Saturday, April 09, 2011

A fast unto life

Byline by M J Akbar: A fast unto life

Mahatma Gandhi flagellated himself with 17 fasts. They were not all fasts unto the death; they could be time-specific. This did not reduce the risk to his life, for 21 days without any nourishment or medical intervention could drag a frail man with an average weight of some 110 pounds to death’s door.

Gandhi was a visionary, but not one ever trapped by illusion. He did not believe that a fast would persuade the British to pack up and leave the most lucrative part of their far-flung empire, the jewel of their crown, just because one obstinate, half-clad, toothless native had decided to stop drinking goat’s milk for a few days. The British establishment always treated Gandhi with contempt (exceptions like Lord Irwin apart); and as defeat loomed in the 1940s this evolved into unmitigated loathing, not least because an extraordinary arsenal of non-violence, moral momentum, and an unprecedented national awakening had driven history’s mightiest empire into limp impotence. When Gandhi started his liberation movement, the ranking Indian within the establishment, Lord Sinha, confidently averred that the British Raj would last for four hundred years. Thirty years later, the last Viceroy with any authority Lord Wavell [Mountbatten was a mere midwife, and left the motherland bleeding] had this to say in his diary on 26 September 1946: “The more I see of that old man [Gandhi] the more I regard him as an unscrupulous old hypocrite; he would shrink from no violence or bloodletting to achieve his ends…he is an exceeding to achieve his ends…he is an exceedingly shrewd, obstinate, domineering, double-tongued, single-minded politician”. You have to hate someone with unbelievable intensity to stitch together such a farrago of lies. Wavell wrote this just after his beloved British Raj had killed some four million Bengalis through another man-made famine.

Paradoxically, many of the British on the second rung admired the man who had made it his life’s work to destroy their empire. They understood that if they had been born Indian they would have been with Gandhi. On 11 January 1924, the superintendent of Pune jail, where Gandhi was interned, rushed the Mahatma to Sassoon hospital for an emergency appendicitis operation. The electricity went off when Colonel Maddock, the surgeon-general, was operating on the night of 12 January, with the help of a British nurse; he completed his duty with torchlight. Gandhi thanked them for saving his life, and they were proud to do so.

The British constituted only half the challenge before Gandhi; the other, and bitter, half were fellow Indians. Gandhi knew that unless he could exorcise, or at least contain, the evil of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, even success could become ash in his mouth. He had no instrument of coercion to use against fellow Indians, but he had a secret weapon: moral blackmail. He could hold his own life hostage through a fast while Indians sorted out between themselves whether the ransom, Gandhi’s life, was worth paying. Over and over again, India paid up, for no Indian, Hindu or Muslim, wanted the sin of a Mahatma’s death on his head. It was in 1924, the same year as his appendicitis, that Gandhi went on a 21-day fast after the Kohat riots. Very deliberately, he chose to fast at the home of the great leader of the Khilafat movement, Maulana Mohammad Ali, in Delhi. By the time he sipped some orange juice on 8 October, the fever of violence had passed, at least for the moment.

The instinctive reaction of governments to any such fast is cynicism. A government might be, in fact, as weak as a terminal patient in cancer ward, but will delude itself, till its dying breath, that to surrender before a man ready to sacrifice his life will make future governance impossible. The Congress, which had wept through Gandhi’s fasts, refused to compromise when a Gandhian went on a fast unto death to demand the creation of Andhra Pradesh in 1950. The Gandhian died, and Andhra was born. The Akali Sants put fasts to effective public use during their movement for a Sikh-majority Punjab. The Marxists laughed about Mamata Banerjee’s weight when she went on a fast in Calcutta to protest against their land policy; on 13 May, when the Assembly election results are out, Mamata will have the last laugh.

A fast succeeds not because it bends a government to its will, but because it is the yeast that foments the rise of a populace. Anna Hazare’s fast in Delhi is not meant to bring down a government, its solitary purpose is, or should be, to resurrect an India that had become so supine that it slept indolently while the wealth of this nation was being looted by a handful of politicians and their acolytes. Anna Hazare is not waiting to see how many corrupt, hypocritical ministers come to his side; he wants to know how many Anna Hazares have emulated him on a street corner in front of their homes. He has asked just one question: do you, fellow Indians, have a conscience?

If the answer is yes, then rise and save your nation from the death-grip of corruption. This is a fast for India’s life.


Anoop Verma said...

Yes, we must fight corruption, but will the Lok Pal Bill help us do that. This seems like a draconian law that might make it impossible for development projects to take off.

Lets not forget the fact that – “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

The Lok Pal Bill could lead to an institution that is completely anti-development. It could be used by activists and NGOs to stop all development activity like dams, industries, airports, ports, etc.

Do we really want India to go back to the Stone Age? A much better way of fighting corruption would be to bring transparency in the way the government contracts are awarded. There should be economic reforms; the license-quota-permit raj should end. Instead of administrating the country, our powerful ministers are busy running government owned airlines, cricket teams, five star hotels, petroleum companies, steel mills and much else. When you give such gargantuan economic powers to elected representatives how can corruption be avoided?

Privatise everything, except for the essential services like police (for internal security), army (for external security) and judiciary (to interpret the laws for the common citizens of the country.)

But the protestors at Jantar Mantar only want to add a new level of bureaucracy – the Lok Pal. What is the guarantee that the Lok Pal at some point in future won’t turn out to be corrupt. We already saw what happened with the present CVC. Are we then going to have a hunger strike for a Super Lok Pal?

It is frightening that our government has chosen to ignore the tenets of democracy and pass on the power of legislation to a group of NGOs, which prefer to call themselves by the lofty name of Civil Society. However, now that the Civil society is the most powerful entity in the country, it is more powerful than the Congress or the BJP, should its members not declare their assets?

The NGOs who are involved in these protests should be like the Caesar’s Wife. Like the Caesar’s wife they should not only be pure, they should also be perceived to be pure. Right now very little is known about these individuals and NGOs, so can we have some kind of clarity please. In India corruption is not a monopoly of the government, even sportspersons, celebrities and NGOs have been found to be corrupt.

cdevesh said...

Very well said Anoop Verma!!
Couldn't have said any better.
The consensus everywhere seems to be that Lokpal Bill is that magic bullet that will kill corruption and save India.
As proposed, the bill will be a grave threat to our constitutional democracy. And a watered down bill will be an ineffectual nuisance.
Its amazing how a vast majority of supposedly educated and thinking people are blindly supporting this farce and bringing upon themselves this draconian law.