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.