To call Anna Hazare the 21st-century Gandhi, as some have started doing, is pure hyperbole, but many would see a similarity in their methods — in particular, in their resorting to fasts to achieve their objectives. This, however, is erroneous. Indeed, the fact that so many people consider Anna Hazare’s method to be similar to Gandhiji’s only indicates how little contemporary India remembers or understands Gandhiji.
Gandhiji undertook 17 fasts in all, of which three were major fasts-unto-death. All these three had the objective of uniting people against violence, rather than extracting specific concessions from the colonial State. His 1932 fast against the British government’s proposal to have separate electorates for the “depressed classes” may appear to contradict this assertion; but even that fast was directed more against the practice of “untouchability” than against the British government, which abandoned the idea of separate electorates once the Yerwada pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar had been worked out. (Tagore, in fact, had blessed the fast, saying: “It is worth sacrificing precious life for the sake of India’s unity and her social integrity.”) The 1932 fast was not really anti-British, nor was it even a purely political fast, a fact underscored by Gandhiji’s starting, within eight months, another 21-day fast to express his anguish at the continued oppression of “Harijans” by “caste-Hindus”. (See Sudhir Chandra’s paper in the Economic and Political Weekly of June 4, 2011).
In short, Gandhiji’s fasts-unto-death were never a binary affair, with himself and the colonial State as adversaries, to extract specific concessions. He did not, for instance, go on a fast-unto-death to demand the withdrawal of the salt tax; he launched instead a movement against it. And at no stage did Gandhiji ever consider going on a fast-unto-death to demand India’s independence; instead he launched movement after movement for achieving it. Indeed Gandhiji would have considered a fast-unto-death to enforce a particular demand even upon the colonial State, or to extract a particular concession from it, an act not of non-violence but of violence.
Underlying such a fast-unto-death is the threat of violence: unless you concede my demand, I shall end my life, and in that case you will be swept aside by a torrent of violence that the people, angered by my death, will visit upon you; hence you better concede my demand. A fast-unto-death directed against the government or some specific institution to extract a specific set of demands is therefore an implicit act of violence; it holds out an implicit threat of violence and its success is predicated upon the credibility of this threat. Even when the cause for which such a fast is undertaken is a noble one, the nature of this threat is no different from that of an extortionist who demands that all one’s belongings should be handed over peacefully, failing which violence would be visited upon one.
Gandhiji would not have had any of it. The man who withdrew the non-cooperation movement because of a single incident of violence in Chauri Chaura and went on a fast-unto-death as a “cleansing act” would never have pressed any demand, even against the colonial State, under any such implicit threat of violence. His fasts-unto-death were directed at the people, not so much at an institution or government, with the objective of uniting them against violence. Even if any such fast-unto-death had claimed Gandhiji’s life, this would have had no fallout by way of popular anger against any person or institution and hence no visitation of violence against such a target; what it would have produced is a general sense of shock that would have shamed people precisely into the kind of behaviour that Gandhiji had wanted when he undertook the fast in the first place. For instance, his fast-unto-death for communal harmony, even if it had claimed his life, would only have shocked people into maintaining communal harmony and refraining from violence, exactly as Gandhiji wanted to happen when he undertook such a fast, and exactly as did happen before his fast-unto-death could claim his life.
It follows that there are fasts-unto-death and fasts-unto-death. There are fasts-unto-death whose objective is to extract some specific concession from an adversary, and which by nature, therefore, are coercive and entail an implicit threat of violence; and there are fasts-unto-death which are not directed against any particular adversary, which seek to unite the people, and which, therefore, entail no threat of violence. Anna Hazare’s and Baba Ramdev’s fasts fall into the former category; Gandhiji’s fell into the latter. They were as different from one another as chalk from cheese. To call the methods of Hazare and Ramdev Gandhian is a misnomer; to call their fasts-unto-death “non-violent” is wrong, since they are of the “concede-our-demands-or-else-there-will-be-violence” sort, that is, of the coercive sort. Gandhiji’s fasts were not of this type.
A coercive fast-unto-death is not only anti-Gandhian; it is anti- democratic in the context of independent India. And even when the objective it seeks to achieve is laudable, it is fraught with dangerous implications for our constitutional order. This order is not to be pooh-poohed, because it represents perhaps the biggest advance for the people in the last two millennia of our history, based as it is on a concept of “equality” which is a negation of the logic of the caste-system that had sanctified such inhuman practices as “untouchability” and “unseeability”. The coming into being of this order is a milestone in India’s “Long Revolution”.
True, this de jure equality has not transformed itself into a de facto equality, given the enormous and widening economic disparities in our society. But this de jure equality itself strikes at the root of the conceptual apparatus that had justified the existence of an oppressive system for centuries. Lenin had once said that “equality” was the most revolutionary idea in the struggle against feudal exploitation; it is even more revolutionary where feudal exploitation is enmeshed in caste oppression.
The most palpable institutional expression of this “equality” is the Parliament, elected as it is on the principle of “one person one vote”. True, it is full of billionaires, insensitive to the people’s needs and aspirations, and of self-seeking careerists of the political class; but, even so, there exists no other institution in the country which can claim the same degree of legitimacy. It is not surprising that elections in this country bring out the most enthusiastic participation from the most deprived segments of the population; they constitute even now a carnival of the oppressed. Anything that devalues the Parliament as an institution strikes at the root of India’s Long Revolution. And the recent “civil society” activism around Anna Hazare, even though it may have been motivated by high ideals and has witnessed the participation of several distinguished public personalities of the country, does precisely that.
I am not talking here of the Ramdev project which belongs to a different genre altogether. I am also not talking here of the alleged links between Anna Hazare and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which, though of great significance for understanding the totality of the phenomenon, are not germane to my present argument. And I also have no quarrels with ‘civil society’ activism per se; on the contrary, I value it. My problem is that such activism in the present instance, sustained by a fast-unto-death of the coercive kind, has sought to devalue the position of the Parliament, instead of being directed at strengthening it.
The JP movement with which it may be compared had never undermined the status of the Parliament; on the contrary, its denouement was the capture of a majority of seats in Parliament by the Janata Party formed through JP’s initiative. ‘Civil society’ activism today seeks not to capture Parliament but to by-pass it, for what else can be the meaning of civil society representatives and government ministers sitting together and working out an agreed lok pal bill, unless it is assumed that the Parliament will be only a titular body giving such an agreed document an automatic stamp of approval?
Corruption has got a great boost from the pervasive culture of money-making that neo-liberal capitalism has introduced into our society. It must, of course, be fought, but the fight will be necessarily limited unless the economic regime in which it thrives is altered. And above all we have to be careful that this fight does not lead to a substitution of messiahs surrounded by well-meaning members of the elite for the constitutional order that forms the basis of our “modern” nation.