Feasting on fasts

Political instruments get blunt by frequent use or abuse. Fast as a means of protest has always been a dubious tool despite popular use. Hunger strikes invariably turn into a public show and a war of nerves between the protestor and a tormentor with the touted purpose of the fast often getting lost. Fasts have only yielded assurances, not solutions, with the warring parties looking for a safe option to climb down from the moral high ground, of course, after sipping that customary juice that never sours. This is not to belittle genuine ‘fasters’ but the point is they are hard to recognise amidst a crowd of pretenders.

In India, fasts have come to be identified with Mahatma Gandhi. Of course, Gandhiji did not invent it. Fasts predated him and even Wikis cannot pinpoint the precise event or time when they were first employed. Suffice it to say there are instances of protest fasts in history and mythology too. Nevertheless, one can give Gandhiji credit for giving fasts a boost by making it a key weapon in his non-violence arsenal. The clever lawyer that he was he called his methods Sathyagraha, a term that includes all forms of non-cooperation, including fasts, while at the same time presenting a lofty and pious image.

So granted that the modern patent for fasts rests with Gandhiji, I have deep reservations about its acceptance, efficacy and the self-righteous logic underlying it. Post Independence, the nation’s father’s brainwave of Sathyagraha is being used to great effect by children till date against clueless parents. But is it as popular, potent and morally pucca as it is projected to be vis-a-vis other targets? Even in Gandhiji’s time many objected to it as a below-the-belt means unbefitting a nation fighting for its legitimate freedom. Ambedkar found fasts repulsive while Netaji felt it was the working of a weak mind. Instead he preferred well-fed Indians possessing the physical strength to take on the British might. The Cong, smitten by Gandhiji, went along and woke up only when, post-partition, Gandhiji went on fasts for Pak’s ‘rights’ and many other equally perilous self-goals. Like any weapon, fasts boomeranged, thanks to an addicted user decked in strange moral blinkers.

It may seem inappropriate to use words like weapons and arsenal to describe something as tame as fasts. Fasts derive their righteousness from their seeming non-violence. But nothing can be more violent than hunger. One does not know if the person against whom the fast is intended is watching or not but the fasting person’s own person is sensitive to it. Assuming one is not snacking on the sly during a hunger strike, inflicting such hunger on oneself is harmful to body and, therefore, constitutes undiluted violence. More so when other unsuspecting supporters are instigated. Fasts go against the biological urges of humans and is anti-nature. Their effects also stretch beyond the body to the mind: Starving stomachs stall thoughts. It is difficult to believe that a person on fast has his mind totally focussed on the objective rather than on the object on the plate. The point is fasts that cause such physical hurt cease to be pious. A hungry man’s anger can take brutal turns even if he is otherwise passive. Also self-imposed hunger is emotional blackmail and can provoke violent backlash. Check with your spouse!

Do fasts achieve desired results? Did the British, who exploited an emaciated India by scraping out every ounce of our national resources, leave fearing that Gandhiji and a few hundred men would go without food? Did the colonists who wilfully wielded guns and lathis worry over some people starving to death by choice? The British did find such methods rather unorthodox and were clueless on how to handle them. Still, to my mind, fasts seem the farthest of the provocations for them to quit India, what with larger geo-political considerations weighing in. Cutting to the present, Anna, Baba & Co’s frequent fasts are turning out to be less fanciful and even less fruitful. While the credibility of the cause and crusaders may remain intact it is high time protestors of all colours and calling sought out other means. For one, the minute-by-minute-media hype of fasts has stolen their sobriety and made them a spectacle. Also, the option to fast is available to everyone, more so to the one against whom it is directed. I often wonder why MSingh or Rahul has not yet announced their own.

That takes us to the rising trend of official fasts. Agitators agitate against establishment but whom are the fasts by CMs directed at? How does one explain this incongruity? TN has had a history of fasting CMs and State-sponsored bandhs, often targetting the Centre even when the ruling party here is a friend or an alliance partner of the regime in the Capital. The last fast was by K in May ‘09 for the sake of Lankan Tamils. This super-fast fast commenced after breakfast and broke up in time for lunch break. And just this week, we were witness to another one, of all persons, Modi, on the fast-track with a fixed-term fast. This five-star Sadh-something fast, under AC comfort and State funded publicity cover, was to ‘celebrate’ his birthday besides being a launching pad for a national political career. For him, the three-day hunger stint was quite filling what with the ego appetite vetted to the core.

Fasts, particularly the competitive ones by politicos, are a mockery of the nation’s poor. In a land teeming with multitudes by the millions who routinely go without food for days and with food-producing farmers dying of destitution and debt, it is truly pathetic to be making that hunger a fashionable symbol of protest for other purposes. I cannot think of any other country that takes so much pride in baring an empty stomach. Neither are the government and politicos ashamed nor are the activists sensitive about hijacking hunger, which is actually the poor man’s preserve, for causes other than hunger itself! We’re not recommending one, but there has never been a fast to protest poverty.

Understandable. The brainy babus of the government have declared Rs 32 per day as the benchmark amount needed by an average Indian. Now, forget the miserable ones earning below that, but those getting just a little above are now not deemed poor, having ‘risen’ above the poverty line and by a sleight of statistics. Still why are there huge hungry masses everywhere? Well, MSingh’s regime probably thinks they are all fasting! Now, that French Queen seems like an angel!

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Jawahar T R