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No other Indians can claim the kind of adulation and respect that Dr. Dwarakanath Kotnis enjoys in China. Coming from a family of doctors, Dr. Kotnis had always dreamt of becoming a physician. And the War of Resistance gave him the perfect opportunity to make himself useful in the battle field. This chapter tells us about the story of his life.
Dr. Dwarakanath Kotnis was born in a lower-middle-class family on October 10, 1910 in Sholapur, Mumbai. He wanted to become a doctor. He graduated in medicine from G. S. Medical College, Bombay. But he put aside his post-graduation plans to join the medical aid mission to China.
He always wanted to travel around the world and practice medicine. He started his medical expedition in Vietnam, and then moved on to Singapore and Brunei. In 1937, the communist General Zhu De requested Jawaharlal Nehru to send Indian physicians to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War to help the soldiers.
The President of the Indian National Congress, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, agreed to send a team of volunteer doctors. A medical team of five doctors was sent as the part of Indian Medical Mission Team in September 1938. It comprised of M. Atal, M. Cholkar, D. Kotnis, B.K. Basu and D. Mukerji.
His Life in China
After the war, all other doctors except Dr. Kotnis, returned to India. Dr. Kotnis stayed back to serve at the military base. He started his work in Yan’an and then went to the anti-Japanese base area in North China, working in the surgical department of the Eighth Route Army General Hospital as the physician-in-charge.
He fell in love with a Chinese woman, Guo Qinglan, who worked as a nurse in the same hospital. In November 1941, Kotnis married Guo and a son was born on August 23, 1942. They named the boy “Yin Hua” combining the Chinese characters “Yin” for India and “Hua” for China.
He worked as a lecturer in the military area at the Dr. Bethune Hygiene School and became the first president of the Bethune International Peace Hospital after Dr. Norman Bethune passed away. In one long battle against Japanese troops in 1940, Dr. Kotnis did operations for 72 hours non-stop and his small team conducted 50 operations every day.
Dr. Kotnis helped control a virulent strain of plague that hit Chinese soldiers, even trying out a vaccine on himself. All these hardships took a toll on him. He died of epilepsy on December 9, 1942 at the age 32, and was buried in the Heroes Courtyard, Nanquan Village.
The Honours he Received
The Chinese government built a memorial hall for him in Shijiazhuang city, Hebei Province in 1976. He is the Indian that Chinese people respect the most. In April 2005, both his and Dr. Bethune’s graves were covered completely in flowers during the Qingming Festival, a day to commemorate ancestors in China.
A small museum there has a hand book which contains words that Kotnis wrote, some of his surgical instruments, and many photographs. Both China and India have honoured him with stamps in 1982 and 1993 respectively.
Kotnis’ family stood before his grave in North China Martyrs’ Memorial Cemetery, Hebei Province and toured Shijiazhuang, visiting the Dr Bethune International Peace Hospital. In interviews with China Daily in Beijing and Shanghai, the family members shared their memories of the doctor.
Guo said he was vivacious and funny, and liked singing. Their son Yin Hua who was three months old when Dr. Kotnis died, passed away when he was just 25. Mrs. Kotnis moved to Dalian in the 60s. She was proud of her India connection, visiting the country many times and staying connected to the Kotnis family.
She had been an honoured guest at many high-level diplomatic functions between China and India such as the banquet Dalian Mayor Bo Xilai hosted for then Indian President K.R. Narayanan in June 2000 and during the visit of then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee to Beijing in June 2003. She was a regular invitee at the Indian Embassy functions in China. In November 2006, she accompanied Chinese President Hu Jintao on a state visit to India. She died on 28 June 2012.
Recognition in India
While Kotnis is respected in China, with textbooks recounting his story to children and a Beijing hospital even creating a medical team in his memory, very little is known of him in India. His younger sister Vatsala said that very few knew of him.
However, Dr. Kotnis became famous in his hometown after his death with the publication of his best-selling biography “One Who Never Returned” by the film journalist, Khwaja Abbas Ahmed in 1945, and the screening of the 1946 classic Bollywood movie “Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani”, directed by V. Shantaram.
Leena Fernandes, the general secretary of the Mumbai charter of the Indo-China Friendship Association, talked about the selfless service of Dr. Kotnis during the Sino-Japanese war to highlight the friendly ties between India and China.
Kotnis’ elder sister Manorama, sitting in their 60-year apartment crowded with Chinese memorabilia, said that had it not been for filmmaker V. Shantaram and the Amar Chitra Katha comic book, Indians would have never known their brother who served in Mao Zedong’s Red Army and saved lives during the war.
Dr. Kotnis dedicated his entire life working as a battlefront doctor in China and rendered his selfless service to the injured Chinese soldiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Dr. Kotnis’ contribution towards humanity is extremely inspiring and will be remembered forever.