Fasting as a Method of Public Protest in India


Hunger-strikes or fasts have long been an essential part of the Indian form of resistance. Gandhi’s numerous hunger-strikes in protest of British rule achieved dramatic results. One could argue that colonial India presented a different context; the lack of democratic participation validated extreme measures. However, India today is a democracy, and a hunger-strike is tantamount to extra-constitutional blackmail. This debate is all the more relevant in light of Anna Hazare’s successful  four day ‘fast unto death’ in protest of institutional corruption, which resulted in the Indian government conceding to the demand of appointing a committee to draft an anti-corruption law, known as the "Jan Lokpal Bill."

Some sections celebrated this as a victory of popular non-violent protest.  Many others cried foul, stating that threatening with a suicidal commitment is equivalent to blackmail, and that it will wrongly encourage others to push for what could be arbitrary demands.  Such a position betrays the naivety of a large section of the Indian population.

A single example can demonstrate the credulous belief that the government is forced to give in to the demands of the fasting protester. That example is Irom Sharmila. In protest of the brutal Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), Sharmila began a fast unto death in 2000, which continues today. She is repeatedly arrested, charged with an “attempt to commit suicide,” kept alive through a nasogastric tube, and released once marginally better. For 11 years Sharmila has been adamant to not accept food or water. Sharmila’s protest has not yet achieved its desired impact: AFSPA is still applicable in troubled regions of India, the media has only provided limited coverage of her cause, and the common Indian remains unaware of her name and struggle.

Sharmila is not the only example. Many others have attempted a hunger strike, albeit with no results or limited success. In 1952, Potti Sreeramulla lost his life owing to an 82 day fast, campaigning for the creation of an Andhra State with Madras as its capital. In India, hunger-strikes remain a popular method of protest, be it VP Singh’s hunger strike against the Bombay Riots in 1993, Medha Patkar’s 20 day hunger strike in protest of the Narmada Dam in 2006, or Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister’s twenty minutes of fasting in 2011. There are scores of examples, almost begging the question that given the frequency of announcements of ‘fasts unto death’, are hunger strikes even an effective form of protest??

Anna Hazare’s hunger strike partially answers the above question. Yes, fasting is still a very effective method of public protest and resistance. The numerous unsuccessful examples, including Sharmila, complete the answer: Hunger-strikes can only be effective if they are backed by massive public support and media attention. If thousands of people supporting a striking protestor can achieve results as impressive as the Indian government conceding to a demand that is in the public’s interest, it is an indication of the power of democracy, and by no means extra-constitutional or equivalent to blackmail.

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