Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Hunger Fast: A Few Thoughts and Some History

As Hazare and the exhilaration over his fast-unto-death slowly becomes entangled in the giant, sticky web that is the Indian political system—the Congress has already rejected demands to videograph the proceedings of the Joint Committee—it’s worthwhile to recall a hunger strike which occurred more than 50 years ago. Potti Sreeramulu was a Telegu-speaking Congressman who had worked with Gandhi in before independence. In 1952, Potti started a fast-unto-death for the creation of an Andhra State and for Madras city to be made the state’s capital. Potti's fast-unto-death, though, was a bit more comprehensive than Hazare’s—not only did he fast but, after 82 days, he died as well. His death was followed by massive violence in the Andhra region, led by the Communists who, till recently, were challenging the very right of the newly independent Indian state to exist (shades of this can still be seen in the Telengana movement, by the way). Unnerved by this violence, Nehru, who till recently was very reluctant to allow the formation of linguistic states, gave in and allowed the creation of an Andhra state. Potti’s other demand, that Madras be included in Andhra Pradesh, though, was rejected.

Ramachandra Guha nicely summarises this fascinating episode in this article.

Couple of interesting points though.

Firstly, as Five Rupees points out, is the sheer novelty of hunger strikes being used a political weapon—literally, nowhere in the world would you see this happening. The closest equivalents I can think of are the self-immolations that have occurred during the Vietnam War. Fasting as penance to achieve a goal is common enough in the Hindu religion (and other Dharmic religions) so it’s an easy trope to understand for most, if not all, Indians. Additionally, and crucially, Gandhi, since 1919 or so, brilliantly used the idiom of religion in politics with awesome effect. It was he who introduced the tool of a fast as a political tool, which is why probably India is the only country in the world where people would fast to enact a law or create a new province. In other countries, they’d work through the system—fight elections, convince dictators—or uses standard coercive methods like strikes or even outright violence. So colossally did Gandhi stride the Indian political landscape during his lifetime that till today anything ostensibly mirroring what he did or stood for carries a lot of political capital. Hazare is of course aware of this and like almost every other player on the Indian political landscape (even, ironically, Modi), tries to appropriate Gandhi’s legacy for himself: I saw a TV interview of Hazare over the weekend and a bronze bust of Gandhi was placed strategically in the background, almost in Munnabhai fashion.

Of course, sometimes the difference between a hunger fast and coercive methods such as riots isn’t set in black and white. Going back to Potti, the actual fast did little to change the Government of India’s stance towards the matter. 12 days before Potti’s death (and six weeks into the fast) Nehru wrote to Rajagopalachari: "Some kind of fast is going on for the Andhra Province and I get frantic telegrams. I am totally unmoved by this and I propose to ignore it completely". On Potti's death, however, the Andhra region simply erupted into a frenzy of violence. Within a few days of this chaos, miraculously, Nehru had changed his mind and had accepted the creation of an Andhra state in principal. In this case, at least, the Government responded, as Time puts it, “perhaps as much to the violence as to Sriramulu's nonviolence”.

Even Gandhi’s most famous hunger strike, which culminated in the signing of the Poona Pact, it could be argued, was a success only because Ambedkar feared a devastating backlash against the Dalits if and when the Mahatma died. The Poona Pact was only agreed to by Ambedkar when Gandhi was critically ill.

In Hazare’s case however, chances of violence were slim which would make it very interesting if, eventually, Hazare has his way and the actual law that he wants is ratified by Parliament.

Update: Forgot to mention Irom Sharmila's case (which is appropriately ironic because so has everyone else, I guess). Her fast, unbacked by threats of violence or the vocal English-language media, has been rather ineffective. This, when, arguably, her cause is far more urgent.


Rathesh said...

Don't you think Sonia Gandhi and NAC , and the way their mind work is the main reason why government succumbed so easily to Anna Hazare.

Nobody said...

Didn't know about Potti before this. Fantastic post.


Hades said...


I don't exactly get what mind set you're referring to but what's important to note is that the government has not 'succumbed'. Let there be a Jan Lokpal law and then we'll see.

@Nobody Thanks!