Hungerstrikes remain a powerful tool of political protest. It gives every citizen a powerful weapon to challenge even the mightiest power.
On Monday, April 9, the leaders and workers of the Indian National Congress, led by party president Rahul Gandhi, observed a day-long fast all over India to protest against the rising incidents of atrocities against dalits and minority communities. By doing so, he was invoking a connection with the Gandhian principles of fasting not merely as potent political tool against oppressors, but also as symbolism to spread the message of peace and communal harmony.
Fasting as a means of political protest is an age-old practice that was mastered by Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle for India’s freedom from colonial rule. In his own words — “fasting is a potent weapon in the satyagraha armoury” — something that he used with great effect, but sparingly. The Mahatma’s fasts were not merely aimed at the British, he also undertook fasts as a penance when he felt that disruptive forces were going against the principles of satyagraha — the dual arsenal of truth and non-violence that shook the foundation of the mightiest colonial empire of the time, and which inspired many global leaders in later decades who too used the principles of satyagraha to fight against tyranny in their own homelands.
Other Indian freedom fighters too used hungerstrikes as a means of protest. While on trial, Jatin Das and Bhagat Singh undertook one of the longest fasts in history, for 116 days, in order to improve conditions in which prisoners were held in India. It ended with Das’ death from starvation in September 1929. The wave of public sympathy set off by his hungerstrike forced the British jailers to concede some demands for improving the living conditions of prisoners.
Fasting — or in the parlance of political protests, hungerstrikes — is a practice that dates back to millennia. According to Wikipedia: “Fasting was used as a method of protesting injustice in pre-Christian Ireland, where it was known as Troscadh or Cealachan. It was detailed in the contemporary civic codes, and had specific rules by which it could be used. The fast was often carried out on the doorsteps of the home of the offender.” Embedded in the culture of Ireland, this practice of hungerstrikes was practised by Irish republican prisoners in British jails and continued to be sporadically used till as late as 1981 by members of the Irish Republican Army.
In India, there is reference to fasting as a means of persuasion in the Ramayan. When Bhagwan Ram left for his 14 years of exile, Bharat tried to stop him by saying that he would go on a fast-unto-death unless Ram changed his mind. Ram had to dissuade Bharat by citing the Shastras, saying that only brahmins were entitled to undertake such fasts, and had to strike a bargain with Bharat by offering him his sandals as his symbol, on whose behalf Bharat would rule in Ram’s absence. In Kalhan’s Rajtarangini that chronicles the rulers of Kashmir in the 12th century, there are a lot of references to the use of hungerstrikes by brahmins against King Jayasimha because they felt that the ruler had allowed the kingdom to fall into ruin due to his weakness and inaction against corrupt officials.
Centuries later, the fast by Anna Hazare against institutional corruption had stirred the nation’s imagination, bringing the issue of corruption into the forefront of public discourse. Not limited by caste as fasting was no longer the prerogative of brahmins in modern, democratic India, thousands supported the protest that was to become the largest anti-corruption movement in post-Independent India, forcing the incumbent government to pass the Lokpal Bill. However, unless the motive behind the fast catches the public imagination, or is backed by huge popular support that is usually political in nature, even a prolonged or well-publicised fast also may not get the desired results. When Telangana Rashtra Samithi leader K. Chandrasekhar Rao started to sink after 11 days of fasting, the Centre conceded the long-pending demand for a separate state of Telangana. But Irom Sharmila, who fasted for 16 years seeking repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, had to end it in 2016 without achieving her desired goal. Nevertheless, she became an icononic figure (though later condemned by some people and organisations in her home state for giving up fasting), symbolising the struggle of a common citizen protesting peacefully against the mighty power of the State.
While Mahatma Gandhi became the most famous exponent of fasting as a tool of protest in the modern era, and he also gave it a touch of moral endorsement by linking it to satyagraha, there were others before and after him who have used it effectively. In Britain, a decade before Gandhi, Marion Wallace Dunlop, seeking the right to vote for women, went on fast in prison to assert her right to be treated as a political prisoner. Emmeline Pankhurst, a political activist and a leader of the British Suffragette movement, who fought for the right of women to vote and for equality, along with other colleagues in similar movements in different countries, often used hungerstrikes as a means of protest.
Hungerstrikes remain a powerful tool of political protest. It gives every citizen a powerful weapon to challenge even the mightiest power. However, for it to become really effective, it must be used sparingly. Mahatma Gandhi had warned that fasting cannot be undertaken by everyone. It must have strong ideological and moral conviction that “must come from the depths of one’s soul”. The truth behind this statement was perhaps best underlined in the recent fast by Anna Hazare. The same Anna Hazare, who had ignited the nation’s imagination just a few years ago, became a tragic farce when he ended his latest fast within just four days, ostensibly satisfied by some vague promises by the Narendra Modi government to look into his demands. People must be aware of their own strengths and limitations, not just physical, but also ideological and moral, when they undertake a serious fast, lest in Kalhan’s words pronounced centuries ago, they become “intoxicated with their own knavery”.