Gandhiji did it! Anna Hazare mastered it and Irom Sharmila made a world record for it. Yes, you guessed it right. We’re talking about hunger strikes. Hunger strikes have been a popular form of protest since our independence. And if non-violence is your thing, then it’s for you.
So, here’s why hunger strikes are everyone’s favourite:
1. Because it impresses people and sometimes unites them
The fact that a person is willing to die for a cause, coupled with sheer courage and determination amazes the public. We are often awed when someone goes on a hunger strike and respect them for their sacrifice and selflessness for the larger good. Sometimes they get the attention of the concerned stakeholders and it’s all good. But if they don’t, a precious life is lost. And this angers the public.
In the past, many hunger strikers have lost their lives which in fact added more fuel to the fire. For instance, in 1952, Potti Sreeramulu, died while fighting for the creation of a new Telugu linguistic state – Andhra Pradesh – which was to be carved out of Madras. Again in 2011, a Hindu monk, Swami Nigamananda, in Uttrakhand died on the 115th day of his hunger strike protesting against the pollution in Ganga caused by illegal mining. While the latter one created much-wanted awareness, the former one sparked a widespread public uprising demanding the government to take action.
2. Because it’s is simply newsworthy
There is no doubt about the fact that hunger strikes are dramatic. It involves bringing to light some serious issues and has a death or risk factor associated with it. This makes it newsy enough to attract both national and global media. For instance, in 2011, when India was dealing with an issue like unemployment, agrarian crisis and corruption – Anna Hazare pledged to go on hunger strike until death.
An 80-year-old on a hunger strike, a fight for the rampant corruption, lakhs of people from around the country gathered in Ram Leela Maidan – are all essential and perfect ingredients to cook a newsy prime time story or a front page article. More and more Indians were glued to their television screen watching one of the biggest fights against corruption. As per a report, the viewership of the news channels sky-rocketed. The news channels saw 2.5 million additional viewers during the protest week.
3. Because it’s sometimes it’s the only option
If the public wants to express their anger about something, they can protest on the streets, spread it on social media or organise a candle march. But, that’s not the case for those in prisons. Their options to protest any wrongdoing are pretty limited. So, to attract attention, hunger strikes are one of the few viable options they resort to. Prisoners have staged numerous hunger strikes since independence against the injustice within the bars.
For instance, Bhagat Singh and his fellow inmates declared a hunger strike protesting difference in treatment of white prisoners and native prisoners. This strike received tremendous attention in form of public gatherings and protests. It further intensified when one of the strikers – Jatindra Nath Das – died after a 63-day strike. While this was popularly used during the independence, it’s still used around the globe. There have been extensive coverage and reports on how prisoners in Palestine and Israel resort to starvation as it’s the ‘only choice’ available to them. Protesting to the inhuman conditions in the jail, the prisoners observed a mass hunger strike with 1500 prisoners refusing food and surviving only on water.
4. Because it’s legal and no one can stop you from protesting
In India, hunger strikes are legal and are observed as a form of protest under our Constitution. Although it is often confused with attempted suicide, it has been clarified times and again by the legal authorities that hunger strikes are very much undertaken under lawful means. So even if you are all in arms against the government and if you opt for a hunger strike – it’s legal. The case of Irom Sharmila clarifies this.
In the year 2000, Manipur’s Irom Sharmila went on a hunger strike to protest against the draconic law –Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Check out our video on why the act is doing more harm than good here). Since then she was arrested, released and re-arrested and charged with attempting to commit suicide – a criminal offence under Indian law. However, in 2012, the Supreme Court observed hunger strikes as “a form of protest which has been accepted, both historically and legally in our constitutional jurisprudence.”
Further, in a briefing to the World Medical Association, the British Medical Association clarified that “hunger strike is not equivalent to suicide. Individuals who embark on hunger strikes aim to achieve goals important to them but generally hope and intend to survive.”
5. Because today it’s become more like a ‘fad’
History is full of examples of leaders who have resorted to hunger strikes for genuine purposes and have sacrificed their lives for the same. They attracted popularity, fame and media’s attention for issues which needed awareness. Issues like corruption, pollution, rape laws, women safety etc.
But today, unfortunately, this powerful weapon has been reduced to a mere political tool for petty political issues and attacks on the opposition. This leaves us with a doubt whether it’s a fast or farce? For instance, in 2018 the AIADMK leader observed a hunger strike over the Cauvery issue. But this soon turned into a controversy when the leaders were caught red-handed eating ‘biryani’ and consuming alcohol.
Sure, hunger strikes have done wonders in the past. Duh, it drove the British out. But, the debate remains – how effective are hunger strikes in today’s democratic landscape? Unfortunately, not a lot! Irom Sharmila struggled for 15 years, but was she able to achieve her objective? Not really. The Act is still very much a part of the troubled regions in India and the violence continues. While Anna Hazare’s hunger strike did manage to attract the global eyeballs on India’s corruption issue, but today, the ground reality is that corruption is still very much a part of our society.