Remembering Dr Kotnis in his Birth Centenary Year
warakanath Shantaram Kotnis was one of the younger members of the Indian medical mission to China in 1938. Born in October 2010 in a lower middle class family in Solapur in Maharastra, the young Kotnis must not have found it very easy to leave behind the prospects of a medical career for an uncertain future of selfless service in a strange land. His father, a factory clerk had had to borrow huge amount for Kotnis’ study of medicine in Bombay University.
What drove this young man to join forces with the toiling Chinese people who were then fighting fierce Japanese Imperialist attack on their land? Was it just the anti-imperialist libertarian sentiment that was so common those days to average Indians? Was it the ethos of service to the ill, disabled and dying? Or was it simply the adventurism of youth? Or was it the call of the ideal of the working people’s liberation from the yoke of age old exploitative system?
Going by Kotnis’ own admission, he did not have any clarity on the ideals of working people’s liberation or the proletarian world view in the early days of the mission. Then his ‘consciousness was clouded by bourgeois concepts’.
Whatever was the source the initial inspiration for Dwarakanath Kotnis and his comrades in the mission to begin that new journey, it is something to cherish and emulate. It is such inspiration and courage that keeps society and humanity moving forward. From Dr. Kotnis and Dr. Norman Bethune to Dr. Binayak Sen, the doctors who bonded their medical practice with social concerns of humanity as a whole will forever be an inspiration to all.
The Chinese anti-imperialist resistance and revolutionary assertion actually turned into a theatre of people’s creative efforts and sacrifice, attracting journalists like Edgar Snow, social workers such as Rewi Alley and Agnes Smedley and doctors like Dr. Norman Bethune. Of course at the time India itself was in the midst of a struggle for freedom from colonial rule.
Such was the political backdrop when the five-member Indian Medical Mission set out for China. They set their voyage by a carrier named Rajputana owned by the British P&O Company from Bombay port on September 1, 1938. Their aim: to reach out to the fighting Chinese people with medical aid. Clearly this was a political move by the Indian National Congress, reflecting the shared anti-imperialist sentiments in both India and China. And frankly it was sent based on the historical liaison that the INC had with the Chinese nationalist force Kuomintang, which was resisting Japanese imperialists at that time, but within a few years they were to script the ignominious history of surrender to the aggressors and treachery with their own people.
The Indian Medical Mission, despite their early ties with the Kuomintang, didn’t share this ignominy. They underwent nothing less than a radical break from their early political-ideological position. They were born anew and Dwarakanath Kotnis was the face of this political-ideological churning that was going on inside China.
None excepting Dr. Bijoy Bose in the Medical Mission had any allegiance with left political ideology. None other than the mission leader Dr. Atal had an experience of working in the battlefield. (Dr. Atal had worked as a member of the Indian medical mission to Spain during civil war). Despite that they had chosen to work in Red Yenan, where Eighth Route Army was fighting Japanese aggression under the leadership of the communist party. True, the attack was the fiercest in Yenan as was the resistance and the result was a large number of war casualties. The need for medical aid was obviously most acutely felt there. But it was also clear that unlike the fragile Kuomintang forces, the Eighth Route Army stood the brightest chance of sustaining resistance against the Japanese war machinery.
That is why, once the Mission set foot in China, they were actually most eager to visit Yenan. They took enormous pains and risk to travel through the war ravaged rugged terrain to Yenan. Eventually those parts of Northern China, where the Eighth Route Army led by commander Zu De, was at work, became their chosen field of practice.
Age and broken health (the journey took its toll) forced the senior members Dr. Cholkar and Dr. Mukherjee to return from the war front and eventually to India in a short while. The mission leader also failed to endure the freezing temperature of North China and the extremely tough life there. Dr. Bijoy Bose and Dr. Kotnis stayed on and decided to work from behind the firing line itself. It was perfectly possible for them to work from the base areas and hospitals. But they chose to wield the scalpel left behind by Dr. Norman Bethune and use it as a weapon against the enemy. They formally joined two guerrilla army units and formed two mobile medical units. This was the tradition created by Dr. Norman Bethune which said: don’t wait for the ill to come to you, reach out to them, even if it is in the firing lines. The Indian duo chose to carry forward the same cudgel.
The members of the Indian Medical Mission to China worked for some 4 years and treated some 25000 ill and injured, most of whom were soldiers. In the particular context of Yenan, however, there was hardly any distinction between a soldier and a commoner. The army was of the peasantry, by the peasantry, but for the whole people of China. This is what played the most crucial role in igniting the ideological churning in the Indian doctors.
Dr. Kotnis eventually was made the charge d'affaires of Norman Bethune hospital and medical school. The institute later evolved as the International Peace Hospital with Dr. Kotnis as the director. Dr. Bose too had played a crucial role in raising and training medical cadres from among the peasantry. In addition he took more active role on the political front, even becoming an elected member of parliament in the revolutionary government of a northern frontier province region.
But more than everything, they were able successfully to fill the gap left with the demise of Dr. Bethune. The Indian duo too became a source of inspiration, hope and reliance for the fighting Chinese people.
Kotnis is the only member of the team who didn’t go back to his own country. It was not that he didn’t give it a thought. His correspondence with Dr. Bose proves that they used to nurture the idea of going back, but certainly not at the expense of the job he was entrusted with. In a very short time Kotnis developed enough proficiency in spoken Chinese and keen interest about Chinese life and culture. This led to marriage with Guo Qinglan, a nurse in the International Peace Hospital. More importantly his ever-increasing identity with the communist party was another factor which weighed heavier than his emotions for his homeland.
Besides, the time was too short and the job monumental. To meet the demands of the situation, Dr. Kotnis had to work ceaselessly and sustain life in extreme thriftiness. Huge workload, excruciating stress coupled with lack of rest and nutrition ultimately started telling upon his health and Dr. Kotnis too died an untimely death as did Dr. Norman Bethune.
Kotnis died on December 9, 1942, survived by his wife Guo Qinglan and their son, and the fond memories of an internationalist that are still cherished by the toiling people of China and elsewhere. The website of the communist of party of modern China informs us that Kotnis became a member of the party a few month’s prior to his sudden death. Circumstantial evidences too indicate the same, though it is difficult to verify. Whether or not he in fact became a member of the party, it is true that his transition from a nationalist-humanist position to a communist position was but a reflection of similar transition that was taking place in national political life of China.
The birth anniversary (he was born on October 10, 1910) of Dr. Kotnis is being celebrated in India and in China. A team of Indian doctors travelled to China to retrace Kotnis' journey and also to learn from the Chinese health infrastructure.
Madam Sun Yatsen said about Kotnis: “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 honor him even more than the present, because it was for the future that he struggled and laid life.” Truly, Dr. Kotnis' memory will continue to inspire future generations of committed, pro-people activists.