Dr Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis

    Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis, was born in India on 10th October, 1910. He sadly died in China on 9th December, 1942. He is even known by his Chinese name Ke Dihua. Kotnis was one of the five Indian physicians sent to China to provide medical assistance during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1938. Known for his dedication and perseverance, he has been regarded as a shining example of the Sino-Indian friendship. Along with the Canadian Dr. Norman Bethune, he continues to be revered every year by the Chinese people during the Qingming Festival, which is also known as the ‘Tomb-Sweeping Day’ in English, and sometimes also called the ‘Chinese Memorial Day’ or the ‘Ancestors’ Day, is a traditional Chinese festival observed by the Han Chinese of mainland China, a day used by the Chinese to commemorate the martyrs. Dwarkanath Kotnis was born in a middle class Marathi Deshastha Rigvedi Brahmin family in Solapur, Maharashtra. He had two brothers and five sisters. He studied medicine at the Seth G.S. Medical College under University of Bombay.

    In 1938, after the Japanese invasion of China, the communist general Zhu De requested Jawaharlal Nehru to send some physicians to China. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, the President of the Indian National Congress then, made an appeal to the people through a press statement on 30th June 1938. He arranged to send a team of volunteer doctors and an ambulance by collecting a fund of Rs 22,000, on the All-Indian, China Day, and China Fund days, from 7–9 July. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose even wrote an article in Modern Review on Japan’s role in the Far East and denounced the assault on China. The key aspect of this mission was that, it was a helping hand from a nation that was itself struggling for freedom, to another nation, that was also struggling for its freedom. The mission was reinforced with Nehru’s visit to China in 1939.

    Though Dwarkanath Kotnis was preparing for his post-graduation. He took his family’s permission to volunteer for service abroad. Dwarkanath’s younger sister Manorama recalls that her brother always wanted to travel around the world and practice medicine at different places so it was like a dream come true. She said “most members of the family knew little about China at that time. We only knew that people used to come and sell Chinese silk.” While Kotnis’ father Shantaram encouraged young Dwarkanath to venture out, his mother was very sad because he was going that far, and that too, into a war zone.

    A medical team of five doctors, comprising of M. Atal from Allahabad, who was the leader of the mission, there were M. Cholkar from Nagpore, D. Kotnis from Sholapur, B.K. Basu and Debesh Mukherjee from Calcutta. They were despatched as the Indian Medical Mission Team in September 1938. Sadly, all except Dr. Kotnis, returned to India safely.

    The team first arrived in China at the port of Hankou, Wuhan. (in lighter vein when Covid was not born).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 some other top leaders of the Communist Party, because they were the first medical team to come from another Asian country.

    28-year-old Dr Kotnis came to China as a part of the five member team and stayed there for almost 5 years working in mobile clinics to treat wounded soldiers. In 1939, Dr. Kotnis joined the Eighth Route Army, also called the National Revolutionary Army led by Mao Zedong at the Jin-Cha-Ji border near the Wutai Mountain Area, a sacred Buddhist site, after working across, the northern China region.

    His job as a battlefront doctor was very stressful, as there was always an acute shortage of medicines. In one long battle against the Japanese troops in 1940, Dr. Kotnis performed operations for up to 72 hours, without getting any sleep. He treated more than 800 wounded soldiers during this battle. He was eventually appointed as the Director of the Dr. Bethune International Peace Hospital named after the famous Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune.

    In the 1940, Dr. Kotnis met Guo Qinglan, a nurse at the Bethune Hospital. They had first met at the inauguration of Dr. Norman Bethune’s tomb where Guo was immediately attracted to the Indian doctor. Kotnis could write and speak Chinese fluently which amazed her. The couple got married in December 1941. They had a son on 23 August 1942, who was named Yinhua – meaning India In (Yin) and China Wa (Hua), at the suggestion of Nie Rongzhen, a prominent Chinese Military leader.

    Dr. Kotnis wrote regular letters to his family. He sounded quite happy in his letters. Many people came to him, to thank him, for all the help. He was always telling the good part in his letters, says Manorama, his sister. Every place he went in China, he described it in great detail, in his letters home. The whole family found them to be great fun because what he described was so different from the life in India.

    But the hardships of a stressful job, as a front-line doctor, finally started taking its toll on him, and severely affected his health. Only three months after the birth of Yinhua, epilepsy struck Dr.Kotnis. A series of epileptic seizures killed him on 9th December 1942, leaving behind his widow Guo Qinglan, and the baby boy.

    Dr. Kotnis was buried in the Heroes Courtyard in Nanquan Village. At that time, Mao Zedong, mourned his death by observing that, “The army has lost a helping hand, the nation has lost a friend. Let us always bear in mind his internationalist spirit.”

    It is said that he joined the Communist Party of China on 7 July 1942, just before his death, but the same could not be verified. During his mission, he had also become a lecturer at the Dr. Bethune Hygiene School of the Jinchaji Military Command, and the first director of the Dr. Bethune International Peace Hospital, in Yan’an.

    The Martyr’s Memorial park in Shijiazhuang city of the Northern Chinese province of Hebei is a famous attraction point. The north and south sides of the park are dedicated to the veterans of the Korean and the Japanese wars. The west side is dedicated to Dr. Norman Bethune, who fought for the Chinese, and the South side to Dr Kotnis. There is a great statue in his honour. A small museum that has a handbook of vocabulary that Kotnis wrote on his passage from India to China, some instruments that the surgeons used in their medical fight for life, and various photos of doctors, out of them, some with the Communist Party of China’s most influential figures, including Mao is also present there.

    A memorial of Dwarkanath Shantaram Kotnis was installed in his birthplace in Solapur too, on 1st January 2012. The memorial, at his old residence, was built by Solapur Municipal Corporation with efforts of Sushilkumar Shinde, who was Union Power Minister at that time. In the year 1967 Dr Kotnis’ son Yinhua died at the age of 24, shortly before he was to graduate from a medical college. His death has been attributed to medical negligence. In 1949, Guo remarried a Chinese man with whom she had a son and a daughter. Guo Qinglan has been an honoured guest at many high-level diplomatic functions between China and India, such as, the banquet by Dalian Mayor, Bo Xilai, hosted for the then Indian President K.R. Narayanan in June 2000, and during the visit of then Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee to Beijing in June 2003. In November 2006, she accompanied the Chinese President Hu Jintao on a state visit to India. She died on 28th June 2012, at the age of 96 in Dalian, in Northeastern China.

    The story of Dr. Kotnis’ life was captured in a Hindi film, titled ‘Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani’ produced in 1946, scripted by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, and directed by V Shantaram, who himself portrayed as Kotnis in the film. His life was also the subject to a Chinese film Kē Dì Huá Dài Fū produced in 1982, with a screenplay by Huang Zong-jiang.

    Both China in 1982 and 1992, and India in 1993 have honoured him with stamps. The Chinese government continues to honour his relatives in India during every high-level official trip. His relatives (primarily sisters) were visited in Mumbai by Premier Zhou En-Lai in 1950. When President Jiang Zemin visited India in 1996, he sent flowers to the Kotnis’ family. Premier Li Peng honoured the family in 2001 and the same was done by Premier Zhu Rongji in 2002 and Premier Hu Jintao in 2006. The current President Xi Jinping – who also holds the positions of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, making him China’s paramount leader also met Dr Kotnis’ sister Manorama during Sept 2014.

   In 2017, China presented the University of Mumbai, a restored handwritten condolence note written by Mao Zedong to Dr. Kotnis’ family in 1950 upon his death.

    Such were the ties that India had with China and see what has become of it today. I only hope our relations with China will improve again and that’ll be done by many Dr Kotnis’ on both sides of the border.

By Kamlesh Tripathi



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