Indian Decade

India’s Self-Indulgent Fasts?

‘Fasting unto death’ has become a familiar call in Indian civil society. But does it really help a cause?

I wonder what Mahatma Gandhi would have made of the ‘fasting unto death’ phenomenon that has broken out across India. From trade union bosses, disgruntled employees and politicians to self-proclaimed activists, numerous people have announced their intention to do it.

Not that these fasts garner much public sympathy. Too often, the causes are frivolous, politicized or amount to emotional bullying. ‘Fasting for the sake of personal gain is nothing short of intimidation,’ said Gandhi, who fasted on 17 occasions for more than a day, usually for three days and twice for three weeks. 

Swami Ramdev, 46, the Indian yoga guru who recently fasted for a week in protest over corruption had to be hospitalized. The guru, whose popularity stems from his daily TV yoga shows, was cooped up in his ashram near the holy city of Haridwar, where doctors monitored his health hour by hour.

In recent Indian history, the longest hunger strike was undertaken by a politician from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh in 2009. Chandrasekhar Rao fasted for 11 days and broke his fast only after the central government succumbed to his demand for carving up India’s 29th and newest state of Telengana from Andhra Pradesh. Not the noblest of reasons to create a political state, if you ask me, but then such is Indian politics.

Hunger strikes have been employed as a potent political tool for non-violent protest though the ages. Religious texts mention the use of fasting as a method of protest in India and pre-Christian Ireland. Consequently, some of the world's longest and most politically significant hunger strikes have also been undertaken by the Indians and Irish.

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Terence Joseph MacSwiney, an Irish playwright and politician who was arrested by the British on charges of sedition, protested his trial by a military court. He launched a hunger strike which lasted for 74 days and which resulted in his death. So far, though, I haven’t heard of any Indians who have died of fasting.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist