A dharna, Wikipedia informs us, ‘is a fast undertaken at the door of an offender, especially a debtor, as a means of obtaining compliance with a demand for justice, such as payment of debt.’ Clearly then, at the very root of our most potent symbol of political protest, lies the fast.
But in its original form, the idea is not a modern or medieval invention, it is part of a much older Indo-European tradition. To turn to Wikipedia again, ‘Fasting was used as a method of protesting injustice in pre-Christian Ireland, where it was known as Troscadh or Cealachan. It was detailed in the contemporary civic codes, and had specific rules by which it could be used. The fast was often carried out on the doorstep of the home of the offender.’
For an idea to be shared between Aryavarta and Ireland, it must have had roots deep in the Indo-European past. Vinay Lal, in a fascinating piece on this shared idea, delves into the Indian evidence for this practice:
There can scarcely be as dramatic a text for insights into traditions of political fasting in India as Kalhana’s 12th century ‘Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir’ known as the Rajatarangini. This book by a Kashmiri Brahmin furnishes incontrovertible evidence of the widespread recourse to fasting. King Chandrapida himself fasted as a form of penance, in atonement for his inability to bring to justice the murderer of a man whose widow sought death by starvation unless punishment were inflicted on the guilty man (IV:82-99). The remedy of fasting, however, appears generally to have been available only to Brahmins, and Kalhana was not averse to passing sharp remarks on the ease with which members of his community would, singly or collectively, stage a hunger strike to safeguard their interests. As an illustration, Kalhana describes the events of the year 1143, in the reign of Jayasimha. Enraged by a plot to overthrow the king, in which they suspected the hand of the ministers Trillaka and Jayaraja, ‘and anxious to safeguard the country’, the Brahmins commenced a hunger strike ‘directed against’, notes Kalhana, ‘the king’—the king because he had, through his weakness and inaction, permitted the kingdom to fall into ruin. Kalhana suggests that the Brahmins may at first have been moved by noble intentions; but, ‘intoxicated with their own knavery’, they ‘obstinately persisted in their perfidious course’ until they had prevailed upon the king to dismiss his honest minister Alamkara and promise them that he would ‘uproot Trillaka after he had disposed of the pretenders to the crown’ (VIII:2737).
Brahmins may have been the source of many of these hunger strikes, at least in Kashmir, but clearly their aims were as political as they were religious. Noticeably, such fasts against rulers are absent in much of medieval literature. The majority of Muslim rulers would not have felt the same guilt at the thought of harm coming to Brahmins, but there were others who were often scared by the divine retribution Hindu holy books repeatedly dwell on that would befall those who cause a Brahmin harm.
Under the entry ‘dharna baithna,’ the 1885 edition of the Cyclopaedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia by Edward Balfour states ‘Dharna Baithna, literally, to sit [in] dharna, was a practice put in force in several parts of India by creditors, who sat down before the doors of their debtors, so as to close all exit unless over the sitter’s body, and thus compel a payment of their claims. The practice, up to the 19th century, was familiar at Benares, and may be translated [as a house] arrest. It was used by Brahmins to gain a point which could not be accomplished by any other means; and the process was as follows: A Brahmin who adopts this expedient for the purpose mentioned proceeds to the door or house of the person against whom it is directed, or wherever he may most conveniently intercept him. He there sits down in dharna, with poison or a poniard, or some other instrument of suicide in his hand, and, threatening to use it if his adversary should attempt to molest or pass him, he thus completely arrests the debtor. In this situation the Brahmin fasts; and by the rigour of the etiquette, which is rarely infringed, the unfortunate object of his arrest ought also to fast, and thus they both remain until the institutor of the dharna obtains satisfaction. In this, as he seldom makes the attempt without resolution to persevere, he rarely fails; for if the party thus arrested were to suffer the Brahmin sitting in dharna to perish by hunger, the sin would for ever be upon his head. This practice has become almost unheard of in late years; the last occasion in Madras was about AD 1816; but formerly even the interference of British courts often proved insufficient to check it, as it had been deemed in general most prudent to avoid for this purpose the use of coercion, from an apprehension that the first appearance of it might drive the sitter in dharna to suicide. The discredit of the act would not only fall upon the officers of justice, but upon the Government itself.’
Almost a hundred years after, on 15 March 1918, mediating on a dispute between millworkers and millowners in Ahmedabad, MK Gandhi, prompted by his ‘inner voice’ announced he would fast till the demand of the workers was met. Within three days, the millowners had given in. Whatever the promptings that resulted in this innovation, Gandhi was operating in a climate where the act of fasting to achieve a political end had a long history and acceptability. The religious sanctity that came to a Brahmin by birth had already come his way; it was after all a mahatma who was fasting.
At one point, Gandhi explicitly states, ‘A fast undertaken to wring money from a person or for fulfilling some such personal end would amount to the exercise of coercion or undue influence.’ This seems to suggest that not only was Gandhi familiar with the religious use of the fast, which was a common practice, he was also familiar with the use of the fast as a means of coercing a debtor. The actual link between the old idea of dharna and his own articulation of it may even be stronger than commonly supposed.
