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.