OPINION: Striking doctors must remember Indian Nehru 'sent' to heal China

Justice Katju refers to the legacy of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis amid the ongoing strike

Kotnis collage doctors strike A collage of doctors in Jammu wearing bandages to protest the violence in Kolkata (PTI) and a statue of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis in Hebei, China (Wikipedia Commons)

Doctors in several hospitals in several states in India are agitating for getting security, following the assault on two interns in a hospital in Kolkata after the death of an old patient. The patient's relatives were of the opinion that the death was due to doctors' negligence.

While one must condemn violence on doctors, the time has also come for doctors in India to introspect.

In an article titled White Coated Corruption published in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, author Vijay Mahajan writes, "India is said to have one of the most corrupt medical systems in the whole world. The situation has become so bad that patients today approach doctors with mixed feelings—of faith and fear, of hope and hostility".

Mahajan then goes on to give details, showing how greed for making money and utter callousness has afflicted a large section of the medical profession. While, no doubt, there are many upright doctors, others have no ethics; some heartlessly fleecing patients, some prescribing unnecessary drugs (hand-in-glove with the pharmaceutical companies), some performing unnecessary operations (as highlighted in George Bernard Shaw's play The Doctor's Dilemma) and some even indulging in illegal organ trade (as depicted in the novel Coma by Robin Cook).

No wonder that a large section of Indians have no respect for doctors, a few even resorting to violence against them.

To once again be respected by society, doctors must remind themselves of the Hippocratic Oath and develop a spirit of service and empathy for patients and sacrifice, exemplified by the life of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis. I am giving here an account of his death, written by his wife, who was Chinese:

The Death of Dr. Kotnis

By his wife Guo Qinglan

At 6.15am, on December 9, 1942, Dr. Kotnis breathed his last. He was just 32 years old. He had spent over four years in China during the War of Resistance against the Japanese, treating the wounded and sick Chinese.

On November 27, 1937, at the suggestion of the eminent American correspondent, Agnes Smedley, Zhu De, commander-in-chief of the Chinese Eighth Route Army, wrote a letter to the Indian National Congress leader Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, expressing gratitude for supporting the anti-Japanese struggle of the Chinese people and requesting support in the form of a medical team and medical supplies from India.

Consequently, Nehru proposed that a medical mission be sent to China. China Day was observed all over India on June 29, 1938. Kotnis, who had qualified as a doctor from Bombay Medical College, saw the demonstrations in support of the Chinese, and determined to join the medical mission. He went to Sholapur, his hometown, and told his family about it.

At first, they tried to dissuade Kotnis. His brother Mangesh said, "For the sake of our education, father had to borrow a lot of money. Now, our parents are old and need a helping hand." However, when his father saw that Kotnis was adamant, he said, "So, Dwarka, you have decided to go. I would like to remind you not to let the Indian people down. Since you have decided to go, you must do a good job and good things to the Chinese people, and win laurels for your family and country.”

The five doctors of the Aid China Medical Mission arrived at Wuhan, where they were met by Zhou Enlai, who asked Kotnis "How old are you?" "I am 28", replied Kotnis.

"Wonderful!" said Zhou Enlai, " You can do much work for friendly relations between India and China".

They travelled then to Chongqing, which was the capital of the Chinese government under Chiang Kai Shek. At Chongqing, Kotnis received a letter from his brother in India, which was handed over to him by Dr. Cholkar, the deputy leader of the Indian Medical Mission.

It said “father has passed away suddenly." This was a bolt from the blue, and Kotnis could not stop crying. His colleagues tried to persuade him to go back to India, but he said that he will never let his father down, and the best way to commemorate him was to help the Chinese people eject the Japanese invaders. So, he continued with the mission to Yenan, where they lived in caves. They spent the next four years treating the wounded and the sick Chinese.

During these four years, Kotnis had overloaded himself with work for a long period until his health completely broke down working for the cause of the War of Resistance against Japan and liberation of the Chinese people. He went without food and sleep for long periods, and endured extreme pain during this period,and sacrificed all he had till his last breath.

