The freedom struggle of this country has witnessed a band of youth inspired by a zeal willing to put their lives at stake. Number of them were arrested, tried in court and executed by the British. Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan, Thakur Roshan Singh, Rajendra Nath Lahiri, Shivaram Rajguru, Sukhdev Thapar, Jatindra Nath Das are common household names in India of revolutionaries who sacrificed their lives. Most of them were hanged. Chandrashekhar Azad shot himself dead to escape arrest and Jatindra Nath Das died after a 63 days hunger strike inside Lahore prison, where Bhagat Singh also fasted with him, for better living conditions for political prisoners.
Potti Sreeramulu, a freedom fighter, died in independent India after fasting for 58 days in Chennai for a separate Andhra state for Telugu speaking people in 1952. Even though this demand had popular support, the reason why Jawaharlal Nehru government eventually agreed to it, Potti Sreeramulu’s effort was an individual decision.
A 13 years old girl Aradhana Samdhariya belonging to Jain community died on 3 October, 2016 after fasting for 68 days for purely religious reason with the consent of her parents as an alternative to becoming a monk. This fast was not meant to achieve any social purpose and hence was an individual effort for individual cause.
Irom Sharmila fasted for 16 long years in Manipur, while being force fed, demanding repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act, demonstrating a steely resolve. Her decision to go on fast and to withdraw was again individual. Fortunately, she survived the long ordeal.
Over three lakh farmers have committed suicide in India since the economic policies of privatisation, liberalisation and globalisation were implemented because of their inability to repay loans. Even though the number of farmers who gave up their lives was larger than any other group who made sacrifices, the cause was individual and incidents were sporadic, not premeditated.
Naxalites and terrorists also exhibited a strong sense of purpose and commitment to give up their lives for it but they resorted to violent means and were considered outlaws by the society.
After the collective effort during freedom struggle when the above mentioned revolutionaries staked their lives for a greater cause we witness a similar phenomenon among saints for the conservation of river Ganga. Most of these are associated with Matri Sadan Ashram in Haridwar. 60 fasts unto death have been organised by this Ashram so far in which two saints Swami Nigmanand and Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, who was earlier known as Professor G.D. Agrawal at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, died after fasting for 115 and 112 days, respectively, in 2011 and 2018. Brahmachari Atmabodhanand is currently sitting on fast for over 190 days and is going to give up water on 5th May, 2019. Baba Nagnath had died in 2014 in Varanasi after 114 days of fast for the same demand. Swami Gokulanand, who sat on the first fast against illegal mining in Ganga in 1998 along with Swami Nigmanand on behalf of Matri Sadan was murdered in 2003. The head of Matri Sadan Swami Shivanand who has himself fasted against illegal mining in the past has taken a decision that one saint after another will sit on fast until the demand of Professor G.D. Agrawal to let Ganga flow uninterrupted and clean is met by the government. While the Manmohan Singh government had agreed to some demands of Professor G.D. Agrawal when he fasted five times, the present government has chosen to ignore the sacrifices of saints.
It is a pity that most of the people who put their lives at stake were not able to generate enough mass support for themselves. That is the reason they died while fasting. They received very limited support from society even though the cause that they espoused for were public and would benefit the society at large. Except for Mahatma Gandhi and Anna Hazare, whose fasts attracted public attention and people were moved by them, most of the people who fasted unto death received a very feeble response from society. In fact, the society was cruelly insensitive towards them.
However, these fasts have proved that when there is darkness everywhere, people and organisations are willing to make compromises for petty gains or soaked in corruption and most of the society is either submissive or afraid of authorities, there are people who come out, take a stand and face the repressive regimes. They become the hope for society and continue to inspire generations. They are icons of struggle against injustice and uphold values of truth, integrity, simplicity and adherence to universal principles for the benefit of entire human race.
The abovementioned people who gave up their lives were the most intelligent, committed and finest human beings of our society. Their untimely demise was society’s loss. But what is most unfortunate is that whereas nobody expected any mercy from the governments of the day, even the larger society didn’t do enough to save their lives. We are all guilty in this. This is irrespective of the fact that the great souls who made sacrifices never bothered about their own lives.
The society will always remember them for their ideals. These martyrs will continue to inspire new idealists. They will probably be never enough in number to change the society for better but will remind the lesser mortals like us that there are higher ideals to live for. We must not keep ourselves tied up in smaller things as to lose the sight of a bigger objective of a humane society, much less bother ourselves with unscrupulous things. If we cannot do any good for the society, we must not at least cause harm to it. This is the least we can learn from the great souls who gave up their lives.
Sandeep Pandey is a social activist