In the last few weeks, several high-profile activists and politicians, including social activist Anna Hazare, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Delhi Commission for Women chief Swati Maliwal, observed hunger strikes for a host of differing causes.
While Hazare had revived his demand for implementation of the anti-corruption package, Gandhi was protesting communalism and caste-based violence, Modi was drawing attention to the logjam forced by the opposition leading to a washout of the budget session of Parliament and Maliwal was demanding stringent laws to curb rape.
In fact, Maliwal ended her indefinite hunger strike which she began on 13 April on Sunday, after President Ram Nath Kovind promulgated an ordinance to give stringent punishment to those convicted of raping girls under 12 years.
In the process, this series of fasts has put the spotlight on a form of non-violent protest popularized by Mahatma Gandhi during the movement to free India from the colonial rule of the British.
He wielded it as a moral weapon to humble the power of the state unleashed by the British. The very act of fasting as a protest puts the moral onus on the authorities, who are far more comfortable deploying force to deal with violent protests. Later, Gandhi also employed it to seek conflict resolution among Hindus and Muslims after violent communal riots broke out across the country, particularly in Noakhali (now part of Bangladesh), as the date for Independence drew closer.
Amazingly, even seven decades after Gandhi, this form of protest in public causes continues to find traction—the most famous one being the one inspired by Hazare in Delhi against corruption in public office, which eventually spawned the political phenomenon called the Aam Aadmi Party. The obvious question then is why does this form of non-violent protest continue to appeal to the public?
Part of the reason could be that somehow, fasting as a means of self-purification is deeply linked to the practice of every major religion. While Muslims practice the month-long fast during Ramzan, Christians observe Lent and Hindus fast during Navratra. It is therefore not only easy to relate to, but also something that can be adopted as a collective.
In fact, Gandhi himself acknowledges the religious connect to fasting in his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth. “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."
Later, Mahatma Gandhi incorporated it as a potent weapon of non-violence and in coercing his political opponents (sometimes controversially) to submit to his point of view. His arsenal of weapons of non-violence was expanded to include civil disobedience—like the simple act of breaking colonial government rules to make salt.
His success actually inspired Gene Sharp, who founded the Albert Einstein Foundation and passed away earlier this year, to preach his own version of non-violence that recently triggered regime change including in Myanmar and the famous Arab Spring revolution in Egypt.
In an interview to The Boston Globe newspaper in 1983 explaining the rationale of non-violent protest, Sharp said, “It doesn’t build on the capacity of people to love each other and turn the other cheek, but on people’s capacity to be stubborn and cussed, and we’re all good at that."
Indeed it is remarkable that fasting as a form of protest still appeals in an era where violence has emerged as the first choice for conflict resolution.
Clearly, given the state of affairs across the world and in India, Gandhi’s message of non-violent protest makes more sense today.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org