Statue of Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis, Martyrs' Memorial Park, Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province

In 1937, Japan invaded China and very promptly occupied Beijing (then known as Peking). In response, the Chinese Nationalist Government (the Kuomintang) and the Communist forces joined together to resist further occupation by the Imperial Japanese Army. One year later after much fighting, Commander of the Eight Route Army, Marshal Zhu De, wrote a letter to the leader of the Indian National Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru, requesting support in the form of medical supplies and medical professionals. As a sign of solidarity in the fight against colonialism and imperialism, a medical team was sent to Yenan in the North Shanxi province.

Among the five doctors that were selected for the task was Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis. Having just finished his medical training, Dr. Kotnis was eager to assist on the front-line and volunteered his efforts at the age of 28. For the next four years, Dr. Kotnis travelled to various battlefronts in the northeast to treat sick and injured soldiers, as well as lecture at the Dr. Bethune Hygiene School of the Jinchaji and maintain his role as director of the Dr. Bethune International Peace Hospital in Yenan.

Unfortunately in 1942, Dr. Kotnis developed epilepsy and as a result died in the December after a series of seizures. He was buried in the Heroes Courtyard in Nanquan Village and mourned by the local community and prominent Chinese Communist leaders. It is believed Mao Zedong stated after Dr. Kotnis’ death; ‘The Army has lost a helping hand, the nation has lost a friend. Let us always bear in mind his internationalist spirit’.

Still well renown among the Chinese community, Dr. Kotnis was memorialised at the Martyr’s Memorial Park in Shijiazhuang City (central Hebei Province). A large statue of the doctor was erected in 1982 and each year in April on Tomb Sweeping Day, locals lay flowers at the statue as a sign of remembrance and gratitude. Nearby at the Park’s small museum, a selection of items depict Dr. Kotnis’ time in China, including a handbook of vocabulary he wrote on the boat ride from India, surgical instruments and a selection of photos. He has been further commemorated in the form of a postage stamp and has had a number of hospitals named in his honour.

Even 70 years after his death, Dr. Kotnis still stands as a symbolic figure of the shared history between India and China. Still to this day, Chinese politicians when visiting India meet with the family of Dr. Kotnis to pay their respects and remember the loyalty India displayed during the war against the Japanese.

Sources and related Web-links:

  1. "And one did not come back": Political humanitarianism in the late colonial India and its memory until today - Maria Framke