On December 7, 1942, he performed operations on five wounded patients. On December 8, he taught his students and performed a practical operation for over 20 students in the operation theatre. He was operating on a hernia patient. The operation was difficult as the tissues of the patient were very adhesive. Sweat started oozing out of his forehead as he was very tired. After the operation, Kotnis was completely exhausted and hungry. He grabbed a bite of a stuffed pancake when he suffered an attack of epilepsy. Earlier also, he had suffered epileptic attacks. After regaining consciousness, he convened a meeting to have a briefing of the day's work.

That evening, Kotnis returned to his dormitory-cum-office, and started the compilation work of his proposed book Surgery in Detail. At 8pm, he went to his room to be with me and our 108-day-old child. As he was talking, he remembered that the younger brother of his landlady was seriously ill. He went there to treat the patient, and returned after two hours totally exhausted.

At midnight, Kotnis asked me for some boiled water as he was thirsty. Having taken it, he felt better, but an hour thereafter, I was suddenly awakened by the groans of his pain, only to discover that all his four limbs were severely twitching. His complexion had turned pale. He had suffered another attack, and it was serious.

I staggered all the way to the medical school for assistance. After a while, Principal Jiang Yizhen reached our house in a great hurry. On regaining consciousness, Kotnis said, "Principal Jiang, thank you for your visit. I am sorry to interfere with your rest. Please do not worry about me and go back to rest."

Principal Jiang was aware of the convulsions Kotnis had suffered in the past, which never exceeded three to five minutes. This time, the convulsions would not stop, foam oozed out from his mouth and he went into coma. Jiang gave him morphine and camphor liquid, but to no avail. The doctor then tried spine puncturing, but it was of no use. Kotnis breathed his last at 6.15am on December 9, 1942. He was just 32 years old.

I cried bitterly with my infant Yinhua in my arms and fainted a couple of times. He parted from me and our infant boy; his wounded patients who were waiting for him, his international friends, and the army and civilians of the Shansi-Qahar-Hebei Border Region who were engaged in a bloody battle with the Japanese on the battlefront. I glanced at the table only to see the manuscript of Surgery in Detail that he had written up to page 175.

Kotnis had spent the last period of his life in Tang County, treating patients day and night. There was not a single person in this area who did not know him.

The sudden demise of Kotnis left everyone in Tang County in grief, and even the Tang River wept. The people in the county felt they were rendered orphans. An atmosphere of grief shrouded the entire valley. The villagers of the Ge Gong valley came to our place from all directions. Everyone who came was crying in the streets and in the courtyard, where the body of Kotnis lay.

On December 17, 1942, around 1 pm, the Shansi-Qahar-Hebei Military Region convened a mourning ceremony at the southern square of Ge Gong village. There was an ocean of people inside and outside the square. People from Shennan, Shenbei, Niangzishen Doufu, and other neighbouring villages walked to the mourning ground, wailing and weeping. Some of the countryfolk were even stamping the earth and crying bitterly. People had never witnessed wailing and weeping of such intensity, and that too over the demise of a foreign doctor. Many fainted with grief.

As for me, my grief was even worse. All my tears dried up and I fell unconscious. I lost my hunger, thirst and sleep, and became very weak.

The memorial ceremony was conducted in accordance with the custom of Chinese traditional funerals. A canopy was put for the departed soul, in the middle of which hung a portrait of the deceased, and to both sides of the coffin lay the floral wreaths and mourning couplets offered by people from all walks of life. An oblong sheet of silk was hung with the words Doctor who rivalled the glory of Dr. Bethune. The place was filled with posters stating Learn from Dr Kotnis.

Among the crowd were many elderly men and women burning incenses and paper money. Some people sang a song, which they had composed for the occasion:

You came from the shores of the warm Indian ocean

To brave the cold of North China

For the world of tomorrow

You fought four autumns in China

Alas! At the end of a long night

The fountain of your life ran dry

Oh, comrade Kotnis, our beloved

Your image will always be with us

And your memory will live forever in our hearts

Zhou Enlai sent a message of sympathy to the family of Kotnis:

"Dr. Kotnis is a symbol of the friendship between the great Indian and Chinese 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."

Soong Qingling, widow of Sun Yat-sen and Chairperson of the China Defence League, also wrote to the family of Kotnis:

"His memory belongs not only to your people and to ours, but also to the whole roll-call of fighters for the freedom and progress of all mankind."

Justice Markandey Katju retired from the Supreme Court in 2011

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK