Banu Bargu | Gandhi’s Fasts

By Banu Bargu

“Who is the true warrior – he who keeps death always as a bosom-friend, or he who controls the death of others?”

– Gandhi

Launching the inaugural session of this year’s 13/13, Bernard Harcourt informs us that they renamed the series “uprising” instead of “revolution,” which has become “so historicized, so privileged, and raised, so high above all its illegitimate children— resistance, revolt, insurgency, disobedience, hacktivism, standing ground… those peripheral, those ancillary, those sometimes aborted struggles for social change.” This move opens a new horizon of modalities of struggle that cannot easily fit within a paradigm of revolution, successful or failed. Hunger strike is one of those many “illegitimate children” of revolution, or let us say, of revolutionary aspirations – it is perhaps one of the least favored among them and certainly one of the most difficult and controversial.

Examining Gandhi’s nonviolent politics, I would like to focus my attention on his conceptualization of the hunger strike, or the fast, as he calls it, as a specific modality of this politics. My goal is to investigate the meaning and different characteristics of the hunger strike, understood as a tactic within the repertoire of actions that constitute satyagraha, which Gandhi defines as “holding on to Truth,” “Truth-force,” “soul-force” (3), or “love-force” (6). In our upcoming session, I will build on this explicatory groundwork and try to problematize Gandhi’s conceptualization, learning from the experiences of radical political struggle around the world, experiences in which the hunger strike is not necessarily seen as purely nonviolent, is attributed multiple and often contradictory significations by its performers, and/or is deployed alongside other violent tactics.

Fasting for Truth

It is well known that Gandhi went on a hunger strike many times between 1913-1948. These fasts were of multiple durations, sometimes lasting only three or four days, other times extending up to three weeks. He fasted in different places: in South Africa, in different cities across India, in prison and at home. He fasted for different causes: against violent protest actions of radical factions of the independence movement, in support of the “untouchables” and in opposition to the British constitutional proposal based on the separation of castes, for Hindu-Muslim unity, against communal riots… His fasts achieved mixed results. At times, he was able to secure concrete actions from other political actors, such as the withdrawal of the British proposal for the separation of castes; other times he had to conclude his fast without any immediate, tangible achievement. In each instance, and whatever the particular aims of Gandhi’s fasts, fasting was also a noninstrumental act of standing for the Truth, the truth of the cause of self-rule. As such, with each of his hunger strikes, he was able to establish a direct connection to thousands of people, who became his passionate followers, supporters, and fellow satyagrahis. He was uniquely able to reach their “hearts.”

What then is a hunger strike in Gandhian terms? First and foremost, it is a nonviolent form of action. It is characterized by the overarching philosophy of ascetic discipline by which one becomes a master of oneself. Self-starvation is, simply, an extension of self-restraint. It is an exercise in self-purification and the strengthening of one’s soul. In this sense, it is at once a moral act as it is a political one. In fact, insofar as the emphasis is on inflicting suffering on oneself as part of training one’s soul, of eliminating the thought of wrong-doing and injustice from oneself, the moral aspect is much more pronounced. A fast is the expression of a spiritual force.

The exaltation of the moral quality of satyagraha is grafted on a strictly dualistic conception of the human being and inscribed as the primacy of the soul within a soul-body duality. Even a person of a weak bodily constitution can practice satyagraha, as it depends on the strength of the soul, which can be achieved by meticulous training (of the soul and the body). Gandhi writes: “Only those who realize that there is something in man which is superior to the brute nature in him and that the latter always yields to it, can effectively be Satyagrahis.” (35) The privileging of an ethical life, as something that can be isolated from a physical life and that remains superior to it, allows Gandhi to place justice at the center of his thought and action. Gandhi thus separates “body-force” from “soul-force” in contrasting terms: “If by using violence I force the Government to repeal the law, I am employing what may be termed body-force. If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice of self” (17).

Fasting as Sacrifice

A hunger strike is thus essentially a “soul-force,” a spiritual practice of self-sacrifice. For its political character, we must look at how Gandhi conceived its relation to the masses. For at the same time as the hunger strike is an act of ascetic self-mastery, it is also a patient education of the “other” away from error, to convert the other by love, through the imposition of suffering upon the self. Gandhi writes of satyagraha that “the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self” (6). Such suffering must be an “educative force” (191). It must change the other by “reaching the heart” (191). The satyagrahi’s suffering, Gandhi expected, would show the righteousness of their cause, change public opinion, and inspire others to change themselves. Such conversion required steadfast adherence to one’s cause, courage, and a willingness to sacrifice, but it required patience most of all. As such, even patience could be refashioned as a test of the strength of one’s soul, as even one’s impatience toward the recalcitrant other must be re-directed toward the self: “He must be prepared even to fast unto death” (202).

Satyagraha’s suffering can be achieved through the denial of food, as it can be secured by way of bearing the consequences of the breach of an unjust law, in the form of punishment, where attempts at rational persuasion have failed. Either way, it should be noted, the infliction of suffering on oneself or the suffering of punishment for breaking laws does not constitute violence. Indeed, “violence is the negation of this great spiritual force, which can only be cultivated or wielded by those who will entirely eschew violence” (34), not only in deed but also in thought and speech (56). One must continuously survey one’s own thoughts to free oneself from evil, anger, and other weaknesses that constitute obstacles to the strengthening of one’s soul. The moral imperative of Gandhi’s nonviolent politics looms large over any orientation toward ends. While the achievement of home rule is the goal, more important is how this is achieved. The effectivity of the fast is in no way the criterion of its justifiability. “If it proves effective, it shows the goodness of the authorities, not that of the cause or of the actors” (183). In Gandhi’s thought, the means of politics is exalted to an absolute.

Fasting for Love

What are the limits of a Gandhian fast? Other than its strictly nonviolent conception, Gandhi draws its contours by reference to the object of the hunger strike. I quote him at length:

“Fasting in Satyagraha has well-defined limits. You cannot fast against a tyrant, for it will be a species of violence done to him. You invite penalty from him for disobedience of his orders but you cannot inflict on yourselves penalties when he refuses to punish and renders it impossible for you to disobey his orders so as to compel infliction of penalty. Fasting can only be resorted against a lover, not to extort rights but to reform him, as when a son fasts for a father who drinks. My fast at Bombay and then at Bardoli was of that character. I fasted to reform those who loved me. But I will not fast to reform, say, General Dyer, who not only does not love me but who regards himself as my enemy. Am I quite clear?” (182-3)

Gandhi thus lays out two different models of the fast based on its intended object or target. When starvation is inflicted upon the self as a weapon against those who have committed injustice, it has the danger of trying to provoke punishment where the tyrant refuses, and hence, the risk of being coercive and extractive. It is also at odds with its spiritual basis when, instead of an act that is carried out as a way of suffering, of standing for the truth, for the justness of the cause of self-rule, it is conducted in order to get concessions. Conducted thus, it will lose its character as satyagraha.

Instead, starvation should be inflicted upon the self in order to educate a loved one away from error or wrong-doing by way of suffering. “There are two conditions attached to a Satyagrahi fast,” argues Gandhi. “It should be against the lover and for his reform, not for extorting rights from him” (183). Gandhi hastens to add that while the state may or may not be the tyrant, it is never the lover. (“In no case is the State or the opponents in the position of ‘lover’” [183]). The state is therefore excluded as the real object or target of a fast. Instead, a fast is carried out to educate public opinion, to show the masses the need and the way to transform their attitudes and comportment towards themselves and others.

Fasting as a Weapon?

The fast is part of a repertoire of nonviolent action that also involves civil disobedience, non-co-operation, and different kinds of boycott (3-4). These actions orchestrate a form of mass refusal, or the collective withdrawal of consent, that should erode the foundations of an unjust government, which, according to Gandhi, can never stand by force alone. The fast, as the individual’s withdrawal from nourishment, can be seen to repeat in a microcosmic form the mass withdrawal from the state’s institutions, such as the courts and the schools. Just as the individual’s bodily withdrawal is achieved by the strength of the soul, the mass withdrawal should be achieved from the community’s ability to govern itself by its own – local and communal – institutions. Such mass withdrawal, alongside the refusal to obey unjust laws, should thus constitute an active break from colonial rule without stepping outside of nonviolence.

