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Striking through the stomach

Sacrificing food in the name of a cause is considered an elemental and age-old form of protest. How successful are fasts in striking a chord with the gastronomically-inclined public? Rashmi Menon reflects.

A hunger strike can grab the attention of your most powerful opponent – after all, it’s the question of our most basic need being denied – and that is exactly why it remains a popular form of protest even in the 21st century. In India, for instance, social activist and anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare’s (age: 75) hunger protests undertaken periodically over the last two years, and more recently, yoga guru Baba Ramdev’s fast protesting corruption, has caught the nation’s attention. Both men aim to highlight systemic corruption and the practice of ‘black’ money laundering. Targeting high-ranked government officials, including members of the ruling political party, the hunger strikes underwent different phases of transition, beginning with the media ignoring, and later, even criticizing Hazare for seeking publicity. Eventually, the public showed solidarity with Hazare’s cause and he received much support from the media and citizens.

Hunger protests are not new to India. Some of the earliest scriptures record Lord Rama’s brother Bharata in Ramayana threatening hunger strike to get Rama back from exile. However, one of the prominent hunger protests that are fresh in public mind is the one undertaken by M.K. Gandhi during freedom struggle. Some of his fasts were observed in prison and he received support from the public. Such was the nature of the hunger protests earlier that it was considered a serious affair and protesters would not call it off until their demands were met. They lent credence to the civil rights movement tagline ‘do-or-die’. 

Over the years, hunger strike has been undertaken for a plethora of reasons, ranging from the public protesting the separation of states, climate change, development issues, injustices of law and order, etc. The recent ones in India tackle larger but non-quantifiable social evils like corruption, accountability and transparency within the government. The time span of these strikes varies, ranging from a couple of days to a few months and in some cases, several months depending upon the gravity of the issue. For instance, look at the indefinite hunger strike called by the leader of a political party in the south Indian city of Bangalore to pressurize a Central Bureau of Investigation enquiry into the chargesheets filed against him by the ruling state government. After 28 hours, he ended his fast citing family pressure. Despite the short duration, his fast succeeded in getting the government’s attention and he was assured that the term ‘chargesheet’ would be dropped. Another day-long hunger strike was carried out by former Tamil Nadu state chief minister in 2009, who was miffed by the government’s passive response towards violence against Tamilians in Sri Lanka.

Not all fasts are undertaken on such short notice. During the heights of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a campaign to protest the building of a dam across the River Narmada (1993) in India, social activist and campaign spokesperson Medha Patkar was arrested and force-fed by authorities after she went on an indefinite hunger strike. In the country’s north-east region, Manipuri activist and poet Irom Sharmila has been on a protracted hunger strike to repeal the Armed Forces (special powers) Act for well-over a decade. She is routinely force-fed under government orders. Unfortunately, her demand hasn’t yet been met.

Then there was the case of Swami Nigamanand, who died after four months of hunger protest against illegal mining on the banks of the Ganges at Haridwar (north India). Unlike other hunger protests, this one went unreported in the national media until the death of

Nigamanand came to light. Soon, environmentalist Professor G.D. Agarwal went on an indefinite fast protesting development plans on the River Ganga. Fortunately, his agitation received international coverage and also became popular on Twitter (India), trending under the hashtag #SaveGanga. The result was that government officials came to meet him in hospital and pleaded qhim to cease the protest.

Reports have emerged of cases of hunger strikers in West Asia, with Palestinian activists protesting against the endemic issues of Israel-sponsored violence, illegal occupation and ethnic cleansing. For instance, a Palestinian national team football player, Mahmoud Sarsak, went on hunger strike for being illegally held by Israeli government. Sarsak was released after three years of confinement. The same article also mentions Syrian blogger Hussein Ghrer’s hunger strike, which began on July 11, protesting against illegal detention since February, this year. Many bloggers launched a campaign demanding Ghrer’s release and statements were sent across in several languages online. The campaign also made its presence felt on Twitter, with supporters using the #FreeHussein hashtag in a bid to take the issue global.

In some cases, attention from both, traditional and digital media outlets, has helped the cause of the protestors. Khader Adnan, a baker from the West Bank, who undertook the longest ever fast – 66-days while in jail – was released by the Israeli administrative detention centre after the international media highlighted the situation. The story of Moroccan activist and rapper Mouad Belghouat, who was jailed for writing a protest song, also trended on Twitter.
Social scientist Shiv Visvanathan feels that the present hunger strikes cannot match the human rights movements that took place in 1980s and 1990s. He goes on to describe them as T-20 protests. “Hunger protests were not so much of a movement but an event. In Gandhian era, it was a philosophy, a way of obtaining the truth. It is non coercive and moves to the truth of consensus. Also, fasts should be observed as a last resort. Now, it is more of a technique,” he said.

Recalling an incident Visvanathan says that “several years ago, some of my friends at JNU (a university) had visited then Prime Minister Morarji Desai and threatened to go on a week-long fast if their demands were not met. Desai told them that he would not take them seriously if the fast was not indefinite.” In other words, announcing a hunger strike is an ethical commitment not to be taken lightly. “I don’t see that ethical stand at all now. The strikers try to gain moral value over their opponents but they have not been successful,” he says.
Anna Hazare’s strike, points Visvanathan, was engineered as an “event” by the media. With 24×7 media coverage, protests, nowadays, operate on two kinds of timelines: The first one is run by the media, which helps accelerate the momentum of the movement. The other is the actual time taken by the government to react and negotiate the terms of the protesters. “A depoliticized era is being re-politicized in different ways. It (media) misleads the correlations between high reportage and followers of the movement. So, people who are watching or reading about the movement maybe mere spectators and not followers,” he says. In real terms, the protest might not carry much gravitas, but ends up being projected as one. Visvanathan adds that along with traditional broadcast media, social media, too, has played its part in lending urgency to hunger strikes. However, he is yet to see a movement bounce out of social media in India, like the Arab Spring.

Sociologist Sharman Apt Russell, author of Hunger: An Unnatural History, doubts whether hunger strikes have increased or whether they are now reported real time in the media. Interestingly, she states that one historian recorded more than 200 hunger strikes in 42 countries between 1972 and 1982. “Hunger striker aims at shaming or influencing people into doing something they don’t want to do. Maybe, the protester is shaming the person or authority before the public – to withdraw from food is a real act of discipline and commitment. And, mass hunger strikes indicate a serious commitment or belief,” says Russell over an email chat. Not all hunger strikes are taken up for a noble cause, though and vested interests conveniently use it to tug at people’s heartstrings. “A real hunger strike always humanizes the hunger striker. We see the frail human body pitted against larger forces. We see a David fighting Goliath,” adds Russel.

However, for a hunger strike to have an impact – especially on the demography under target – it has to be noticed. It must also have an audience that empathizes with and cares for the plight of the one on strike. Social media certainly amplifies the individual and isolated stories of protest and helps bring more eyeballs to a cause. In some ways, it also protects hunger strikers from fasting unto death. Most fasts are successful if they get media coverage, including social media. The protesters get attention for their cause even if they don’t always get what they specifically demand for. Sometimes, perhaps often, what a hunger striker wants is too big or entrenched as a social problem to be solved in any immediate way. Yet, it remains to be seen how many such citizen-led protests stand the test of time; how genuine and neutral the cause might be against the opponent and whether constant media focus might make viewers immune to the plight of the protesters. As history shows us, we always remember the protagonist of a story, the one who saves the day with his heroic act, like India’s Gandhi. The rest of the striking multitude fades into the footnotes.

(This article was written for Digital Natives newsletter that appeared in December, 2012)

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