Ever since the scams over the Commonwealth Games and the allocation of the ‘2G spectrum’ came to public knowledge, India has been convulsed by protests, with corruption having become the top issue on the minds of citizens. The political class has tried to dismiss the protests as an issue agitating only the middle classes, but it is clear from the groundswell of support across the country, as well as the recent elections in which the notoriously corrupt Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was decisively voted out of power in Tamil Nadu, that the issue has found resonance among citizens across all classes and groupings, from the districts to state capitals to the national capital.
One of the most notable features of the protests, particularly those of recent months involving Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, is the feature of public fasting. This might come as little surprise, given that the fast has long been an important tool of political protest in the Subcontinent. This is all the more so in India, where the tradition was firmly established in the public sphere by Mohandas K Gandhi.
Gandhi’s particular genius was his ability to appropriate spiritual traditions and turn them into tools for political protest, with Satyagraha, ahimsa and fasting potent examples. As a means of penance and self-purification, the fast is an important part of all major religious traditions, including in Indic systems such as Hinduism and Jainism. (In the latter, the extremity of ritual suicide by starvation – santhara – is a well-established tradition.) Gandhi justified his use of this method in religious terms, claiming that it purified oneself even while pressuring the British Raj. He employed this method in multiple contexts – as a tool of civil disobedience, as penance for mistakes by his followers, and as a means of exerting moral pressure on the populace to put an end to violence. The last of these proved to be particularly effective, as when he fasted in protest against the post-Partition rioting in Calcutta and Noakhali (in present-day Bangladesh), an act that helped to bring bloodshed to an end.
Post-Independence, too, fasting has remained a popular tool of political protest in India. Although it is beloved by forces of both the right and left, the organised sections of the left has been sceptical of the strategy, given its overtones of spirituality and, specifically, Hinduism. However, even progressive activists such as Medha Patkar and the groups associated with the Bhopal movement have resorted to this strategy to achieve their demands. The most dedicated fast of all is that of Irom Sharmila, now running for eleven years and counting, demanding withdrawal of the much-reviled Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
At a more mundane level, fasting is used as a tool by motley social groups to press their specific demands. It is particularly popular among students in India – ergo, the ‘relay hunger-strike’, in which students ‘fast’ for two hours, and then pass the baton to the next group before heading off to the college canteen. It is a common sight to see pandals at protest sites across India, with the relay strikers clearly engaging their ‘diet’. Hunger strikes also provide the media with easy spectacle, one of the central reasons they continue to be popular. But this is a double-edged sword, as the spectacle often descends into absurdity. Further, the media tends only to focus on high-profile hunger strikers. It completely neglected the hunger strike by Swami Nigamananda in protest against stone-crushing and pollution of the Ganga by mining, for instance (see pic). His fast recently ended in tragedy, with his death after 115 days – but even that has failed to achieve his demands.
Even leaving aside the farcical nature of some of today’s hunger strikes, we need to need to question the efficacy of fasting as a tool of political protest. It has become clear, after all, that the political class has perfectly become adept at defusing hunger strikes. In the case of Irom Sharmila, she has been booked multiple times for attempted suicide, detained and force-fed through tubes for more than a decade. With the Indian Northeast off the political map of most Indians, her courageous protest has not achieved a result commensurate to her pains. In the case of other activists, governments have mastered the strategy of offering cosmetic concessions. The fatigued hunger-strikers accept these concessions, which, more often than not are mere plays by the authorities. Medha Patkar, for instance, has fasted innumerable times, but little has changed on the ground insofar as the plight of those evicted due to the dams on the Narmada. Also, hunger strikes become a favoured strategy for those who are unable to mobilise sufficient ground support, and it is little surprise that these types of fasts fail.
Regarding the recent hunger strikes by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, we also need to question whether the hunger strikes achieved anything in particular that could not have been obtained without resort to this measure. Would the government not have conceded whatever little it has to ‘Team Anna’ if he had not fasted? Given that there were huge crowds and round-the-clock media attention given to the protest, the government would have felt the pressure regardless. As it is, after giving some concessions and ending the strike, the government has resorted to its usual delaying tactics, and it remains doubtful whether anything meaningful will come of the whole undertaking. As for Baba Ramdev’s fast, it had its elements of Schadenfreude – a yogi who claims miraculous powers, the ability to cure cancer and AIDS, and refuses to disclose his age, and then abruptly called the fast off on its eighth day.
There is some similarity between fasts and bandhs in that overuse has rendered them both blunt. Bandhs at least have the use of offering some indication of political strength, and sometimes public support, which fasts typically fail to do. Fasts also tend to hijack due process, bringing ‘moral arguments’ to bear; this has certainly been highlighted in the case of the Hazare and Ramdev fasts, which have tried to bypass Parliament, the constitutionally mandated body to pass legislation. Rather than resort to fasting, activists must focus on mobilising ground-level support and effectively leveraging that to achieve their political goals.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)