Gandhi’s innovation was to bring a moral purpose to the fast that perhaps it never had before. For him, “fasting is a potent weapon in the satyagraha armoury. It cannot be [under]taken by everyone. Mere physical capacity to [under]take it is no qualification for it. It is of no use without a living faith in God. It should never be a mechanical effort or a mere limitation. It must come from the depth of one’s soul. It is, therefore, always rare.’’
In keeping with this, he used the tactic with great care and on select occasions. In 1924, he sought reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims; in 1934 he fasted against a separate electorate for Dalits; in 1947 he fasted for an end to rioting in Calcutta. In all these cases, he was making a demand of his own people; none of these fasts was directed against the British. The one time he fasted against the Government was in 1948 in Independent India, seeking the payment of Rs 55 crore due to Pakistan. Despite his claims, people such as Bhimrao Ambedkar, who had to give in to Gandhi’s demands in 1934, afraid of the consequences for his community if Gandhi died on such a fast, had reason enough to feel they had been coerced.
Gandhi’s own advice to Ambedkar would have been to not give in: ‘Of course, it is not to be denied that fasts can be really coercive. Such are fasts to attain a selfish object…
I would unhesitatingly advocate resistance of such undue influence. I have myself successfully resisted it in the fasts that have been undertaken or threatened against me.’
Further: ‘And if it is argued that the dividing line between a selfish and unselfish end is often very thin, I would urge that a person who regards the end of a fast to be selfish or otherwise base should resolutely refuse to yield to it, even though the refusal may result in the death of the fasting person. If people will cultivate the habit of disregarding fasts which, in their opinion, are taken for unworthy ends, such fasts will be robbed of the taint of coercion and undue influence. Like all human institutions, fasting can be both legitimately and illegitimately used.’
Gandhi was by no means the only modern exponent of the fast. In England, a decade before Gandhi, Marion Wallace Dunlop, seeking the right to vote for women, went on fast in prison to assert her right to be treated as a political prisoner. It was a tactic picked up and used by Irish republican prisoners in jail, several of whom died as a result. It continued to be used sporadically till as late as 1981 by members of the Irish Republican Army.
The term ‘hunger strike’ is now used in such cases, and in some sense the Irish and suffragette example, more than Gandhi’s own act, seems to have been the inspiration for the other great fast of the Indian Independence movement, the one undertaken by Bhagat Singh and his compatriots to secure equal rights for English and Indian prisoners. Jatin Das died as a result of attempts by the British to force-feed him, a tactic they had tried earlier with the Irish.
The very tool that was a source of strength for the national movement was turned against the nation soon after Independence. A number of modern Indian states were a result of political movements. One in particular was brought to culmination by P Sriramulu’s fast, which led to his death and the formation of Andhra Pradesh.
The story in Punjab was somewhat different. While fasting was meant to achieve the same end, it became a tool for two men struggling for control of the Akali movement. In 1961 Master Tara Singh began a fast for a separate Punjabi state. He called it off after 48 days once Nehru sent a conciliatory letter that stopped short of conceding the demand. Tara Singh lost the leadership of the party to Sant Fateh Singh, who had already fasted on the same issue in 1960. Fateh Singh began another fast in 1965, but the Indo-Pak war led him to call it off.
The state of Punjab was formed soon after, but it did not include Chandigarh. Fateh Singh went on another fast, but again called it off before the demand was met. This was the beginning of the decline of his political career. In 1969 Darshan Singh Pheruman died after sitting in hunger strike for 74 days on the same issue. Chandigarh is still not part of Punjab, but while both Master Tara Singh and Sant Fateh Singh are today remembered as somewhat comical figures, Gurdwaras and colleges named after Pheruman dot Punjab.
In his column, Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar once wrote an open letter to Anna Hazare that went on to describe the comic battle of fasts between the master and the sant, before asking, ‘Do you want to end like Pheruman, who died without attaining his aims? Or do you want to end like Tara Singh and Fateh Singh, and be asked constantly “Why are you still alive?’
In this comparison lies the story of many of modern India’s political fasts. Irom Sharmila is still on fast, but a nation that wants to hear little about what its citizens have been complicit in in the Northeast would rather not pay attention. Swami Nigmanand, fighting to save the Ganga, died after 68 days of fasting, even his death bringing him into focus only because his fast coincided with Ramdev and Hazare’s antics for a period. Ramdev and Ha- zare started much as the sant and the master, fighting for the same constituency through their fasts. The result was hilarious in both cases. Never in the history of fasting have two fasted so briefly with so much made of it.
Both the master and the sant, for all their failings, stuck to their fasts through a considerable period of time, exceeding 20 days in each case. If despite this they managed to make the idea of political fasts seem comical, Ramdev and Hazare have reduced the idea to a farce.
In this we have come full circle. The modern day political fast has led to a deadend. Hazare and Ramdev have taken us back to the Brahmins of Kashmir, who as Kalhana suggests may at first have been moved by noble intentions, but eventually became ‘intoxicated with their own knavery’.