Hunger strikes a legitimate form of protest globally, we need systemic change to root out corruption

I am bemused by much of the vacuous debate over Anna Hazare’s fast. He has his shortcomings, but many of his critics have private agendas, and are spinning the facts to suit these agendas. So they denounce the anti-corruption movement as a middle class plot to divert attention from the poor, or from dalits, or from Maoism or whatever.

Amusingly, almost all the critics are from the middle class themselves. Some of them call Hazare’s tactics blackmail, authoritarian and an assault on democratic functioning.

There’s nothing new in self-serving criticism of political fasts. When Gandhiji fasted, Jinnah denounced him as a hypocritical Hindu, the RSS denounced him as a covert Muslim-lover, the Communist Party denounced him as a British stooge for opposing violent revolution, and Ambedkar denounced him as an upper caste wolf in secular clothing.

When one of Gandhiji’s fasts foiled Ambedkar’s goal of a separate electorate for untouchables, he was a bad loser. He claimed the fast was “authoritarian”, something being cited by critics today. How ridiculous! Authoritarianism is about monopolising political office, and Gandhiji refused any political office, although it was his for the asking.

Hazare must be laughing that his critics are exposing themselves as similar to the Mahatma’s critics. As in Gandhiji’s time, many of today’s critics are dismayed that a new star has stolen the limelight from them, and shifted public attention to agendas other than their own.

However, it would be equally wrong to see Hazare as the second coming of the Mahatma. Gandhiji would never have whipped drunk villagers, as Hazare has done. Besides, Hazare’s fasting is not especially Gandhian: it’s a tactic used by activists across the globe.

The British suffragette movement, demanding voting rights for women, was the first in recent history to use fasts as a political pressure tactic (American suffragettes did the same later). The British government called it blackmail. Marion Dunlop was the first suffragette to stage a hunger strike in 1909.

Others followed, some of whom died after being force-fed. Dunlop was released when she looked like dying: the British government didn’t want to make her a martyr. This was a dress rehearsal of the later dramas in India, when the Mahatma undertook fasts in prison as a tactic to mobilise the masses, and the British released him when his life seemed in danger.

In Ireland, fasting was an ancient practice to shame others into redressing injustices. This tradition inspired hunger strikes from in the Irish war of independence (1917-23), and took many lives including that of Terence MacSwiney, former Mayor of Cork.

When the British left, a civil war broke out in Ireland, and one set of revolutionaries used hunger strikes against their former comrades. Later the Irish Republican Army’s imprisoned fighters – no examplars of non-violence – often resorted to hunger strikes.

Hunger strikes have long been used by anti-Castro dissidents in Cuba locked up for demanding civil rights. Pedro Luis Bortel, a poet, died of starvation in 1972. Guillermo Farinas staged a seven-month hunger strike against internet censorship in 2006, and won the cyber-freedom prize of Reporters without Borders.

Turkey has seen many hunger strikes by political prisoners, mostly Kurd or Marxist dissidents. One mass hunger strike in 1996 lasted 69 days and took 12 lives. Another wave of hunger strikes started in 2000, and relatives of prisoners claim that over 100 died. Wikipedia lists examples of hunger strikes in Venezuela, Greece, Japan, Sri Lanka and Estonia.

Clearly, political fasts are a global phenomenon, and we should look at global experience before pronouncing on its pros and cons. What does global experience show? First, many callous governments have accused hunger strikers of blackmail, but ended up looking foolish.

Blackmail is about extracting money in return for keeping silent about another person’s secrets. But activists on fast have never sought money: they have sought to shame oppressors into redress. Only the shameless see this as blackmail. Second, it’s simply wrong to call such fasts a subversion of Parliament or the democratic process.

Fasts are a democratic form of protest, and can greatly deepen democracy – the suffragette movements in Britain and the US brought democratic rights to women that had earlier been denied to them. The government was finally shamed into making the change, something that’s happened in India, too. This is a vibrant example of democratic process, not subversion of it.

In Cuba and Iran, fasts have been used by democracy-seeking activists against authoritarian rulers. Far from having authoritarian overtones, fasting is typically a tactic of the weak against the strong. It’s amusing in India to hear some Marxists accuse Hazare of authoritarianism when their own philosophy is totalitarian.

It’s amusing to see Mayawati criticise Hazare for not focusing on atrocities against dalits, and instead focusing on corruption: it’s no coincidence that the latter focus could land her in jail.

Hazare’s critics are dead right in saying that corruption cannot be combated by a single institution like the Lokpal. We need much wider institutional change. The police-judicial system, for instance, totally fails to deliver justice.

It needs complete overhaul so that it quickly convicts law-breakers of all sorts, from murderers to corporate crooks – these need to be jailed no less than the corrupt. I hope activists of all shades will come out with their own ideas to make India a land with justice. We cannot depend on fasts by Hazare alone.

What do you think?