New Delhi: Eight years ago, a 36-year-old man in the small village of Chakdaha in Bareilly district, Uttar Pradesh, took on the local administration, which he said was using unscrupulous means to reduce the length of a road to the village from 20 feet to 10. Along with his neighbours, Rajesh Gangwar went to a number of officials to complain, but was brushed aside. The matter could only be resolved if senior officials from Lucknow took cognizance, they told him.

“I went on a fast demanding action from authorities and the villagers supported me. By the end of the second day, the executive engineer from Lucknow came to our village and the issue was taken care of," said Gangwar, now 45, who spoke from a hospital stretcher in Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia hospital on Monday.

Gangwar was hospitalized on Sunday evening following complaints of weakness and abdominal pain after another hunger strike—this time for two weeks in the capital, as part of the thousands-strong protests following the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on 16 December.

While most media attention has focused on the turbulent protests at Raisina Hill, during which crowds charged police barriers and were injured in clashes with the cops, hundreds of other protesters have attended the continuing peaceful protest at Jantar Mantar, though fewer now than a week ago.

Gangwar’s muted hunger strike follows a series of fasts in protest against the government that have had notable results in the past year, most obviously as a part of veteran activist Anna Hazare’s campaign against corruption. Hazare held a series of fasts in the last two years over corruption and demanding a strong anti-corruption law and the establishment of a Lokpal. But without Hazare’s organizational machine and public fanfare, Gangwar’s protest was never likely to have the same impact.

On Monday, the farmer, who also runs a family business of medicine shops, had spent the past 14 days and nights huddled under a blanket on a pavement at Jantar Mantar in bitterly cold conditions, with no food. “Someone has to start somewhere and according to me this was the correct way," said Gangwar, who looks older than his age, with a salt-and-pepper beard protruding from underneath a woolly hat, and a high-pitched voice. Under his stretcher was an old briefcase.

“I know that my sitting on a fast will not pressurize the government in a way that Anna’s fast did, but I believe that goodness takes time. It grows slowly and slowly, and will show its effect someday," he said, maintaining studied eye contact in the hospital ward, irritated by interruptions from his family and by the saline drip in his arm, which he removed constantly. “No one wants to die, with death all the vision and the things that you want to do in life goes waste."

The hunger strike, as a pressure tool against the government seems to have found renewed legitimacy in the country in recent years, according to Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist and former teacher at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Historically, fasting seems to have credibility because Gandhi did it," Gupta said. “However, fasting has become political blackmail and it continues to be legitimized because of the general feeling that our leaders don’t listen to us. Although the colonial part is no longer there, it continues to be as removed from reality as it used to be."

Gangwar is not the only one fasting. At the protest in Jantar Mantar, he met Babu Singh Somwanshi, who on Tuesday reached his 11th day without food. “The main intent when anyone fasts in such situations is to shame the government and to get them to do things that they want," said Gupta. Gangwar’s demands are as blunt as his method of protest: capital punishment for all those who have been proven guilty of rape and fast-track courts that should deal with cases of rape in less than three months. According to his younger brother, Rakesh, Gangwar broke his fast at 7pm on Monday (the 15th day of the fast) after he was advised that his health was in serious danger. He returned to Bareilly to recover after which he is keen to return to Delhi and continue his agitation.

Born and brought up in India’s most populous state, Gangwar studied engineering from a government polytechnic institute at Nainital and went on to become a junior engineer at a sugar mill in his home town. However, after three years, he quit his job to conduct “research" on bribery and corruption.

“I once got thinking about why do people take bribe? Even if it is not taken, any work can be done. When I put the whole thing together, I realized that the deficiency is not with the officials but with the government," he said. “I did a lot of research and I found out that this system can be changed without entering politics, without fighting elections—like Gandhi and Anna Hazare."

He is however against the path chosen by another activist turned politician Arvind Kejriwal who also sat on a 13-day fast in August last year. “I am not happy with the political path that he has taken, things can be solved apolitically. I understand Anna’a sacrifice, I don’t understand Arvind’s politics," he said.

His family and friends say that he has not always been a supporter of non-violent protest.

“In his youth, my elder brother was not so calm and composed as he is now," said Rakesh Gangwar, who is eight years younger than Rajesh and runs one of the family medical shops. “Until about 20 years of age, he was more self-righteous and of the view that no one could do anything to him. But now he is a changed man. My family and I are proud of him. I feel proud that I have a brother like him," Rakesh said.

Dhruv Dutta, a 40-year-old insurance agent and a neighbour of Gangwar, was visiting him in hospital: “Whenever we have talked, we have only talked about social issues and how to solve problems of the society," he said, of his friend.“He is a simple, good-hearted person but not many of us in society recognize people like him."

Meanwhile, 40-year-old Somwanshi, who is from Badanpur village in Farukkhabad district of Uttar Pradesh, continued his own fast into its 11th day at Jantar Mantar on Tuesday. The two men met each other at the protest venue. “My decision to go on a fast was triggered when the clashes near India Gate happened," Somwanshi said. “My wife was also here that day and I decided that I will go on a fast so that the other young children would join me here and protest peacefully," Somwanshi said. “We have no Anna or no other famous personality; the common masses who come here to support us are our only hope."

Back home in Bareilly, Gangwar’s wife is proud of the cause that he is supporting. “I guess God has made him strong for a cause like this," said Pushpa Gangwar over the telephone. “I am proud of a man who is fighting for women, and in this case, the man happens to be my husband."

Gangwar has a son and a daughter at home, just 25km from the ancestral home of the girl who was raped and murdered. Despite the fate of the local girl who was attacked on her way home from a movie, after moving to Delhi to train as a physiotherapist, he said that he would not stop his daughter or any other member of his family who wanted to come and work in the national capital, as he does not feel it is unsafe.

Speaking about the father of the girl whose rape he was protesting, Gangwar said, “I am very sad for him. I can never express in words what deep sorrow I have for what that father must have gone through. His daughter was like my own daughter."

Kirthi V. Rao contributed to this story.

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