During the 12 days of melodrama when India apparently solved the problem of corruption, one claim Kisan Baburao Hazare’s followers consistently made was that his fast was a non-violent, Gandhian protest. If Mohandas Gandhi could go on a fast-unto-death to force a government to relent, so could Hazare.
Hazare’s media-savvy handlers ensured that networks got to film shots reminiscent of Richard Attenborough’s film, Gandhi, and Hazare sat below a large portrait of Gandhi, rising periodically to offer platitudes.
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Not everyone was taken in. Thoughtful observers of Hazare’s bailiwick, Ralegan Siddhi, have shown how he enforces his code and ensures compliance from villagers. Cable television is not permitted, and those who defy his ban on alcohol have been whipped in public. Political parties cannot campaign in the village, and the villagers have been effectively disenfranchised when he calls for a boycott.
Gandhi was for prohibition of alcohol too, but he would never permit harsh punishment, and his struggle was to get Indians to choose their destiny, not letting a moralist to decide on their behalf.
There was the technicality too: Gandhi took on a colonial empire; Hazare was taking on a stubborn, unpopular government—as if they are the same thing. (To many followers of Hazare, it was).
This reasoning is wrong at many levels, and it is worth reflecting on it if only so that Hazare’s suicidal brinkmanship doesn’t become the norm for future Munnabhais seeking Mahatmahood.
Contrast Hazare’s fast with Gandhi’s. Of the 18 fasts I identified in biographies and Gandhi’s collected works, only two were targeted specifically against the British government—in 1939 and 1943, each time he sought political concessions from a recalcitrant colonial power to further the cause of independence. Two other fasts were again targeted at authorities, but their intent was to press progress towards removing untouchability. Once, Gandhi wanted to stop the award of separate electorate for “untouchables”; the other time, he wanted to work towards removing untouchability. Keeping Indians divided suited the British purpose; Gandhi challenged that.
On five other occasions Gandhi fasted to calm passions unleashed by Hindu-Muslim riots. On three occasions, it was to shame “upper caste” Hindus who refused to change their ways. Thrice, he fasted as an act of penance, due to moral lapses of ashram inmates. Twice, because satyagraha, or the civil disobedience movement, had turned violent. And once, during a strike. Several fasts were undertaken when he was in jail. The idea being that his freedoms were curtailed.
Note the pattern: these were usually self-purificatory fasts, to atone for something that had gone wrong, such as the burning of a police station in Chauri Chaura. Or he fasted because Hindus and Muslims had rioted, and he wanted to bring peace.
He went on a fast because he wanted the voice of the powerless heard by the powerful—socially, as with “upper caste” Hindus, or economically, as with mill-owners. He also went on a fast because of moral failings of his flock. And he punished himself because his followers chose violence.
Violence remained anathema: It is worth pondering over that, too. Gandhi did say that he preferred violence over cowardice—but not over non-violence. Hurling a bomb or shooting someone is easy; choosing to show restraint in the face of grave provocation is hard. And he chose that harder path, because means mattered to him, not just the ends. When Subhas Chandra Bose and Gandhi parted company, Gandhi wrote to Bose: our paths are so different that our ends only appear to be the same.
More pertinently, his fasts were not “unto death,” but “indefinite”. There’s no sophistry here; Gandhi was opposed to suicide, and did not believe in sacrificing human life even by inflicting passive violence upon oneself.
Finally, as the constitutional scholar A.G. Noorani has noted, Gandhi saw the unreasonable nature of a fast-unto-death as a right, and would not go on one against a representative, elected government.
However flawed and tainted it may seem to many, the United Progressive Alliance is an elected government, and the Constitution’s framers have given Indians an excellent tool to change governments—the vote.
The litany of complaints against voting is familiar. The presence of criminals on ballot paper, the powerlessness of a single vote, the persistence of vote banks, the power of money. But if all parties seem alike, nothing stops the citizen from canvassing for individuals, joining or forming parties, and even standing for elections, as an independent, if necessary. Gandhi was clear: be the change you wish to be.
That is hard work; requiring more effort than participating in candle vigils or wearing Gandhi caps. Politicians thumping desks and civil society thumping chests don’t make a revolution. Waiting for a hero is not the way. When Andrea lamented to Galileo in Bertolt Brecht’s eponymous play that there were no heroes, Galileo said: pity the nation in need of a hero.
And pity, too, the nation that can’t tell apart a real hero from a false one.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com