Irom Sharmila fasts for nine years on a patently legitimate demand backed by popular opinion and nothing happens. K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) fasts for eleven days on a demand whose legitimacy is not established, and the government buckles.
KCR hits the fast track and becomes the hottest brand in national politics on a purely local issue. Sharmila is put away on a suicide charge for making a demand with national implications — repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which suspends civil rights and legalises murder and torture. One has to ask: are some Indians more valuable than others? It appears so. Andhra Pradesh is crucially important to national parties. Manipur is not. This perception has actuated a differential response from the State: Sharmila was slapped with a criminal charge and force-fed, while KCR was not. The political crisis he was trying to precipitate dominated the news. The larger crisis of State violence that Sharmila wishes to draw attention to was indefinitely postponed by force-feeding her, and hiding her away from public view in a jail cell.
The State’s differential response has devalued the political and moral status of fasting. It is a form of protest that was instrumental in securing our freedom. And it is suspected to be of ancient, proto-Aryan origin.
Take Ireland, which apparently shares more with India than the colours of its national flag. Speculative theories propose that the Celtic races could mark the western limit of the Aryan migration. Apart from linguistic features, Ireland shares two cultural markers with India: the horse sacrifice, and fasting as a political rather than religious act. We associate fasting with Gandhi, Gautama, Mahavira and Bharata, but some readers may also remember Bobby Sands of the Provisional Wing of the Irish Republican Army, who led the 1981 hunger strike at the Long Kesh prison and was elected to British Parliament before he died of starvation. Thousands of Irish nationalist protesters had gone on hunger strike before him. It’s a tradition stretching back almost a century to 1917, to Thomas Ashe, who died in Mountjoy Prison due to force-feeding. The very tactic which is being used on Sharmila by the post-colonial Indian State.
Fasting as a form of protest was written into the legal code of pre-Christian Ireland. It was legitimate for the wronged to fast on the doorstep of their oppressors — or of the State — to shame them and to secure justice. At the eastern rim of the presumed domain of Aryan culture, this is precisely what the people of Manipur are trying to do. And in rejecting their claim while accommodating KCR, the State has cheapened the great tradition of fasting as legitimate protest.
After the drama in Hyderabad and Delhi, while Gorkha activists were on hunger strike in Darjeeling, commentators and talking heads were offering to fast to secure trivial political aims. They were ridiculing fasting as blackmail. They could afford to. They would never need to fast, except while on a diet or for Karva Chauth. But what would we have the powerless do? They can use peaceful protest as a calling attention motion, or they can take to insurgency. With its differential reaction to KCR and Sharmila, the home ministry has effectively devalued peace and promoted violence.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal