Japan's Role in the Far East" (originally published in the Modern Review in October 1937):

"Japan has done great things for herself and for Asia. Her reawakening at the dawn of the present century sent a thrill throughout our Continent. Japan has shattered the white man's prestige in the Far East and has put all the Western imperialist powers on the defensive—not only in the military but also in the economic sphere. She is extremely sensitive—and rightly so—about her self-respect as an Asiatic race. She is determined to drive out the Western powers from the Far East. But could not all this have been achieved without Imperialism, without dismembering the Chinese Republic, without humiliating another proud, cultured and ancient race? No, with all our admiration for Japan, where such admiration is due, our whole heart goes out to China in her hour of trial." (The Essential Writings of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Sisir K. Bose and Sugata Bose (eds.). Delhi: Oxford University Press. 1997 p. 190.)

Bose in fact presided over a send-off rally in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and went to Howrah railway station too, recalled Dr B K Basu, another team member. Sarojini Nayudu, Congress leader, personally went to see the Medical Mission off in Bombay port on September 1, 1938. At the end of a mass meeting in Jinnah Hall, she said: "you are sent to the war-stricken people of China as messengers of goodwill and sympathy. One or some of you may not return home" (B K Basu, 1982). Kotnis never returned.

Like Kotnis, or Ke Dihua, each of the other four doctors had a Chinese name ending with "hua," the character meaning China.

The team first went to Wuhan, then the seat of Kuomintang government. In the first 15 days there, Kotnis was impatient with a corrupt system and spurious medicines, which was no secret said the local Head. Soon they went to Sichuan, the communist centre.

They were then sent to Yan'an, the revolutionary base at the time in 1939, where they were warmly welcomed by Mao Zedong, Zhu De, and other top leaders of the Communist Party, as they were the first medical team to come from another Asian country. In 1939, Dr Kotnis joined the Eighth Route Army (led by Mao and Zhu De ) at the Jin-Cha-Ji border near the Wutai Mountain Area, after his efforts in northern China region. They requested and learnt Chinese strategy and tactics of revolution.

The Indian doctors worked in mobile clinics, treating wounded, injured soldiers. Like in the case of any other army doctor, their job was stressful, and the protracted Sino-Japanese battle saw about 800 soldiers coming for medical aid every day. On some days, Dr Kotnis worked tirelessly for about 72 hours straight without a wink of sleep. But the young Indian doctors were up for the challenge. The job must have taken a massive toll on their physical and mental strength, but as the Chinese soldiers endured, so did their medical assistants. Finally, the battle ended, and the guests from India were ready to go home. All but one. Dr Kotnis had fallen in love with China and had decided to spend more time there.

He was working stressful hours every day, and his efforts were not going unnoticed. Very soon, Kotnis was appointed as the director of the Bethune International Peace Hospital, Yan'an. It was here that the doctor first met the love of his life. During his mission, he was also a lecturer at the Dr Bethune Hygiene School of the Jinchaji Military Command. He wrote text books and lecture notes, also in Chinese language he le.

He knew about the way Dr Norman Bethune (1890-1939), a Canadian surgeon, an internationalist inspired by Russian revolution, who served in Spanish Civil war, and later China's revolution where he died of septicemia he got from a patient. Bethune set up an example of battle-field medical and surgical practice with little facilities, pioneered ideas of socialized medicine, and stated: "Medicine as we are practicing it is a luxury trade. We are selling bread at the price of jewels.... Let us take out private profit and rapacious individualism..." He trained students and staff in the school he set up in China's war zone. (Wikipedia)

Kotnis emulated and became a worthy successor of Bethune, even in death, and was called the Second Bethune. Kotnis became the 14th teacher—and later the Head—of a Bethune (Memorial) Medical School that had 340 students when he joined it. He was amazed that eminent teachers including those who studied abroad, were serving and teaching there, with service motto. They prepared teaching materials and students copied and stenciled them. They were all inspired by the motto: "we need science and intellectuals to make revolution successful".

The school was built by students and local people with mud and stone rooms and benches; the doors were darkened with soot and turned into blackboards, and into stretchers. Patients' beds were made from doors of war-hit and abandoned homes, clay-brick-legs and hay-mattreses. Sterilization etc in home cookers. Surgeries in mud houses, with no running water and surgical lamps. Gauze and lint, in short supply, repeatedly washed and reused. Two precious microscopes (one brought by Bethune) and a few slides were there. Students sat on floor in open ground, enjoyed the sun. When too cold, they jumped and warmed up. They collected wood from forest, produced vegetables, and cooked their food; occasionally joined in battles too. When enemy destroyed it, they rebuilt it.

Doctors including Kotnis served in battle fronts and guerilla zones, mingled with and were lost among villagers; with no uniforms, they worked secretly. They worked in areas where Japan pursued, encircled and practiced the policy of "Kill-Burn-Loot all," with thousands of casualties; and where vital needs like drinking water and salt ("more precious than gold") were in short supply. Village homes were converted into wards. Local people adopted patients as their kin, and when spies came, they told them the patients were their husbands or relatives wounded in cross-fire while farming. Patients were organized into platoons, treated and moved. They were all guided by Mao's words: "Rescue the dying, heal the wounded, practice revolutionary humanitarianism."

Kotnis continued and improved methods Bethune initiated. Whole schools and hospitals had to be shifted within hours as enemy encircled and attacked them. Medicines and equipment were kept in containers ready to shift anytime. Class-in-arms became necessary: Students and teachers discussed the subjects walking; an advance party would write review questions on stones along the way which students would see, note, ruminate, discuss. Notes on paper were pasted on backpacks so the student walking behind would study. Classes were held when they halted, protected by student-sentries. They bought dogs and practiced surgery. When specialist surgeons were no more available (died or left), pooling resources by learning from past staff and patients was the practice. Thus in such conditions, in one year Kotnis team performed 430 surgeries including 45 amputations, 20 hernias, 35 lumbar and presabral parasympatheactomies, complicated abdominal surgeries including gastro-enterostomies, as cited in a letter Kotnis wrote to DrBasu. Based on experiences, he wrote two surgery text books: General Introduction to Surgery, and Surgery in Detail (left incomplete, at page 177 when he collapsed with epilepsy.)

Kotnis improved the practices including patient-handling, disinfection and sterilization, surgeries and amputations, even with limited means and in war conditions. He organized weekly and fortnightly meetings of doctors and staff, reviewed, had criticism and self-criticism sessions. He was friendly, humorous yet strict. He sloganised : "Learn something (from experiences), be good at it, and put it into practice". Kind, observant and helpful, Kotnis the 32-year old MAN was called by many a "black mother". giving consolation and encouragement to his patients as well as subordinate staff.

Kotnis thus integrated with the fighting people, not just as a doctor, and spoke Chinese. He refused special treatment and food and shared weal and woe. He worked in forests and hills, climbed and walked in cold. He met and spoke to top leaders, one-to-one also, Mao (10 times), Zhou En-lai (5 times), Zhu De etc and found they had no airs of leaders and ate slept and worked together with people. He saw Zhou, with fractured right hand, struggling to write with his left hand. Thus Kotnis was inspired and became a communist. Mao advised him to narrate Indian peasant life and exploitation when he spoke and lectured to people, in Chinese. Guo heard and was impressed by Kotnis in one such meeting, and later they married.

Kotnis during the period underwent a great transformation in his world outlook and political ideas, wrote Dr BK Basu, his team mate. He became a China communist party Member in July 1942. In a letter ( April 1, 1942) Kotnis wrote to Basu : " you know very well how backward I was before reaching Ya'nan, my brain full of bourgeois ideas, and though full of national sentiments, hazy ideas of revolutionary methods. During over one year's stay here, living the life of an Eighth Route army man, ever receiving criticism from comrades, both during meetings and personal talks, I have myself been experiencing a good deal of transformation in my character, ideas etc. I therefore consider 1941 as one of the most important years in my life." (BK Basu 1982, March 6 Foreword to a biographical (about 200 pages) book, An Indian Freedom Fighter In China—A Tribute To Dr DS Kotnis (1983), Foreign Language Press, Beijing. It was written by Chinese writers, Sheng Xiangong being the main author, based on first-hand accounts, and documents including over 70 letters by Kotnis. This book is a major source for this article.)

Every time a Chinese leader visits India, he usually meets the Kotnis family. His relatives (primarily sisters) were visited in Mumbai by the then Premier Zhou En-lai in 1950; when President Jiang Zemin visited India in 1996, he sent flowers to the Kotnis family; and visited by the then Premier Li Peng in 2001, the then Premier Zhu Rongji in 2002, the then President Hu Jintao in 2006. The current President Xi Jinping met Dr Kotnis' sister Manorama during Sept 2014.

Dwarkanath Kotnis is commemorated together with Dr Bethune, and Scottish missionary and athlete, Eric Liddell in the Martyrs' Memorial Park (Lieshi Lingyuan) in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, China. The entire south side of the memorial is dedicated to Dr Kotnis, where there is a great statue in his honour. A small museum there contains a handbook of vocabulary that Kotnis wrote on his passage from India to China, some of the instruments that the surgeons were forced to use in their medical fight for life, and various photos of the doctors, some with the Communist Party of China's most influential figures, including Mao. In 2017, China presented University of Mumbai a restored handwritten condolence note written by Mao Zedong to Dr Kotnis' family in 1950 upon his death. (wikipedia)

A bronze statue of Dr Kotnis, known in China as Ke Dihua, was recently unveiled at the medical school at Shijiazhuang in September, 2020, even while the LAC stand off strained India-China relations. Apart from the school named after him as the Shijiazhuang Ke Dihua Medical Science Secondary Specialized School, there are memorials of Kotnis in both Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, and Tangxian county where he worked.

Back home in India, Dr Kotnis appears to be a less-known figure these days, although he was immortalised in a 1946 film : Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946, English: The Immortal Story of Dr Kotnis), scripted by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, and directed by V Shantaram, who also portrayed Kotnis in the film. His life was also the subject of a Chinese film Ke Dì Huá Dài Fu (1982, Dr D.S. Kotnis), with a screenplay by Huang Zongjiang.

In China, he is revered as a hero to this day: stamps bearing his picture have been printed (in 1982 and 1992) and there is a memorial to him in Hebei province. India (1993) too honoured him with a stamp.

In 1976, on December 9, his death anniversary, a magnificent Memorial Hall in the Bethune hospital (Hebei province) he worked was named after him. His name is cherished so deeply. Dr Kotnis was chosen as one of the "top 10 foreigners" in a 2009 internet poll of China's foreign friends in a century. The doctor "continues to be revered by the Chinese people", said China Daily.

Many in India know and deservingly celebrate Cuban doctors, and Che Guevara. But they know little about Kotnis, and the medical mission of five doctors. The Indian media has little place for him. They, including leftists, do not as much celebrate him. It is in such a background that the Kotnis celebrations in China are more significant.

Vol. 53, No. 31, Jan 31 - Feb 6, 2021