New Internationalist

A century of voluntary hunger

October 2009

View from Kolkata by Anthony Dias

In this centenary year of the hunger strike, India’s founding father Mahatma Gandhi would have squirmed had he seen the debasement in his homeland of the utilitarian nonviolent political weapon he made globally popular. In India, where the fast as protest finds mention in the 5,000-yearold epic, the Ramayana, it now takes just a minor grudge to pull off a public fast.

Sample this. Sassy starlet Rakhi Sawant, known for her ease in shedding clothing, phoned in from a deluxe restaurant to a popular radio station saying that she would be going on a fast because the moral police of the government of Maharashtra state, home to the mainline Indian film industry, had booked her for obscenity. Her show remained cancelled and it is not known whether Sawant went without a single meal, but it made headlines alright.

A far cry from the days of India’s fight for independence from the British, particularly between 1922 and 1947 when Gandhi undertook 17 fasts, some spread over 21 days, to test the patience of the rulers who had no intention of allowing him to become a martyr.

Or, perhaps, the example of Scotland’s suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop, who began it all on 9 July 1909, when she refused food inside Holloway Jail and showed the way for a totally new form of protest, leading jailors to force-feed hundreds of women who refused meals, filled up jails, and, later, hospitals.

Because people have frozen Gandhi in time, they end up questioning his relevance. Today we ask how we can be nonviolent in the face of terrorism

Today, Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, the state where Gandhi was born, has a unique formula for the national government. ‘It is our biggest misfortune that there is no political will at the central level to give us any leadership and direction. In a similar situation 45 years ago, when the nation had passed through food scarcity, the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had appealed for a weekly fast and got the full support of the people. Can’t the PM make a similar appeal now?’ he asked. Such utterances from a chief minister who – when Gujarat was rocked by Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 – played Nero and, worse, allegedly helped Hindu rioters, are hard to take seriously.

With other demagogues determined to shred Gandhi’s legacy, Tushar Gandhi, the Mahatma’s great-grandson, had this to say: ‘Harvard Business School has described him as one of the greatest managers of our times for his event management, his management of human resource and public relations. He inspired not just the highly educated from the cities, but even small farmers. His plans for nonviolent struggle and hunger strikes to defy the rulers in favour of the oppressed were executed to such perfection that people were astounded by his creativity.

‘Because people have frozen Gandhi in time, they end up questioning his relevance. Today we ask how we can be nonviolent in the face of terrorism. But the “war on terrorism” is not making us any safer… You can kill terrorists with bullets, but nobody has succeeded in finishing terrorism that way. A glaring example of this was the conflict between Northern Ireland and Britain. Until some people decided to sit across [a table] and talk, there was no end to the bloodshed.’

In India, where the fast as protest finds mention in the 5,000-year-old epic, the Ramayana, it now takes just a minor grudge to pull off a public fast

But the average Indian’s fondness for the fast as protest has been flogged to flippancy. In June, the 85-year-old chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, K Karunanidhi, undertook a threehour hunger strike in protest against the Sri Lanka Government’s treatment of the Tamil Tigers. Tamils as a community are common to both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka and thus any good deed done for the island’s Tamils does wonders for the vote bank back home. However, the three-hour fast was derisively reported in the media, which pointed out in unison that the veteran politician had made an utter fool of himself, since the human body could go without food for three days without damage.

Even religious organizations have made a mockery of the hunger strike. In May 2006, shortly before the release of The Da Vinci Code in India, a group
calling itself the Catholic Secular Forum announced a fast against its screening. The film opened to full houses; nobody knew what happened to the strike.

However, cases like 38-year-old Irom Sharmila show steely determination. Sharmila has entered the Guinness Book of World Records for being the longestsurviving person on fast: nine years now, protesting against draconian Army activity in her home state of Manipur. She is under arrest and has been force-fed every day. Estimates claim that the state spends around $50,000 annually to keep her alive. The nationalist poet, Sarojini Naidu, had once remarked that it took India millions of rupees to keep Gandhi poor.

All said and done, Bollywood, the barometer of relevance and popularity in India, still favours the Gandhi aura. The blockbusting Munnabhai films portray the life of a kind-hearted chap who believes in roughshod ways to get his girl or job, in whatever order. The spirit of Gandhi visits him and he changes into a Good Samaritan. The films still run to packed houses whenever they are re-released and have gained cult status.

It’s another story that the actor who portrayed Munna is superstar Sanjay Dutt, who has spent two years in jail for being in league with the mafia based in Dubai and for illegal possession of AK47 guns.

But Indians do not mind; they are always at home with contrasts.

Anthony Dias is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India.

This column was published in the October 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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