As Medha Patkar and other Narmada Bachao Andolan activists continue their peaceful and non-violent protest by going on an indefinite fast, for just rehabilitation (as mandated by the Supreme Court of India), to be provided to the 40,000 families affected by the closing of sluice gates of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) dam, the state administration has replied by using violence against the activists and arresting and re-arresting them. The central government has not deemed it fit to intervene in the matter and the mainstream media finds it unworthy of coverage, other than small bits of references here and there.
The alternate media, activists and some of the general public are increasingly concerned though, as the duration of the fast is gradually increasing and the state government rather than trying to engage in a constructive dialogue with Medha Patkar and her colleagues, is, on the contrary, using all kinds of repressive measures to drown out any voice of protest.
With concerns for Medha ji and her colleagues’ health prevailing and the state government not looking inclined to relent, I got thinking about the history of our tryst with fasts, and their responses by the authorities in power.
Just as non-violence was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi as a potent tool to fight injustice, similarly, fast unto death was a tool he used quite often as a part of his satyagraha. Those were pre-independence times, and almost always did Mahatma Gandhi succeed in drawing the attention of the British authorities to his demands, leading to a dialogue and emergence of some sort of a resolution to the situation which had forced him to undertake the fast in the first place. (Dr. Sunilam makes the same observation in his article, which can be found on the URL: https://sabrangindia.in/article/medhaji-govt-worse-british-please-break-your-fast).
One of the fasts he undertook was against the provision of separate electorates for the Untouchables, whom he called Harijans, which led to the signing of Poona Pact of 1932, between him and Dr. Ambedkar. Though, this particular fast undertaken by him was not seen in favourable light by many, as it was felt that he betrayed the cause of the untouchable community, however, it could not be and was not ignored and some sort of a resolution was resorted to.
Another fast, probably his last, was the one he undertook to convince the independent Indian government to not withhold from the newly independent nation of Pakistan its rightful material dues, after the Partition. Though the Indian government was irritated and frustrated with his demand, yet it acceded to it and gave Pakistan all its dues.
He similarly succeeded in establishing Hindu-Muslim unity, howsoever precarious, in Noakhali in Bengal, by undertaking a fast unto death.
There may be various reasons for Mahatma Gandhi’s success with this instrument of indefinite fasts. One may be his stature at the time, such that no-one wanted to even imagine the consequences of his perishing as a result of one of his fasts. Another reason may be the fear of the British of losing their legitimacy if they dealt with such a situation in an excessively stern manner. Or maybe the fear of the public backlash that would follow if Mahatma Gandhi was allowed to succumb to one of his fasts was too big a fear for the British, or anybody else, to not take his fasts seriously. A third reason may be a genuine concern and love for the man and the impossibility of losing him so. A fourth reason may be that a semblance of humanity was still alive and a human being’s life was valued for what it was worth.
We shall now come to some incidents where people have resorted to indefinite fasts in independent India, and the response by the authorities in power to such fasts.
Akshay Brahmachari, an avowed Gandhian, and the Secretary of the Faizabad District Congress Committee in 1949, undertook two fasts in order to convince the government of the communal hatred being spread in Ayodhya by Hindu fundamentalists. The first time when he undertook the fast, he was persuaded to end it giving some reassurances which never, however, materialized. The second time, the government though sounded concerned, yet it did-not take any concrete steps and he was forced to end his fast by two fellow Gandhians who feared for his health.
Potti Sreeramulu is another name which is inextricably linked with fast unto deaths. He undertook the same for creation of an independent Andhra state and lost his life in the process. Three days after his death, the creation of an independent Andhra state was announced by the Central government.
Talking of fasts, the name of Irom Sharmila is registered in the annals of history. She went on a hunger strike for 16 long years against the draconian AFSPA in Manipur. The state response was to keep her in confinement and force-feed her through a nose-tube. AFSPA has remained in effect in Manipur and the North-East all this while.
Anna Hazare undertook various fasts throughout his career, most well-known and widely supported being for the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill. Although the Lokpal and Lokayukta’s Act was enacted in 2013, however, according to Anna Hazare and its team, it is far from the draft proposed by them. Though Anna Hazare’s version of the bill also received criticism, however, his fast became very popular and the government was wary of using extremely repressive tactics against the movement.
Analyzing all of these cases, apart from Gandhiji’s fasts, it appears that the response to indefinite fasts has been varied.
The longest and yet the most delegitimized has been the hunger strike undertaken by Irom Sharmila. Even after 16 long years of fighting for the repeal of AFSPA, she could not achieve her objective. A possible reason for this may be the unanimous stand of the Indian state, irrespective of the political party in power, against the dilution of AFSPA in J&K and North-Eastern states. This is an indication of the increasing domination of the concept of mechanical nation-state over the concept of real humanity, something that Rabindranath Tagore, so strongly, guarded against.
Coming to the ongoing fast by Medha Patkar and others, and the response of the state government to the same, some peculiar observations straightaway come to mind. Firstly, the blatant and brazen disregard of Supreme Court strictures, and its continued inability to get them implemented, is pretty unprecedented. Secondly, use of violence against peaceful protestors, after failing to break their resolve by ignoring them for days altogether, is against all norms of functioning of a democratic state where rule of law is supposed to prevail. Thirdly, the silence of the central government on the entire issue is again a tactic that has been increasingly used by the present dispensation, indicating its tacit support to the state government. The saddest part is however, the baffling silence of the so-called fourth pillar of our democratic state, supposed to be independent from the other three –the mainstream media – in unequivocally condemning the state on its response to this situation.
This is probably another warning signal making us aware of the fledgling condition that our democratic state has been reduced to, and purposeful destruction of institutions that is being resorted to, silently yet unequivocally. It is high time we understand this grand design and be suitably guarded against it.
PS: To read about the tryst of current Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s tryst with fasts (who is the key to resolving the present impasse and is stubbornly refusing to do so), please refer to this link – https://scroll.in/article/840357/mp-farmers-stir-how-shivraj-singh-chouhan-pulled-a-fast-one-and-not-for-the-first-time. It is a very interesting read!
Nivedita Dwivedi has done MA in Elementary Education from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Blog at http://fromwordstovoid.blogspot.in/