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OF FASTS AND FASTING - Cynics must see the true value of Anna Hazare's action

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By Gopalkrishna Gandhi
  • Published 14.04.11

Gandhi resorted to some 30 fasts, of which one-third were directed at himself, for ‘atonement’ or self-purification, one-third were directed against the raj and one-third at India’s social mores. A more honest trinity cannot be imagined.

The latter two kinds of fasts were meant to make an impact on the ‘other side’; they were part-fasts and part- hunger strikes, part anashan and part bhukh-hartal, though he derived from each a sense of spiritual self-renewal.

He was asked: is fasting not coercive, not another form of violence? He gave interesting answers, but none as eloquent as the character of his fasts and the fasting method itself. The absence of violence in thought and word, especially towards the perceived ‘adversary’, marked his fasts. The viceroy or the viceroy’s executive council, for instance, were not to have their persons or their prestige threatened. Challenged, yes, but not threatened. The purity of his motive, the lack of animosity towards the targets of his fasts and, above all, the readiness during the fast to engage with the other side raised his fasts to moral heights even as they caused the ‘adversary’s case’ to plummet.

Fasting for a public purpose became, with him, a science and an art, as introspective as it was out-bound. Its success was important not just for the instant cause, but for the method as well. If a fast were to fail for any reason, much more than the cause would fail; the very example of moral persuasion would fail. Not surprisingly, Gandhi discouraged people from rushing into fasts. Fasting was not a technique to be used too easily, lightly.

Would Gandhi have resorted to a ‘fast unto death’ over corruption today?

No one can say. He was so unpredictable, so original. Perhaps — and this is as good a guess as anybody’s — he would have impleaded Indian society into his case for a fast: corporate organizations, ravenous for profits, trusts, societies, institutions which misuse funds, contractors, developers, middlemen devoid of scruples, and not just corrupt functionaries in the government of the day. That issue would have brought into it land rights, tribal rights, Naxalism. And ending that fast would not have been easy.

Others have borrowed Gandhi’s method. Have they borrowed the rules of the game as well? Potti Sriramulu died in 1952 fasting for a separate Andhra Pradesh that was conceded immediately thereafter. Sant Fateh Singh’s fast for a Punjabi Suba in 1960 catalysed that separate state. There have been many others, with regional and even national importance, some achieving partial success, some long-lasting ones.

Anna Hazare’s self-denial of food for five days — no ordinary thing in a 73-year-old — without question belongs to the scroll of great fasts undertaken for great purposes.

Only cynics would fail to hail the following accomplishments of his:

1. Dispelling the smog of despondency regarding corruption that had descended over us.

2. Challenging thereby two cynical beliefs — first, that corruption has become a way of life in India and second, that corruption is an issue only among the educated elite, not the rural poor.

3. Showing us how the young, the urban elite and the professional classes can respond on an equal footing, to a 73-year-old village-based Gandhi-capped activist’s call for action to end corruption.

4. Demonstrating the power of one man’s resoluteness, backed by personal integrity, to take on the might of official disdain and public despondency and overcoming, in a mere five days, an almost 50-year-old amnesia about a potentially powerful instrument against corruption.

But since Gandhi’s name and satyagrahic methods have been invoked in this movement and Anna Hazare has been spontaneously described by many as a “second Gandhi”, it may be worth their pondering if the following accord with Gandhi’s way:

1. The deep distrust in the agitation of the other side and a polarization between ‘us’, the people of India and ‘they’, the government.

2. The miniaturizing of India’s constitutional edifice on the one side and the monumentalizing of ‘people’s power’ on the other, when Indian society too has to answer a few questions on its own contribution to the rise of corruption in India.

3. The portraying of politicians en masse as corrupt and bureaucrats as their collaborators-in-crime, forgetting that it is politicians in Parliament, catalysed by persons like Aruna Roy, that have given us the Right to Information Act, with civil servants like Wajahat Habibullah operationalizing it with such telling effect.

4. The publicly aired contemplation of punishments for the corrupt that go well beyond existing penologies and include the garland of the gallows.

Anna Hazare’s fast has created a wholly new, wholly unexpected, moral dividend. To have been able to create this dividend from out of the lowest imaginable stock of public confidence is an extraordinary achievement. This must be invested in a closely reasoned and responsible new lok pal bill and a new Lok Pal and Lok Ayukta regime, not dissipate into several uncoordinated agitations.

It needs to be appreciated by the governing classes that Anna Hazare’s public fast to connect the popular mood to the political mindset is in the nature of a coronary bypass. When arteries are choked, what can avail other than a stent, an angioplasty or a bypass?

But the agitation also needs to appreciate something. A bypass clears the conduits, it does not seek to replace the heart itself. A bypass does not mock the heart, it energizes it.

The joint committee will therefore require constructive, not confrontationist, discussions on the draft bill. It will require, on the part of the ‘government team’, respect for the public mood that has tired of alibis. And it will require, on the part of the ‘Hazare-Bhushan team’, respect for the procedures of legislative enactments.

What is being tried now is a novel combination, wholly compatible with our Constitution, of ex-cameral negotiations with persons drawn from civil society, leading to a text that will go through the legislative process. This is a creative enlargement of the process of select committees of legislators going to stake-holders and the public for opinion-gathering before taking up a bill in the House. The only difference being that here, the ‘public’ is not being asked for its opinion by the select committee; it has been inducted into the select committee, it has been made part of the pre-legislation in-house process. This novel arrangement requires proportionate originality in the spirit of the deliberations. There will be hard-liners and nay-sayers in both sections of the committee. Hopefully, there will be realists in both as well. Everything will depend on the committee realizing that it has to cease thinking of itself in terms of two halves, that, once formed, it is a single entity and that the people of India expect this single gestation to yield a long-sought result, not two parallel results.

If the joint committee fails, the public’s faith in the power of peaceful protests will fail and that will be a tragedy and a danger of incalculable proportions. Opportunities for democratic self-healing on a mega-scale like this one come but rarely. It must be seized, not just to install a fearless Lok Pal and re-energize our Lok Ayuktas, but to end the money-spinning link between political dons and our mineral resources, forest resources and land. Without that, the Lok Pal will be mopping the floor without turning the tap off.

For this larger result to come about, those who have been cynical about Anna Hazare’s successful fast, especially within government, will need to see its value for the good.

Those who are enthused by it will need to remember that Gandhi did not permit either distrust or ego to mar the follow-up. He did not make slogans or shibboleths his negotiating vocabulary.