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 1940, he joined the Army and was promptly sent to the 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.
As a doctor, he was in charge of a 350-bed hospital with very meagre facilities. They used to make their own medicines to fight diseases like malaria or dysentery, which were very common among the prisoners in 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 a shortage of doctors.
We did not hear from him and did not know that he was taken 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. The British mistreated them. Boiled rice and salt were the only food they were given. As the pressure from 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 other INA prisoners, but his ordeal was far from over. He spent another six months in Pune, where the Army intelligence grilled him 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 his release from the Army as there was a shortage of doctors in the state. He was also given the option of a permanent commission in the Army but switched to civilian life and joined the UP medical service.
Before 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 a short duration during the Haj pilgrimage to provide medical care to the pilgrims. However, This facility was not free, and the pilgrims had to pay for consultancy and medicines. Dr Siddiqui would not charge any fee for the sick but would also provide free medicines to those who could not afford them. Some pilgrims who were sick would hide their ailment out of fear. He would be on the lookout 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 permanently. 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 to everyone by his simplicity and sincerity.
Once, when he had come on leave to Allahabad, Pandit Nehru was also visiting the city. Nehruji often came to Allahabad and spent 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 accompany him to meet Nehruji. Dr Siddiqui was reluctant and said that Panditji did 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 his good work in Saudi and told him that he had to answer questions in the Parliament for his sake. It seems that someone had questioned the prolonged stay of Dr Siddiqui in Saudi Arabia. In his reply, Nehruji had said that though the normal tenure on such postings was three years, exceptions had to be made in certain cases. The Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia had made a special request to allow Dr Siddiqui to stay on. Thus, Dr Siddiqui continued his work, spent ten long years there, and only returned at his own request as his father was unwell.
Overseas jobs in 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 customs duty, including a car. When Dr Jabir finally returned to India, he only had a few suitcases containing his personal belongings. 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 a person’s true self with a simple, sufi-like lifestyle without any air about him.
On his return from Saudi Arabia, he was posted as a 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 taskmaster and would not allow any nonsense. Medicines would be procured and always available to the patients. Dr Siddiqui retired in the 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 kids use to store their savings). This used to be locked, and the area chemist kept the keys. Every evening, the chemist would take the box, and the collection would cover the cost of medicines prescribed by Dr Siddiqui to the poor who could not afford them.
A few years later, freedom fighters were being sought out and honoured 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 if he should take up a case to get his services recognised as a freedom fighter. As he was very reluctant, I asked him to give me some documents as proof so I could take up the case on his behalf in Delhi. He dug out his personal file and gave me some papers. In them were letters from the Ministry of External Affairs to the 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 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. The journalist misplaced all the papers I had provided him, and the promised story never made it into print. Dr Siddiqui’s incredible life story now only remains in the memories of people who knew him.