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Siddhartha Chatterjee
I am hungry… I am right
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

It began rather innocuously. A respected activist with a long history of social activism and head of an NGO got together with an organization run by a Yoga guru and launched a movement against corruption. Nearly eighteen months later the activist went on a hunger strike to eliminate the corruption. A very noble ideal we thought. Then it turned out that the scale of noble goal was toned down and all that noble folks wanted to create is a supercop. What is more interesting is that a bunch of Maoist supporters and terror apologists are hell-bent on creating a strong and unaccountable arm of government which also happen to be an oppressive entity in the eyes of the most left-libs even two weeks ago. Apart from this irony, what is notable is the return of hunger strike as a potent political tool.

We should not be surprised. Hunger strike is also one method which appears to be as old as civilization and is known both to the oriental and occidental thought systems. What Bharata threatened to perform in front of Sri Rama (refer to Ramayana, Ayodhya Kanda) was the same political method Huen Tsang used in India to get rid of a royal patronage. It is also the same method Kashmiri Brahmins successfully used against a hostile King or pre-christian Irish society used against reported injustices. The practice was even more wide-spread in India in the past couple of centuries; in fact, it was British who legislated against it in 1861. In the last century, it was Sri Jatindra Nath Das, hardly a non-violent activist, used this method successfully once and then lost his life in a second effort.

But no-one legitimized it more than Sri Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Sri Gandhi not only squeezed every drop of political mileage, public sympathy and attention of the rulers using this method, he also provided a brand image to this struggle: non-violent or pacifist freedom struggle. So important hunger strike was (and still is) in Gandhian notion of politics that it is difficult to determine if Gandhi made hunger strike more popular or hunger strike made Gandhi a bankable leader so different from the members of Hume’s club dominated by likes of anglo-phile elites such as Motilal Nehru.

But why did a nation whose less privileged members found frequent occasions to re-define the word hunger every day found themselves so obsessed with one man’s self-imposed pain of hunger? Was it because of the humanitarian side of it? Probably not, pure humanitarian cause would not move my country men. Or was it successful because it was in resonance with our old cultural values that identify acceptance of pain for common cause with saintliness? His image of a saint seems to indicate so. Or was it that wealthy Indian elite went on a guilt trip and unwashed millions merely followed the elites? There seems to be a point if one looks at the relationship between Birlas and Gandhi.

It is necessary to understand that Sri Gandhi, even in today’s India, is a polarizing figure. His detractors would not accept his success while his ardent followers would not accept even his worst mistakes. It may be entirely possible that few decades later there would stand a generation that would be less emotional about his legacy and can evaluate more objectively than we are capable of. The following paragraphs attempt to look at one of his most famous political methods without claiming any love for or prejudice against the man.

The hunger part in hunger strike is intended to seek attention. The more people know about one’s hunger the greater impact it would carry. In a small city or village such news would be propagated by word of mouth. In a large populous land a very effective propaganda campaign and very suave media management has to accompany the “hungry” to reach “success”. Sri Gandhi’s genius lies in the fact that he understood it more than any other contemporary politician in the world.

Therefore, we get to hear about this half naked Hindu fakir shaking the very foundation of an empire where sun never set for three centuries. Did Indians write about this? No. It was western media men who came to his ashram braving the summer heat and scorpion to romanticize his brand of politics. Since his time, only JP Narayan came closer in managing the media in seventies. In a limited way, Telengana supporters managed it successfully. The recently concluded campaign of Anna Hazare took the media management to new level by enlisting the support in twitter and facebook.

On the other side of the spectrum are the failed hunger strikes that most did not notice because of lack of media support. It was this media support part that the government machinery smarted about in last fifty years. It was venerable George Orwell who indicated in his iconic novel 1984 that with the advancement of technology, organized media would remain to be the only outlet of credible news and government machinery would learn to manipulate it to stay in power. The prediction came horrifyingly close to the reality when information about Operation Mockingbird was revealed to be true.

But even if one accepts the hypothesis that media support in today’s world is the main determinant of the success of a “hunger strike” campaign, what about the moral side of it? How correct is the demand of righteousness because one is prepared to inflict pain on himself or herself to get it? If such self-righteousness is acceptable then would not such acceptance land us into a wild gray morality zone where usually condemned techniques like emotional blackmail and questionable justification of sado-masochism may look appealing?

A hunger strike for a cause over-rules the need for a discussion and launches itself on emotional fuel. Such volatile and transient fuel often makes the control of movement difficult or impossible in the long run. The thick line between what is right and what is wrong becomes progressively thinner and then, at some point, too thin to notice. Then the euphoria becomes defense of the indefensible; the resulting mess becomes a gold mine for opportunists. Just one look at the activist’s draft of the Jan Lokpal bill can confirm that.

There are other issues too. Hunger strike often depends on a central person or a small group, moral compass of the leadership and compulsions of the power that be. Thus, often, there is a implicit patronization from the leader’s side and allegation of messianic complex can not be ruled out. This feeling of the leaders that they (and they alone) know what is best for the followers often leads to tragedy. Examples are many. Sri Gandhi terminated non-co-operation movement at the height of mass agitation because he felt events of Chauri Chaura compromised the moral stance of the movement. The abrupt and pre-mature termination really did not work well for India and leadership of the freedom struggle. It should be noted that, in case of emotional blackmail, same sense of “I-know-what-is-right-for-you” inspires the blackmailer to indulge in the act. Or the case for sado-masochism where lover claims that ‘tough love’ is what the his/her partner needed.

In today’s world, many will claim that morality is a backdated concept, practically as useless in real life as philosophy in engineering field. So, let us leave the moral issues aside. One last question remains. Is a hunger strike led by a charismatic leader coupled with formidable air support by a sympathetic media good enough to champion the cause? This, I believe, is an open question. To understand the depth of this question, I would encourage any reader to read George Orwell’s reflections on Gandhi. I would quote the relevant portion below:

At the same time there is reason to think that Gandhi, who after all was
born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw everything in terms of his own struggle against the British government. The important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity. As can be seen from the phrase quoted above, he believed in “arousing the world”, which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a
country where opponents of the régime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again.
Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary.

Bottom line is that Orwell argued that Gandhian methods like non violence and hunger strike are only workable in a society that has an access to collective conscience. Without this, methods like hunger strike would fail. I watched with extreme apprehension how respectable journalists were trashed in twitter because they politely exercised their right to disagree with the Anna Hazare followers. It is unfortunately the same right to disagree that could allow an Anna Hazare to launch a movement. Killing this right to disagree with each other would eventually rob us our right to disagree with power that be. At that point we would be hungry …. and there would not be anyone to argue that we are right.

– Siddhartha Chatterjee is a friend of Centre Right India. He tweets as ma_falesu.