Is Fasting Unto Death Still an Effective Tool of Protest in India?


Is Fasting Unto Death Still an Effective Tool of Protest in India?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

At the end of a 111-day fast, at the end of which he even gave up drinking water, 89-year-old activist GD Agarwal died of heart failure. His fast was part of his decades-old crusade to protect the Ganga, and by its end, he had written three letters to PM Modi but received no response. However, the Prime Minister was quick to send his condolences for the activist’s passing on Twitter, raising the question of why Agarwal’s death made national news, but the media largely ignored his fast. To understand the place of fast’s in modern Indian consciousness, we can take a look at two recent high-profile fasts, by Hardik Patel and Anna Hazare.

“I can die for those who love me, who want to keep me alive. But my friends, I would not oblige those who want to kill me by dying.” With these words Hardik Patel ended his 19-day fast earlier this month, after appeals from other Patidar community leaders.

The fast made news for several reasons – a dip in Patel’s health condition, the high-profile visitors who dropped by in solidarity, meeting opportunities denied to mediapersons and his supporters, the Gujarat government’s refusal to engage with his demands. Even so, his protest fast did not generate the wellspring of public support Anna Hazare’s 2011 fast for Lokpal legislation at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar had.

What’s the difference between Hardik in 2018, and Hazare in 2011? Is the protest fast, with its Gandhian heritage, losing currency, and if not, what gives modern-day protest fasts the charge they seek?

Did Hardik Patel evoke less sympathy simply because he is a young 25-year-old, and hence was considered better equipped to cope with the rigours of a fast compared to Hazare, who was about 75 in 2011? Unlikely. Irom Sharmila and Medha Patkar were nowhere near Hazare’s age – in fact, they were closer to Patel’s – when their fasts first roused popular opinion. At the other end of the scale, the late GD Agarwal had been quietly fasting to save the Ganga without much support at the advanced age of 89.

Would Patel have enjoyed greater traction if he was not identified with a Patidar-centric agenda and had chosen Delhi, the national media hub, as his fast venue? Possibly. Hazare’s crusade was ostensibly against corruption, an across-the-board concern for Indians. Sharmila and Patkar linked the injustices in Manipur and the Narmada belt respectively to a larger quest for rights and dignities for all. In contrast, two of Patel’s three core demands –  reservation for Patidars and withdrawal of cases against one of his close followers – had niche appeal. His third core demand, loan waivers for all farmers in Gujarat, seemed like an afterthought.

Fasts that do not come to Delhi meet a sad end.

Perhaps like real estate, the key to fasting is… location, location, location. Hazare had fasted against corruption in his village, Ralegaon Siddhi, and elsewhere in Maharashtra, but got far more attention and support when fasting in Delhi, and Patkar’s frequent fasts in the Narmada belt yielded diminishing returns until she found herself hospitalised at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

Fasts that do not come to Delhi meet a sad end. Sharmila’s courageous denial in Manipur gradually came to be seen as a freak, somewhat obstinate record-breaking show of endurance from perches in Delhi, and Swami Nigamananda breathed his last after a 115-day fast in Haridwar in the same year that Hazare’s famous fast became national news. Notably, Nigamananda was fighting to save the Ganga, by no means a niche cause in India.

It is little surprise then that Patel has spoken of taking his battle to Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan next and widening its ambit to a movement along the lines of the one carried out by JP Narayan in the ’70s. This could help, but only if he appreciates why Hazare’s fast earlier this year, once again in Delhi and once again for the Lokpal, did not get the kind of traction it got seven years ago. Hazare’s inability to recapture public sentiment in 2018 points to the fact that the cause underlying the modern-day protest fast is as important as who its ire is directed against, and how well its potential political beneficiaries are organised.

So, the 2011 Hazare makes waves with a fast that hurts the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, but the 2018 Hazare creates a ripple at best when his advocacy of the same cause in the same city risks embarrassment to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. That is because sections of media and civil society, later revealed to be BJP-friendly, who systematically tapped popular anti-corruption sentiment and lent lung power and resources to amplifying Hazare’s 2011 protest had abandoned him by 2018. They had already extracted the political mileage they needed.

All protest fasts have an element of drama – a heroic individual consciously places a pressing cause over his own well-being in a quest for justice and the hope of galvanizing popular sentiment –  but the modern-day fast, unfolding amid high cynicism, short attention spans, noisy outrage, and polarised debates, needs masterful choreography. The hero must be pedestalised, their demands must reverberate far and wide.

In a country where space for meaningful dialogue, dissent, and protest is limited, cutting the under-resourced activist off from the potent if desperate fast option is not only tragic but dangerous.

To Mahatma Gandhi, the man who harnessed the power of the fast better than any Indian, going without food was fundamentally an act of internal awakening. A personal atonement for lapses of followers, an attempt to shame and appeal to consciences of wrongdoers, a call to wider society to introspect. The modern-day fast, in contrast, is directed outward – to an audience, lacks any atonement angle, and is coercive in intent. Gandhi’s fasts were about the surrender of ego and self-examination, the modern-day fast is an ego clash pitting the resolves of the protester against the establishment.

An exercise in inexpensive mobilisation in the Gandhian frame, the fast must now be re-imagined as a high-voltage event designed to capture mindspace and diss opponents. It may be premature to say the fast has lost its relevance; an emotive issue with the right build up could still raise heat – imagine a M K Stalin fasting for a preferred burial location for father Karunanidhi, an Arvind Kejriwal fasting for Delhi’s statehood, or a Narendra Modi protesting against a future Rahul Gandhi-led government. But it is a resource-intensive exercise.

In a country where space for meaningful dialogue, dissent, and protest is limited, cutting the under-resourced activist off from the potent if desperate fast option is not only tragic but dangerous. After all, it is one of the best tools for the weak to challenge the strong, and as the progenitor of today’s protesters, Mahatma Gandhi said, “Strength does not come from a physical capacity, it comes from indomitable will.”