The weaponisation of fasting
Madhavankutty Pillai | 27 Sep, 2018
ON JANUARY 30TH, 2011, WHEN THE INDIA AGAINST Corruption movement led by Anna Hazare was about to take off, there was a protest at Azad Maidan in Mumbai. Dr Ratna Magotra, a cardiac surgeon who had an interest in social issues, went to see what it was about. She didn’t know anybody there and it was the first time that she heard about the Jan Lokpal, the primary demand of the movement. A couple of days later she went for one more meeting. And in April, when they decided to go on a fast to press their demands, Dr Magotra joined in. She had never fasted before. The first 48 hours were tough, with acidity and nausea, but after that she says it became “smooth and peaceful”. The fast lasted five days before being called off. In August, when Anna Hazare went on a fast in Delhi, they again decided to join in solidarity in Mumbai. Around 60 of them began it in Azad Maidan but slowly the numbers started dropping. But Dr Magotra and a few others held on for 12 days until Anna called his fast off.
“I was a little more prepared after the five-day fast. I felt very good in fact. More clear, clean, spiritual in an elevated way. There was no personal gain in it for me. Once you are removed from that sort of a selfish idea, it makes you feel very good,” she says. According to her, the basic prerequisite for such a fast is personal moral integrity. “If something is required, I would rather make myself suffer than others. Secondly, when there is a violent protest, the authorities also react with counter violence. In a non-violent protest, the authorities are under moral pressure to accede to your just demands,” she says. These words hold an idea that resonates from a century ago.
India is probably the only country in the world at present where public fasting is used with such effect for a political end. Just depriving a human body of food can shake the country’s foundations, as Hazare showed. It is also used by every two-bit politician or publicity hound at the drop of a hat. While all this is a result of Mahatma Gandhi’s use of fasting in the freedom movement as a tool of agitation, it wasn’t his invention. Historian David Hardiman, emeritus professor with the University of Warwick and a Gandhi scholar, writes in his forthcoming book, The Nonviolent Struggle for Indian Freedom 1905-19: ‘Refusing food as an act of protest was not new to Indian politics—the Bengali radical Nani Gopal Mukherji had for example in 1912 gone on a hunger strike in protest at the appalling conditions that his fellow political prisoners were subjected to in the Cellular Jail in the Andamans. He managed to gain some improvements in the way that they were treated. Indian hunger strikers were in turn inspired by political protestors in the West, such as the American revolutionaries who refused food in 1774, and the British suffragettes who deployed this method from 1909 onwards. The Irish nationalist leader James Connolly had gone on hunger strike for eight days in September 1913 in protest against his imprisonment.’
Gandhi however consciously distinguished his fasts from hunger strikes. Instead he added a unique Indian element: the idea of personal self-purification tied to a political end. Hardiman writes, ‘While the hunger strike was, he held, a form of moral blackmail, the fast—properly conceived—was carried out above all for self-purification. It was not something to be undertaken lightly… Gandhi discussed the issue in some depth many years later, in 1940. He said that he had never undertaken a fast in a calculated way—it was something that had always come ‘on the spur of the moment, gifts from God’. He said that it should be undertaken as a form of pressure only against someone that you know personally. He asserted: ‘There can be no room for selfishness, anger, lack of faith, or impatience in a pure fast…. Infinite patience, firm resolve, single-mindedness of purpose, perfect calm, and no anger must of necessity be there.’ Any impure thought during a fast could compromise all that it was trying to achieve. Because of this ‘no one who has not devoted himself to following the laws of ahimsa should undertake a satyagrahi fast’.’
HE GENESIS OF HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH fasting can be traced back to his family and childhood. In The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi writes, ‘Having been born in a Vaishnava family and of a mother who was given to keeping all sorts of hard vows, I had observed, while in India, the Ekadashi and other fasts, but in doing so I had merely copied my mother and sought to please my parents. At that time I did not understand, nor did I believe in, the efficacy of fasting.’
The ideas of self-restraint, from which fasting follows, were latent in him because of his upbringing, but they developed in South Africa after he entered politics, agitating against the laws of racial discrimination. His laboratory was Tolstoy Farm, the ashram from where he led the campaign using satyagraha. It was a time he began his experiments with dieting, which then led to fasting. Fasting as a mechanism to change not just himself but others saw its first test in 1913 on learning that two members of the ashram had engaged in a ‘moral lapse’. Malabika Pande, professor of history at Banaras Hindu University and author of Gandhi’s Vision of Social Transformation, says, “He didn’t punish them, but went on a fast. That had a deep effect on the inmates. It didn’t take him long to realise that this moral pressure could be easily a political instrument also.”
Gandhi’s fast-unto-death in 1948 was addressed at Hindus to temper the anger against Muslims who chose to remain in India
After he returned to India, he used a public fast for the first time in 1918 while mediating a labour dispute in the textile mills of Ahmedabad. Workers had gone on strike demanding a 50 per cent hike while owners were only willing to give 20 per cent. Gandhi arrived at a figure of 35 per cent. When the owners did not relent and he saw some workers about to give up, he went on a hunger fast. In his autobiography, Gandhi wrote, ‘One morning—it was at a mill-hands’ meeting—while I was still groping and unable to see my way clearly, the light came to me. Unbidden and all by themselves the words came to my lips: ‘Unless the strikers rally,’ I declared to the meeting, ‘and continue the strike till a settlement is reached, or till they leave the mills altogether, I will not touch any food.’ Its effect was immediate. Within three days of his fast, the owners had reached a settlement with the workers.
Altogether, Gandhi did 17 fasts in his lifetime. In 1924 he fasted for 21 days against a communal conflagration between Hindus and Muslims. Pande says, “Nobody will say the riots stopped completely. One big positive outcome was there was a serious effort by leaders of both Muslims and Hindus to resolve the issues between the two communities.” Two fasts of Gandhi were unpopular in some quarters within India itself and went against the grain of his premise that the mechanism was not used for coercion but for change. Both fasts ended up forcing others to do what they did not want to. The first was the one he conducted from Yeravada prison against the Communal Award which created separate electorates for different caste groups and religious denominations. It was a policy especially welcomed by Dr BR Ambedkar, who thought it would give a much-needed political voice to Scheduled Castes. Gandhi however saw in it the disintegration of Hindu society and announced a fast unto death against it. This forced Ambedkar to accept a reversal of the move and, even though more seats were reserved for Scheduled Castes in the joint electorate, he remained bitter about it.
The second fast antagonised even his closest disciples like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel and also led to Gandhi’s assassination. In the middle of the bloodshed of Partition, Gandhi went on a fast unto death in 1948. It was addressed at Hindus to temper the anger against Muslims who chose to remain in India. He also demanded that India pay Pakistan Rs 55 crore, a promise that was being reneged on by the Government led by Nehru and Patel. Gandhi’s demands were accepted, but among Hindu fundamentalists it reinforced their view that he was a betrayer of the faith. Nathuram Godse, his assassin, in a final statement before being hanged, said, ‘The accumulating provocation of thirty-two years, culminating in his last pro-Muslim fast, at last goaded me to the conclusion that the existence of Gandhi should be brought to an end immediately…’
OLITICIANS OF INDEPENDENT INDIA TOOK TO fasting with relish. It is an easy way to appropriate the character of Gandhi. And it has sometimes worked with startling results. In 1952, Potti Sreeramulu, a close follower of Gandhi, almost singlehandedly swept the tide in favour of India’s reorganisation into linguistic states. Whether that was a good thing, when the alternative was the more rational basis of administrative convenience, is open to debate, but Sreeramulu’s fast worked because he died after two months of giving up food. It led to violent processions, something that would have agonised the Gandhian. But three days after his death, Nehru, who had earlier refused to accede to the demand, announced the carving out of Andhra Pradesh from Madras Presidency.
A Time magazine report of December 29th, 1952, after his death, narrated the sequence of events: ‘While Sreeramulu lost weight, Andhra lobbyists tried to convince Nehru. As Gandhi’s disciple, Nehru knows the political value of a prolonged fast, but unlike the British, who eventually quavered under Gandhi’s persistence, Nehru stood firm. On Sreeramulu’s 52nd day, Nehru warned: “This method of fasting to achieve administrative or political changes will [put] an end to democratic government.” Six days later, Sreeramulu came to the crisis. His eyes were sunken, his skin a ghastly pallor, and he was hiccupping continuously. His throat was so inflamed he was unable to swallow water and he vomited blood. One of the doctors at his bedside suggested that it was time to end the fast. Sreeramulu had lost the power of speech, but he lifted his hand, slowly and unsteadily placed a finger on his lips in refusal. A few hours later he was dead… At week’s end Prime Minister Nehru, responding perhaps as much to the violence as to Sreeramulu’s nonviolence, announced that his government had decided to establish Andhra state…’ In a touch of irony, when the movement to separate Telangana from Andhra was on, K Chandrasekhar Rao, had gone on a fast unto death in 2009. It led to the home minister at the time P Chidambaram promising to start the process. Telangana eventually came into being five years later and Rao is now its Chief Minister.
How the Government responds to a fast is dependent first of all on the stature of who is fasting. And then to the Government’s own convenience in relenting. Anand Teltumbde, a civil rights activist, wrote a commentary in Economic and Political Weekly in June 2011, comparing the different response of the Government to fasts undertaken by Baba Ramdev, Anna Hazare and Medha Patkar during those times. ‘Of these, Medha Patkar’s fast has been the least known despite being in media-obsessed Mumbai,’ he wrote then, arguing that neither the media nor the Government had any interest in it because she was fasting on behalf of slum-dwellers to protect their houses.
“Political fasting or hunger strikes is not relevant today. The state does not care. Not just in India, the world over governments are becoming more authoritarian and totalitarian. If Anna Hazare fasts, it will heed [him]. If a non- descript Dalit fasts, they will let him die. When the fast is for a non-issue, appeals to the middle-class and someone symbolises the demand, the state will listen. When it involves livelihood issues of people, they won’t. Medha did an indefinite fast for slum-dwellers, the Government ignored her,” he says.
The most famous example of the Government being intransigent to fasts is that of Irom Sharmila, who went on a hunger strike for 16 years in Manipur for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. She was arrested and force-fed for the entire period till she finally called it off. Just this month, Hardik Patel, a Patidar leader, went on a fast for 16 days and was ignored. He called it off, over 20 kg lighter but having got none of his demands for a farm loan waiver and reservations for his community acknowledged.
What separates fasts of recent times from Gandhi’s is the bypassing of the idea that it is first directed at changing something within and from that moral prowess, everything else follows. In Gandhi’s case, he also did it in answer to what he thought were directions from a higher power—ergo, if you are not responsible for starting it, its success or failure is not your responsibility either; the power which made you do it will take care of it, a thought process that a rational mind might consider delusional. And yet, within this system, he managed to weave in matters that involved an entire nation. What would have happened if, instead of the comparatively benign British, he had been up against someone far more ruthless, like Nazi Germany. Pande says, “Gandhi was extremely perceptive. He was aware that the British, with all their faults, did believe in rule of law of whatever kind. [If it were Nazi Germany] he would have thought of something else.”