Fast: striking with a potent weapon

Is non-violence a tactic, or a philosophy? Is a hungerstrike, for that matter, a mere political stratagem, or does it have deeper ethico-philosophical implications?
When Narmada Bachao Andolan’s Medha Patkar broke her 21-day hungerstrike, a journalist asked her whether “pressure tactics” like indefinite fasts should be used to influence decisions. She replied that her hungerstrike came at the end of a long struggle in which all democratic channels had been exhausted, adding, “It was a moral appeal. Just as Gandhi showed this path to gain freedom, in today’s context it is a struggle for people’s lives and livelihoods and their right to development benefits without getting destroyed in the process. It is a kind of freedom struggle.”
Sharmila Irom, a Manipuri poet, has been on hungerstrike for the past five years. Speaking recently from her bare bed in a prison cell, she intoned, “It is my bounden duty…I will not eat until the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is repealed…” (She has been thrown into jail on the charge of attempted suicide, and is being force fed.)
While the media’s attention was more on the Narmada activists, an equally determined group of people – the 39 survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy – camped recently at the pavement off Jantar Mantar in New Delhi for a month seeking justice.
Six of them went on a hungerstrike, which was called off only after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to look into their demands.
Non violent route
Increasingly, several activists and groups are again adopting non-violent Gandhian ways to get their voices heard. Both the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Bhopal gas tragedy survivors’ movement deserve credit for sustaining people’s struggles for basic survival and democratic rights for over two decades now.
Unlike the militants or even the Naxalites, several Dalit and women’s struggles, ecological and artisans’ movements, slumdwellers and factory workers’ agitations have chosen the non-violent route towards genuine democracy.
Of course, the Indian State has often reacted as the British did, and sometimes worse: browbeating, arrests, brutal crackdowns, refusal to negotiate, even threatening to label a hungerstrike as a crime (“attempt to suicide”).
But contemporary grassroots leadership in India has drawn world attention to the power of non-violent struggle. However, most people hold fairly confused ideas about the very meaning of non-violence.
Is non-violence a tactic, or a philosophy? Is a hungerstrike, for that matter, a mere political stratagem, or does it have deeper ethico-philosophical implications?
When Gandhi spoke of non-violence as a powerful, active force and a weapon of the strong, he was referring to its capacity to change people’s hearts. Clearly, he conceived of ahimsa (non-violence) as a way of life, not just a handy tactic. Non-violent struggles are directed against wrong – not the wrongdoer. The workings of ahimsa are largely invisible precisely because they work through the heart and in the inner being. Thus, while a non-violent campaign might be widely noticed, how exactly it works might not be so apparent.
The only tool
Today, dozens of public fasts are a routine occurrence in India, but most attract little attention. Be it Delhi councillors against sealing shops, or Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for construction of the Narmada dam, these hungerstrikes failed to strike a chord with the public.
The long endurance and commitment of the Narmada and Bhopal activists, on the other hand, inspired widespread sympathy for their cause.
Gene Sharp, contemporary proponent of strategic non-violence, considers non-violence the only weapon that can be used effectively even against violent dictatorships.
Nafisa Bee, 48, a survivor of Bhopal gas tragedy, sees it as the only way to the future: “My son has TB, husband cannot work, I have chest pain and burning eyes since the night of the tragedy. All these years we have been drinking poisoned water, and did not know it, until it was tested one year ago. I walked 800 km to Delhi to protest, because if we do not protest, our children – and grandchildren – will have to keep drinking this poisoned water.”
Nafisa, along with 38 other people, was arrested at the dharna site one day, detained and then released. Nafisa and three other women suffered injuries due to police brutality. But she rejoined the dharna, undeterred.
She would sing “Sar par hai kafan, haath mein talvar” (a shroud on our heads, a sword in our hands).
The recent victories of the Bhopal and NBA people might be partial … and fragile. But these are precious victories.

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