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Fasts, Hunger and Hunger Strikes

How the State has responded to the fasts of Anna Hazare, Baba Ramdev and Medha Patkar and how the media has portrayed them are a study in contrasts and say something about our society.


Fasts, Hunger and Hunger Strikes

Anand Teltumbde

How the State has responded to the fasts of Anna Hazare, Baba Ramdev and Medha Patkar and how the media has portrayed them are a study in contrasts and say something about our society.

Anand Teltumbde ( is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.

ven Harry S Truman, the 33rd president of the US, the author of the infamous Truman Doctrine to contain communism had this advice to the governments!

Fast and Hunger

It is amusing, that the country which has the distinction of being home to the largest number of hungry people in the world should be shaken by the threat of hunger by a few. But that is what has been happening since Mahatma Gandhi forged this into a weapon. Interestingly, Gandhi referred to it as a fast, not hunger strike, which it actually was. A fast has a religious undertone, as Ed Cole, the founder of the Christian Men’s Network in the United States, candidly stated: “A fast is not a hunger strike. Fasting submits to God’s commands. A hunger strike makes God submit to our demands.” It has a class connotation too. For elites it is a fast, for the commoners, it is a hunger strike. After all how could elites go on a strike? They need to be differentiated from the working classes whose business it is to strike. One is not sure but one commonly confronts this differentiation in practice. Bhagat Singh and his comrades had gone on a hunger strike in Lahore jail in which Jatin Das became a martyr on the 82nd day, marking the limits of human endurance and resolve in the longest hunger strike in world history. On the other hand, fasts, “indefinite” or “unto death” were undertaken by Gandhi and Gandhians many times. The very label of a fast, as it appeared, conveyed the message that it would not be stretched to death and would be concluded before long. But if it is a strike, one could not be sure.

Irom Sharmila

A mere use of labels would not, however, work. The system identifies what you are by the issue you espouse. Take, for instance, the case of Irom Sharmila from Manipur, who has entered the incredible 11th year of a fast unto death. Poor soul, she thought she was following the Gandhian method and declared her protest as a fast unto death whereas what she actually began was a hunger strike. Because the issue she raised was the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has virtually converted the entire north-east to a military state for the last five decades. It was too radical a demand for a fast; it had to be a hunger strike. The State understood and responded appropriately. While it has taken care to maintain its Gandhian façade by not letting her die (the State has been force-feeding her), it has never heeded her demand.

Sharmila shames India for its pretensions to be a democratic republic. And she is not alone; there has been a long saga of struggles of the Manipuri people, notably women of her ilk. In 2004, in the wake of the rape and murder of Thanglam Manorama, these brave women had publicly unclothed themselves before the army headquarters and held a placard “Indian Army, Rape Us!”. Even such a shaming protest failed to move the government to stop the AFSPA atrocities on hapless people.

Anna, Medha, Ramdev

During the past couple of months there have been four protest fasts led by three notable persons – Anna Hazare, Medha Patkar, Baba Ramdev and the repeat by Anna Hazare to condem the government’s high-handed demolition of the Ramdev show at Ramlila maidan in Delhi. Of these, Medha Patkar’s fast has been the least known despite being in media-obsessed Mumbai. Medha Patkar, a veteran social activist who has been the face of nonviolent peoples’ struggles for over two decades, would certainly stand taller than Anna Hazare, despite the media’s euphoric

June 25, 2011 vol xlvi nos 26 & 27

Economic & Political Weekly


projection of him as our second Mahatma and certainly an upstart Baba Ramdev, whose antecedents are getting murkier with every passing day.

Hazare’s first fast of 97 hours and the second one on 7 June from 10 am to 6 pm at Rajghat was painted by the media as a national movement. Ramdev had an even more impressive start: the United Progressive Alliance’s senior ministers, Pranab Muker jee and Kapil Sibal, having gone to the airport to receive him and almost yielding to his demands on the eve of the commencement of the fast. However, the moment the Congress sensed the saffron game plan behind Ramdev, it decided to demolish the drama in a most shameful manner.

