Mahatma Gandhi resorted to hunger strike during the freedom struggle. Earlier he went on hunger strike in South Africa against apartheid. Of all parties, the Congress which swears in the name of Mahatma Gandhi made a mockery of their ‘hunger strike’ in New Delhi on April 9 that too at Rajghat.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi led his team of leaders to a token hunger strike to draw the attention of the nation towards communal and social harmony. The occasion was ‘Sadbhavana Diwas’.
There has been a widespread criticism of Congress leaders devouring ‘Chhole Bhature’ in the morning before going on fast. Nothing wrong with eating breakfast before going on fast even when that is for tokenism. Was it justified to make normal breakfast a feast? A token hunger strike or fast generally is a day’s affair and lasts from morning till evening. But at Rajghat, it all started little before noon and ended much before the sunset. Rahul was there just for three hours. If the Congress leaders were running short of time they should have announced that it was for three or four hours only. If that was the case, then it was certainly not a hunger strike. At best the Congress event was a ‘dharna’.
A hunger strike is self-inflicted starvation. It is hard to practice. Darshan Singh Pheruman died of hunger strike on August 27, 1969. Pheruman was demanding Chandigarh to be in Punjab after the state was bifurcated in 1966 on the linguistic basis as Punjab and Haryana in 1966. Pheruman died on the 74th day of his fast in the hospital as he refused to take any kind of feeding during the fast. There are several cases of ‘death’ due to indefinite fast in the country.
However, Sunderlal Bahuguna, who started the ‘Chipko Movement’ against felling of trees survived 74 days of fast. He went on fast unto death at Gandhi Samadhi, Rajghat in Delhi in 1996 against the construction of Tehri Reservoir in Uttar Pradesh. He broke his fast after the then Prime Minister of United Front Government H D Deve Gowda gave assurance to accept his demand. Bahuguna survived because he was fed (liquid diet) forcefully during the fast.
While undertaking fast unto death, a person has to be serious about the issue over which to undertake a hunger strike. Irom Chanu Sharmila of Manipur holds the world record of hunger strike. She was on fast for 16 years demanding the repeal of AFSA (Armed Forces Special Power Act) after 10 youths were allegedly killed in an army operation in the wake of insurgency in Manipur. She survived her fast because she was being forcibly fed in the hospital during the fast.
The tool of Mahatma Gandhi, the hunger strike as means of Satyagraha has been taken rather lightly in India. Most of the hunger strikes are for political reasons. Only few such hunger strikes have genuine causes. Some hunger strikes are undertaken for mere publicity.
Medha Patkar, the activist resorted to hunger strikes on many occasions. She is perhaps the most frequent ‘strikers’ in today’s India.
Karpoori Thakur, former Bihar Chief Minister, and veteran socialist leader also undertook a hunger strike in the 1960s for the genuine demand of better treatment and wage for workers in Tata Steel Plant, Jamshedpur. His comrade, Raj Narain was seen going on for hunger strike at the drop of hats. He ended his fast as quickly as he went on fast. Morarji Desai also went on fast demanding an election in Gujarat when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister.
In recent time, Anna Hazare’s hunger strike will be remembered for its wide support throughout the country. It got round the clock coverage in news channels and prominent coverage of the fast in newspapers and magazines. In August 2011, he began an indefinite fast demanding appointment of Jan Lokpal. The UPA government first ignored Hazare. But after seeing the massive mass support for his demand conceded ground to Hazare. Anna was 74 then. During the 12 day-fast his health started deteriorating which was also a factor that moved the Congress government to accept the demand. Hazare broke his fast on August 28, 2011, at Ramlila Maidan. Immediately after he ended fast, Hazare was rushed to a private hospital for medical check-up.
At 80, Hazare again hit Ramlila Maidan in Delhi again last month and went for an indefinite fast putting demands before the government for addressing farmers’ plight in the country and also for the Lokpal Bill. Although his second hunger strike did not get the desired response from the public, the government was concerned about his age and poor health condition. Undertaking fast at this age was at the risk of life. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Devendra Fadnavis, Maharashtra Chief Minister who met Hazare at Ramlila Maidan on March 28 and made him agree to end his seven day-fast.
As I have already mentioned in the earlier paragraph, fast unto death or hunger strike even for a limited period should not be resorted to for demands that are difficult to accept for any government. Secondly, the hunger strike should not be resorted to for publicity as it demeans the concept of Satyagraha — a method that Mahatma Gandhi applied to drive the British out of India. Rahul Gandhi and his team are better advised to desist from making a mockery of Satyagraha.
R K SINHA
(The writer is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha)