Why are you still alive, Fateh Singh?

Dear Anna Hazare

Congratulations on capturing the imagination of India, and forcing the political class to give teeth to the Lokpal Bill. However, it seems you may launch another fast if the final Bill is not to your liking. And after that you may launch more fasts for electoral reforms and other objectives.

Caution, please. Mahatma Gandhi spaced out his fasts over decades, so the tactic did not get devalued. Punjab’s history shows vividly that repeated political fasts have diminishing returns. When India became independent, Sikh leader Tara Singh wanted an independent Sikh state. Sikhs were a minority in Indian Punjab, but had a majority in its northern districts. Indian states were being reorganized on the basis of language, and Tara Singh demanded a separate Punjabi-speaking state. This was a tactic to kick out the Hindi-speaking areas of the south and create a Sikh-majority state in the north.

His talks with Nehru were inconclusive. Meanwhile his rival, Sant Fateh Singh, announced a fast unto death to steal the limelight—and Sikh leadership—from Tara Singh. Fateh Singh’s first fast started in December 1960 and ended after government assurances that it would look into the plea for a Punjabi Suba. This diminished Tara Singh, who had not offered to sacrifice his life. To regain ground, Tara Singh also went on a fast in 1961. He ended this after more assurances from Nehru. But many Sikhs regarded this as cowardice. A religious committee declared he had broken his oath to fast unto death, and he was booed at public meetings.

Fateh Singh became the unquestioned Sikh leader. But the government kept dragging its feet. Fateh Singh launched another fast in September 1965. But the Indo-Pak war broke out, and he suspended his fast.

Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1966, and soon after announced the partition of the state. Hindu-majority Haryana was split off, and the rest of Punjab became a Sikh majority state. But it lost Chandigarh, which was made a separate Union Territory and joint capital of the two states.

Sikhs claimed that Chandigarh had been stolen from them, even though the 1961 census showed it was a Hindi-speaking area . Fateh Singh launched another fast in December 1966, threatening to burn himself alive if he did not get Chandigarh. Government negotiators persuaded him to give up his fast after 10 days.

Angry Sikhs accused Fateh Singh of saving his own life without attaining the promised goal. Darshan Singh Pheruman, another prominent Sikh leader, swore that he would not be as cowardly as Tara Singh or Fateh Singh. Pheruman began a fast unto death in 1969. He resisted force-feeding and ultimately died after 74 days, coming a Sikh a martyr and hero.

Anguished Sikhs vented their anger. Fateh Singh faced the constant taunt, “Why are you still alive?” He tried to regain ground with another fast in 1970 to get Chandigarh. But the government decided that it would transfer Chandigarh to Punjab only if in return Fazilka, a Hindi-speaking enclave in Punjab, was transferred to Haryana along with a connecting corridor. This led to a stalemate between Punjab and Haryana, which continues till today. Fateh Singh’s popularity plummeted, and he was sneered and jeered at. He retired from politics in 1972 and died soon after.

Annaji, what is the main historical lesson from Punjab? First, fasts can indeed win some objectives, if you can mobilize enough people. But please do not insist on complete surrender by the government . In a democracy there will always be different viewpoints , some of which may be quite valuable (like for instance Aruna Roy’s ). Some give and take is required.

The second big lesson is that a fast is effective precisely because of the danger of death. If you stay alive (which is necessary if you want to go on repeated fasts), you can go from hero to zero very soon. By the end of his career, when Fateh Singh threatened yet another fast, people would groan “not again.”

Before you launch a series of future fasts for various aims (like electoral reforms), remember Punjab. Do you want to end like Pheruman, who died without attaining his aims? Or do you want to end like Tara Singh and Fateh Singh, and be asked constantly “Why are you still alive?”

You claim to be a Gandhian. Remember, Gandhiji never demanded total victory. He never expected his 1933 fast against untouchability to end the practice. He didn’t seriously expect the British to quit India after his 1943 fast. If you insist on total victory , you will be more like Pheruman than Gandhiji. Please avoid that fate.

7 thoughts on “Why are you still alive, Fateh Singh?”

  1. Beautiful. If Anna or his technical advisors read this!!!! Yes its true by repeatation, things loose its value. Anna, if realises his role in this big movement, and stop threatening the government and act as a catalyst for BJP. He shoudl realise, his actions against goverment is strengheting BJP, which is worse than congress. Congress we have to fight curruption, if BJP – curruprion and communalism and Hindu Talibanism. So Anna your movement is no doubt got fire in it, but by taking extreme attitudes dont allow it to die out. Middl epath is the right path.

  2. I realy liked your idea. I think the only problem with Ananji”s group is that they become very rigid on few things. In a democracy we have to compromise on few things. And if we want to have a win win situation then we have to be cool & calm rather then think that we have to win the battle. Winning the battle is not important but getting a solution is more important. Some times people from Annaji’s camp become over ambisious & talk much on things which are not trivial. Lets make India a better place to live & for that we have to keep fighting with all the doors open. A bill can be ammended many times but let the bill be tabled.

  3. Sir,
    To some extent you are right in delivering that the gravity of ‘fast unto death’ is because of the associated fears of death. But it is only one facet of the issue. The objective of the fast is as much important as well. People of the country deemed tremendous support to anna ji & unanimously it was a showdown of people power when the government have to take U-turns from its original stand several times during anna ji’s fast. Fast was dubbed as ‘successful’. And you can see his previous 30 years history, you will come to know that despite repetitive fasts, what a great public mobilization he has achieved. And that could become possible only because of the fact that the objectives of his fast were not limited just to the welfare and support of a particular community or to get control over a particular place (in case of sant fateh singh & other two leaders, the fast was aimed at the welfare of a state & community) but for a cause which is desired by the entire country & even entire humanity.

  4. Pravin Subramanian

    Agreed to what you say, but don’t you think flexibility can be viewed as negotiability? And if driven by a hard negotiator, results obtained may be far less than what was expected.

    As compared to a hardliner who demands everything or nothing, the system is pushed to a precipice. The fall can be a blessing or a curse, but nevertheless will trigger a movement across the nation for stability in case things spiral out of control.

    A revolution which’ll then herald a new beginning all over again. What’s your take on this?

  5. We are not copying Gandhi here.. the principles are same that were developed by Gandhi; Anna is using them beautifully to meet the goals in today’s time.
    And in any movement there is a lull before the storm.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *