Force-feeding: It really sticks in people’s throats

  • Viju Cherian, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 22, 2015 02:04 IST

Governments love to force people to fall in line. The latest international example of the State trying to use its might against an individual is the case of Palestinian lawyer Mohammed Allaan.

Allaan has been under administrative detention in Israel since November. According to Israeli law, a suspect can be put under detention without a trial or a charge being filed for six months — and extended thereafter.

Allaan has been accused of being affiliated to the Islamic Jihad, a militant group operating from Gaza. In June, Allaan started his hunger strike demanding that he either be charged or released. Allaan slipped into a coma on August 14 and MRI scans point to a brain injury for which he’s being treated now.

What brought attention to this case was the move by the Knesset to pass a Bill allowing the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike. That the law passed with a slender margin of 46-40 shows how divided the nation is on this topic. The Israel Medical Association has opposed the law and has refused to cooperate with the government.

On August 8, a United Nations joint statement said the ‘law potentially affects all detainees but particularly Palestinian detainees who have resorted to hunger strikes to protest their conditions, including their prolonged detention on administrative orders without charge’. Allaan’s is not a one-off case. According to B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), by the end of June there were 370 Palestinians under administrative detention.

Force-feeding is not a new phenomenon. It has cultural overtones in some places — like in Mauritania where girls are gavaged (or force-fed) because, in a food-scarce nation, ‘fat is symbol of beauty’. In other places, it has political sanction.

On Wednesday, Allaan’s lawyer said he was being treated as a ‘free’ man, but it’s not sure if Israel will detain him once he’s ‘fit’. If it does, the Benjamin Netanyahu government will be taking a leaf out of the book of colonial Britain that passed the Prisoners Act in 1913.

According to the Act, if a prisoner was on a hunger strike and fell ill, s/he would be released, only to be re-arrested when the prisoner recuperated. No wonder it was called the Cat and Mouse Act.

Israel is not the only country that has administrative detention or resorts to force-feeding. Some countries have this as a policy, but many others practise these forms of cruelty under the radar. Either way, this is more than civilised society can swallow.

Post-script: Many among us might find it difficult to understand why there is such a fuss about force-feeding. Many in the power circles in Lutyens’ Delhi might agree with the Netanyahu government on this; but that’s because India has the dubious distinction of having ‘the world’s longest hunger striker’.

Come November 21, it’ll be 15 years since the State started force-feeding Irom Sharmila, who has been protesting against the Armed Forces Special Powers) Act in Manipur. Home truths are always unpleasant.

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