This is the 75th year of India’s independence and I am reminded of my uncle Capt Jabir Siddiqui, a doctor who was an INA soldier too. After completing his medicine from Kolkata in the year 1940, he joined the Army and was promptly sent to Burma front where the war was in full rage. Within six months of his service, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and spent the next four and a half years in the jungles of Burma as a prisoner of war. It was always fascinating to listen to his experience as a POW.
Being a doctor, he was given charge of a 350 bed hospital with very meager facilities. They used to make their own medicines to fight diseases like malaria or dysentery which were very common among the prisoners those days. One day Shri Subhash Chander Bose came and addressed the prisoners. On hearing the rousing nationalist speech by Subhash Chander Bose, Dr Jabir was deeply affected, and he decided to join the INA but he continued to work in the prison hospital due to shortage of doctors.
We did not hear from him and did not know that he was taken a prisoner till after the war had ended. While there were victory celebrations all over the world and in India too, Dr Siddiqui was once again taken prisoner, this time by the British Army, for joining the freedom struggle and put in a dungeon in Rangoon (Burma), along with other INA soldiers. They were treated very badly by the British. Boiled rice and salt were the only food they were given.
As the pressure by the Congress party mounted on the British in India, the treatment of the prisoners also improved. After six months of prison in the dungeons they were taken out for fresh air and given better food. They were then brought to Delhi for the historic trial of the INA soldiers in the Red Fort.
Finally, he was freed along with others INA prisoners, but his ordeal was far from over. He spent another six months in Pune, where he was grilled by the Army intelligence till his name was removed from the ‘grey category’. He was finally reinstated and served for two years in the Army. When Independence came in 1947, the UP Govt with whom he had a lien, requested for his release from Army as there was shortage of doctors in the state. He was given option of a permanent commission in the Army too, but he chose to switch over to civil life and joined the UP medical service.
Prior to the oil boom Saudi Arabia was a poor country. Every year pilgrims from India would go there for Haj. Doctors were sent on deputation for short duration at the time of Haj pilgrimage to provide medical care for the pilgrims. This facility was however not for free, and the pilgrims had to pay for consultancy and medicines. Dr Siddiqui would not charge any fee from the sick but would also provide free medicines to those who could not afford. In fact, some pilgrims who were sick would hide their ailment out of fear.
He would be on the look out for such people by personally going around from tent to tent and giving them treatment on the spot. The Indian Embassy in Saudi was impressed by his dedication and devotion to work and requested the Indian Government to post him to their Embassy on a permanent basis.
Dr Siddiqui thus spent ten long years in Saudi Arabia. He was accredited as vice counsel also and officiated as the Ambassador whenever the permanent incumbent was away. He endeared himself with everyone by his simplicity and sincerity. Once, when he had come on leave to Allahabad, Pandit Nehru was also visiting the city. Nehruji often come to Allahabad and spend a few days in his ancestral home, Anand Bhavan during which, he interacted with eminent people of the town.
The then Member of Parliament (MP) from the Allahabad constituency, requested Dr Siddiqui to come along with him to meet Nehruji. Dr Siddiqui was reluctant and said that Panditji does not know him. At this, the MP said, “that is not true. He knows you well by name and has often inquired about you.” Since Nehruji was in town, a courtesy call on him was very much warranted. Thus, Dr Siddiqui met Nehruji for the first time ever.
Nehruji appreciated the good work he was doing in Saudi and told him that he had to answer questions in the Parliament for his sake. It seems that someone had raised a question on the prolonged stay of Dr Siddiqui in Saudi Arabia. Nehruji had replied that though the normal tenure on such postings was of three years duration but in certain cases exceptions had to be made.
The Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia had made a special request to allow Dr Siddiqui to stay on. Thus, Dr Siddiqui continued his work and spent ten long years there and only returned at his own request as his father was unwell. Overseas jobs those days were limited with a long list of aspirants. The main incentive was that after completing the assignment, a person could bring all his household appliances without paying any custom duty and this included a car too. When Dr Jabir finally returned to India, he only had a few suitcases with him which contained his personal belongings.
In fact, someone had booked a fridge in his name without his knowledge. When he informed Dr Jabir about it later, Dr Jabir was very upset on this account and admonished that person in no uncertain terms. This was the true self of a person with a simple, sufi like lifestyle without any airs about him
On return from Saudi, he was posted as civil surgeon in various cities. His work culture however, remained unchanged. The patients would be very happy at the attention and treatment they got from the hospital, but the staff was always upset with him as he was a hard task master and would not allow any nonsense. Medicines would be procured and always available to the patients. Dr Siddiqui retired in mid seventies and settled down in Allahabad.
He continued his practice but never charged fees from the patients. There used to be a small box on his table (like a piggy bank that kids use to store their savings). This used to be locked and the keys were kept by chemist of the area. Every evening the box would be taken by the chemist of the locality and the collection used to give medicines prescribed by Dr Siddiqui to the poor who could not afford.
A few years later, freedom fighters were being sought out and honored by the Government of India as “Swatantrata Sainani” and were being issued “Tamra Patra”. This entitled them to certain privileges like free train travel in first class for self and attendant, and a tidy sum as pension. I asked Dr Siddiqui that he should take up a case to get his services recognized as a freedom fighter. As he was very reluctant, I asked him to give me some documents as proof so that I could take up case on his behalf in Delhi.
He dug out his personal file and gave me some papers. In them were letters from Ministry of External Affairs to Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia and some documents from the Army. I showed these papers to a journalist friend who was very interested and wanted to write a piece on Dr Siddiqui to be published in the Times of India. Around the same time, Dr Siddiqui had a stroke and was taken to the local Government hospital in Allahabad. He was put on oxygen, but the cylinder was found to be empty. A fresh cylinder was summoned from the stores.
Sadly, this too was found to be empty and thus Dr Siddiqui, who spent his entire life providing medical help for others, breathed his last without getting adequate medical care himself. All the documents that I had given to the journalist were lost by him and the promised story never appeared in the newspaper. Dr Siddiqui’s incredible life story now only remains in memories of people who knew him.
About The Author
Lt Col MA Siddiqui (Retd) was commissioned on 15 December 1957 in the Corps of Signals. He earned a degree in Telecom Engineering and took part in the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars and was awarded Mention-in-Despatch in the 1971 war.