Medha Patkar’s fast was in the process of a continuing movement against the eviction of slum dwellers in the name of redevelop ment. Mammoth slums are being demolished without the slum dwellers’ consent under the controversial Clause 3K of the Maharashtra Slum Areas Act. Taking up an issue on which the residents of the Golibar slum have been agitating against Shivalik Ventures, she began her fast demanding immediate cancellation of the Golibar project and all other projects sanctioned under Clause 3K, along with the clause itself. This is a concrete issue that directly affects more than half the population of Mumbai which lives in slums and is, arguably, a major source of corruption. As against this, Anna’s band has abstracted the entire issue of corruption reducing it to be the absence of a constitutional institution of a Lokpal. It has effectively diver ted public outrage over successive corruption cases to the parleys for drafting a Lokpal Bill. Ramdev’s fast has been a populist show, full of rhetorical noise, and echoing saffron hyperbole, but careful in not dissecting the policy framework, that is shared by the entire political class and gives rise to black money.

Magic of the Media

It is interesting to see how the media differentiated between Hazare, Ramdev and Patkar. While the media went gaga over the fast of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, it had almost ignored Medha Patkar, although the issue she raised related to the life and death of slum dwellers in Mumbai, in contrast to the abstract notion of black money that the former blew up. All of them were Gandhian in their approach but they differed in their appeal. Patkar’s fast being in support of poor slum dwellers was against the development vision of the growing middle class, which constitutes the target readership or viewership of the media and hence has had to be ignored. On the other hand, the campaign against corruption and black money has basically risen from these same classes who are eager to see India as a superpower but see this as being thwarted by the politicians. The abhorrence of the latter is really a reflection of their loathing for the majority of people of the lower classes, who are seen to shape politics. Naturally, the media was all out to promote it to maximise their gains.

The media is ultimately a business which cannot ignore its business interests. But the time frames within which various businesses envision their missions are now much shorter. The globalisation paradigm has compressed not only geographical space but also time and hence every business appears nakedly driven by short-term profit. The media was always manned by the middle class, but they had to transcend their class boundaries to be credible in their long-term business interests. Today, they are conditioned by their own class vision, as their customers, having large disposal incomes, are also of their own class. In the process, the media actually recreates the middle class world for you, which has little relation with reality. With advanced technologies, the media has become so powerful that it makes and unmakes the world for you, thereby shaping and conditioning politics too. That is why peoples’ movements are marginalised; Maoists and Muslims are painted black; dalits are stereotyped. The implication of this change in the media for peoples’ politics has been ominous. For instance, the civil rights movement, which is predicated on the media projecting instances of civil rights violations to the world and thereby creating pressure on the state, finds itself in a vulnerable situation with increasing ignorance from mainstream media.

Might of the State

The above episodes of a Gandhian fast also differ in the State responses they received. Medha Patkar’s fast had just reiterated the continuing demand of the movement “ghar bachao aandolan” (“save our homes”), which has consistently been ignored by the government. When she went on fast along with some activists from the Golibar slum, there was no response from the State, despite the people having documentary proof that Shivalik Venture had forged signatures of people and indulged in many other frauds, the crime for which its functionaries should have been arrested. On the eighth day, when her health showed signs of deterioration, the government yielded and constituted committees to review its decisions. In Anna Hazare’s case, the government’s response was much faster and salvage d the situation by constituting a drafting committee for the Lokpal Bill. In Baba Ramdev’s case the government was embarrassingly receptive to start with and had reached some secret understanding with him. It only did a fascist somersault when it sensed a uncongenial political angle to it and unleashed its police to tear gas people and forcibly drive them out of the Ramlila ground in the dead of night. This rightly invoked a condemnation from every corner.

Notwithstanding the character of these episodes, there cannot be any doubt that they were peoples’ peaceful protests well within the constitutional framework. The argument dismissing these protests as disruptive of the parliamentary system is spurious because it would amount to giving a blanket licence to the so-called parliamentarians to loot the country. The State should have ways and means to deal with all kinds of protests in a democratic manner. If it violates its boundaries and clamps down on peoples’ protest, it actually provokes people to try out their might in any way they like. People , unless driven to desperation by the arrogant State, cannot challenge the might of the modern State. The fact that many peoples’ movements had to take up arms to express themselves should impel the State to introspect on its behaviour. The manner in which the media deals with peoples’ protests and the way the State patterns its responses, as exposed by these episodes, surely puts a question mark on peoples’ democratic movements.

Economic & Political Weekly

June 25, 2011 vol xlvi nos 26 & 27

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