Has fasting in India remained effective enough to prompt the country’s governments to act?

Irom Sharmila, Anna Hazare, Professor GD Aggarwal

By Niril Panigrahi*

In my first lecture of the ‘Transformational Social Movements’ class at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM)-Ahmedabad, Dr Sandeep Pandey recounted the story of the professor who died after days of fasting against the alleged governmental nonchalance to protect Ganga. Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Kanpur Professor turned Activist G.D. Aggarwal succumbed to a cardiac arrest after 111 days of what started as an ‘indefinite fast till death’. He had devoted his life for the preservation of the river, its better maintenance and retaining free flow of the water therein.

After taking sanyas since 2011, Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand (he changed his name under the tutelage of Shankracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati) had dedicated his life to the conservation of the Ganga. Some of his demands included banning of the hydroelectric projects along the tributaries and enactment of the Ganga Protection Management Act. Before this, he had organized a couple of fasts in the years 2008 and 2009 to reinstate his claims, following which the UPA government formed National Ganga River Basin Authority.

Soon after, it passed the order to close down Loharinag Pala, Maneri and Bhairon Ghati projects. But the present government’s inaction in making the basin free of pollution and mining activities had forced the environmentalist to revert to this dire measure, which culminated with his death. This is the second instance of death due to fasting for the protection of Ganga – Swami Nigamananda Saraswati had passed away after fasting for 114 days in 2011 owing to his protest against the quarrying practices in Haridwar, which was adding to the pollution of the river. In light of the situation, there emerges a greater question – Was fasting effective enough to prompt the government to act?

Or more generally, is fasting a fruitful tool to drive government interventions and an accelerated response? Seen as contemptuous political gestures, hunger strikes have become a norm when it comes to present day activists putting forth their claim for reform or amendment with the intention to ramp up the process of change in an existing system or law. It can be used by refugees in their fight for basic human rights (in Australia, refugees have sewn their mouths shut to exhibit the extent to which things can be acknowledged and brought to the notice of the relevant authorities).

In case of India, there have been legendary cases of fasts and hunger strikes being constructed to urge the government to act on a specific issue – be it Irom Sharmila, the woman who stayed for a whooping sixteen years without food and water protesting against the presence of AFSPA in the north eastern states, or Anna Hazare, the social activist who organized strikes for promoting rural development, increasing government transparency and punishment for corruption in public life, or umpteen groups of people who believe that such extreme measures would help bring their demands to the limelight.

The concept of hunger strike is both interesting and disheartening at the same time. It has no direct effect on the intended target, rather the protestor endures the pain of abstinence from basic human needs. The only reliance is on the moralistic coercion of their actions, or publicity value, to achieve results. The people who do it have a profound sense of commitment and are willing to go to lengths for the cause.

Hunger strikes have been used far and wide by many a political dissidents around the world, giving out mixed results. It worked out well for Gandhiji, he was an expert at holding his own body hostage to extract concessions from his opponents, and luckily for him, he was able to garner a massive public support. But, others have had to pay a very high price for victory, if it came at all.

As ways of attracting public attention, hunger strikes do go a long way. As the protest is prolonged, it is extremely disheartening to accept willed refusal of food. But studies have proven that the power of this measure rests on paradoxes. With time, the suffragette weakens, as a consequence of which, they cannot resist interventions.

The second paradox is the dwindling of the administrator, and when the fire dies, erstwhile supporters are left with anger and lack of purpose. All of this points to the highly uncertain and hollow nature of the protests. In an article in his magazine “Harijan” in 1939, Gandhiji declared, “hunger strike has positively become a plague. On the slightest pretext some people want to hunger strike.”

There have been several writings on this particular issue, a notable one is ‘The Guide’ by R.K. Narayan, a queerly dark storyline depicting the transformation of a corrupt person into a holy man by accident who ends up fasting for rains. Even if he wants to get out of the entire process by revealing his true story, the delirious fandom forces him to continue, and dying in the end. And no one knows if the rains came, but even if they do, was it the strike that brought it, and more importantly, was it worth his life?

*PGP-II student, Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad

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