It is interesting to note how Gandhi’s views on satyagraha were also formulated in tension with other contemporaneous movements of resistance against the British government. Two brief instances among his remarks, vis-à-vis the suffragettes and the Irish struggle for independence respectively, are quite revealing. Gandhi took a peculiar distance from what he called “passive resistance,” which he attributed to the suffragettes (3, 6). The distinction between “passive resistance” and satyagraha hinges on the question of whether opposition to violence is an absolute, a matter of unbreachable principle, or whether it is strategic choice, one that does not fully exclude the possibility of violence. Satyagraha is a “weapon of the strongest” whereas “passive resistance” is a “weapon of the weak” (6), even though Gandhi at times tends to employ the latter term inconsistently, as a synonym of satyagraha (15-19, 51-55). Within a discourse that so emphatically denounces violence, inscribing satyagraha as a weapon retains a strong touch of irony. But even more curious is the attribution of weakness and passivity to the suffragettes’ struggle, which utilized such tactics as the hunger strike as a form of resistance in prison while fighting against brutal force-feedings. From Marion Wallace Dunlop to less well known figures like Selina Martin, Leslie Hall, Grace Roe, Kitty Marion, and countless others, hunger striking for political status and force-feedings that could be repeated hundreds of times had become a common reality for politically active women in the 1910s – a reality that could not have escaped Gandhi’s knowledge.

In a similar way, Gandhi carefully distinguishes satyagraha from the actions of Sinn Feiners, which he characterizes as “bending the wrong-doer to [their] will by physical force” (113). This, for Gandhi, will not serve the struggle’s “impatience” for victory; in fact, the only way to accelerate victory is by avoiding violence and turning to self-suffering, by embracing suffering voluntarily and joyfully. Gandhi writes: “Progress is to be measured by the amount of suffering undergone by sufferer. The purer the suffering, the greater is the progress” (113). Written in 1920, after the death of Thomas Ashe in a prior hunger strike and at a time when the IRA was conducting a mass hunger strike in Cork Prison (that would also end with several deaths, including that of Terrence McSwiney), these remarks suggest Gandhi’s interest in establishing a conscious distance from the Irish struggle. Even though suffering and sacrifice for the cause of national liberation, framed in a specifically Catholic idiom, also played a crucial role in the Irish struggle for national self-determination, the tactics deployed by Sinn Fein were sure to fail Gandhi’s test of “purity of suffering” as the mark of self-purification, and thus, their qualification for self-government. These tactics were varied and included the hunger strike as a way to demand political status in prison.

Gandhi was critical of the combination of nonviolent and violent tactics, which he saw the Sinn Feiners to be practicing (and found to be a frustrating aspect of the Indian struggle, which he tried to prevent from happening), as a sign of the immaturity of the masses and the proof of their weakness, their lack of preparedness for self-rule. While recognizing that satyagraha, and “even fasts” (202), could be used as an instrument of coercion, Gandhi was therefore adamant to rule out this aspect, adhering instead to the nonviolent, educative, sacrificial character of this politics (191) and aiming to convert those who practiced violence to his methods (135). Perhaps, since he fasted out of love, he wanted India to reciprocate: the elimination of violence was the ultimate test of whether he had gained this love. For even if “momentary victory” might be achieved by the “doctrine of the sword,” Gandhi wrote, “India would cease to be the pride of [his] heart” (135).

The hunger strike is at the heart of Gandhi’s moral politics and offers living proof of the main principles of his doctrine of satyagraha. Situated in this nonviolent problematic, the hunger strike is a “fast,” a religious experience of self-transformation and an exemplary act by which one can inspire the transformation of others. It is an expiatory act, one of purification and uplifting by withdrawing from the world’s bountiful offerings. In this light, the act of self-starvation appears very different when conceptualized and deployed by Gandhi than when it is utilized by other movements, such as the women’s liberation and the Irish national liberation struggles. Just as Gandhi’s project of nonviolent transformation stands in tension with other radical movements of his time, it also remains in an ineluctable distance from many of today’s struggles around the world, struggles that also deploy the hunger strike as a tactic of resistance. These struggles, whether they seek national independence or revolutionary transformation, whether they demand political status for prisoners, better prison conditions or the recognition of basic human rights, deploy self-starvation as the means by which actors forge their lives into weapons. Germinating in jails and prisons, but also in immigration detention centers and border zones, the coordinated and strategic campaigns based on the collective refusal of food still share certain commonalities with Gandhi’s fasts, but they are also deeply violent experiences that should prompt us to question whether we can take a hunger strike’s nonviolence at face value, and ultimately, whether we can maintain a strict separation of violence from nonviolence when the primary modality of action in discussion is based on the willful and disciplined destruction of the self.

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