Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lokpal II: Fasting Pastimes

On Fasting in General.

Most of us are not corrupt. We take comfort in sayings such as “What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul.”
Some of the times it is perhaps because we are too lazy to "gain the whole world".
Some of the times we don't have an opportunity to be corrupt.

Fasting against corruption is a matter we think we understand because no gain is involved esecially if one is not fasting for a public cause oneself. We prefer others to do it perhaps for the same reason that we are not corrupt.

It is good for our soul, or so we think, which would be enough.

Fasting regularly is one of the more common eating habits especially when we are not corrupt.

We do it to also purify our digestive tracts (for which we can find solid if not concrete evidence) along with our soul (which we don't really know where it is) most times.

What is interesting is that, for those who are able to afford it, the fasting menu is quite rich and rather tasty. Fasting of the starving kind is not what one has in mind when we Indians conjure up images of fasting.

Moreover. fasting food in India need not kill one faster than fast food.

The British were probably of the type who, like me, were impressed by voluntary fasting, which they may have misunderstood, as I did, as voluntary starving. It is amusing to think that the clever Krishna-like Gandhi may have known about this when he threatened the British with a fast.

All but one of his fasts were under British rule.

His last fast was after Independence --- in January 1948 --- for seeking communal peace in Delhi which resulted in a peace pledge between the communities after six days when he gave up his fast. One community which knew about fasting food perhaps could not stand Gandhi using fasting as a tool against his own community.

So why does one believe that one is going to fast unto death?

For one, as Gandhi himself said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."Martin Luther King, Jr. seems to have said " If a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live." Most of us would say that that's what we do in any case: to spend our life till our death.

There is a difference, of course. Both the Indian and American Gandhi's were killed for their beliefs. That is what they meant perhaps. To oppose by their examples those who they thought were oppressive to such an extent that they (the Gandhis) had to be killed by those they opposed. They did not need to fast to die for their cause.

For a fast to be effective, one must be judged by the way one wears the Gandhi cap.

When Gladys in Dorian Gray says “… all good hats are made out of nothing”. Lord Henry interrupts with (with perhaps the same logic that gives Newton’s third law): “Like all good reputations, Gladys ….Every effect that one produces gives one an enemy. To be popular one must be a mediocrity.”

What the author means by "mediocrity" is not clear since the author is Oscar Wilde. What is probably meant is that one must have a simple common perception regrding weaknesses which are easily identifiable.

Gandhi's Experiments with Fasting.

Gandhi fasted several times for less than seven days mostly. In keeping with Lord Henry's observations about falling in love mentioned earlier, each time Gandhi fasted, the effect of his fasts had greater intensity.

Gandhi's fasting was rarely tagged as a political weapon but rather as one for "upliftment of the soul" if one may call it that.

It is difficult, however, to realize that Gandhi, idolized by all, could set unreasonably high "upliftment" standards for his own family! His first fast was for seven days against his own son who kissed a teenage girl in Gandhi's neighbourhood in Phoenix, Durban. Gandhi himself may not have understood the urges of a teenager as he was married when he was only thirteen. However, as a result "Manilal’s actions were always tempered by the fact that Gandhi would punish himself through fasting when displeased with his actions."(from "Gandhi's Prisoner: Manilal Gandhi as Son and South African Dissident" by Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie).

Gandhi must have learnt from this unreasonable act. He probably thought, because of his son's reaction, that he required becoming a Father figure for the Indian Nation.

His first fasting for the nation's problems was perhaps by accident. The textile labourers in Ahmedabad were paid poorly and Gandhi organized a strike by them demanding a 35% increase in wages. The strike was about to be broken because the striking workers agreed to a proposal of a 20% wage increase. The impression (true) was spread that Gandhi belonged to people who 'come and go in their car' and 'eat elegant food' without knowing the agonies of starving. It was then that Gandhi came up ('unbidden and all by themselves the words came to my lips' Gandhi would write unconvincingly in his autobiography later) with “I cannot tolerate for a minute that you break your pledge. I shall not take any food nor use a car till you get a 35 percent increase.” This was Gandhi, the fast-thinker.

In 1919 when he was at the Sabarmati ashram far away for the Jalianwallah Bagh massacre, he did a penitential fast in for three days in Ashram claiming an exaggerated 52,000 deaths. He saw his opportunity of abjuring violence as a method of protest (and perhaps to neutralize Subhash Chandra Bose) and also perhaps to ensure among the British rulers that he was the more reasonable person. He fasted for five days after the Chauri Chaura incident of 5 February 1922 when 21 constables and a sub-inspector were burnt alive inside the police station. He began a 21 day fast in 1924 for Hindu-Muslim amity, when he "... took upon himself the sins of his Hindu and Muslim compatriots ..." .

Gandhi was also against the reservation system when he started his first “fast unto death” in 1932 to demand an abolition of a separate electorate for Harijans (a name given to them by Gandhi, which meant actually that the childen of god would be untouchables in India). This demand for a separate electorate was from Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a graduate from Columbia University who adopted the suited and booted dress of the upper class so that the voice of the untouchables would be heard, probably as a reaction to Gandhi who would adopt the dress of the poor so that the poor would identify with him. After six days of fasting the British Government accepted Gandhi's demands.

It would seem that Gandhi went on the fast track when he had to change mindsets more than obtaining a political objectives.

Did Potti Sriramulu have to die?

Post Independence, Potti Sriramulu actually fasted for fifty-eight days to death demanding a separate state of Andhra, even though Nehru agreed to his demands after fifty days of fasting.

Who benefited by this death? Did his death serve the purpose of those who had prepared themselves for this eventuality?

After Potti Sriramulu's death, violence was fanned vigorously by Communist ambitions. It is claimed that it was this violene that hastened the formation of the new Andhra Pradesh. It was the first state to be formed based solely on linguistic considerations. The Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh contained the Telugu-speaking Telangana region also.

Subsequent events show that while fasting can bring about a result, it is not always a desired result for many others. Andhra Pradesh was initially formed with Kurnool as its capital. The poorer Telengana region felt betrayed when its capital, Hyderabad, was made the capital of the integrated Andhra Pradesh. The people of the Telengana region felt always alienated from the richer Andhra regions. Now, we have a Telangana leader (KCR) fasting-unto-death (for a short while) demanding a Telangana state.

Anna Hazare (Anna could be the equivalent for dada in bengali which usually means an elder brother whom you respect) is a different person. He should be especially followed for his work that began in 1975 on creating a model village based on using traditional methods for water conservation, grazing land management and improving the environment of the barren drought-prone village, Ralegan Siddhi, in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra. It is this that brought him into prominence and resulted in introducing different Model Village schemes in his state.

He did not have to fast for this. He did it by example.

We have many things to learn from Anna Hazare and his "model village" development. He was a simple army driver who had to return to his barren village. He fought against desolation and was influence by saffron-dressed Swami Vivekananda to resurrect himself and his village.

He has also a very impressive record in his fight against corruption. He started in 1995 when he perhaps thought that the new BJP-Shiv-Sena government of Maharashtra would be more amenable. He started his fight for rights to information (RTI) struggle in 1998 by observing maun or silence which to many would be more difficult than fasting. He won his RTI fight after he successfully used his fasting strategy in August 2003 to get overwhelming popular support for RTI. It was conceded after 12 days of fasting.

I worry about his simple background and the way he may be molded or may have been influenced by the modern media-savvy spirits.

The ordinary people of Maharashtra remain very hard working with little time to be corrupt. Maharashtra was the first state to pass the Lok Ayukta bill in 1972, and the first state to get the RTI act which was passed for the entire nation.

But those who have the time, inclination and the money use it to their full advantaqe giving Maharashtra the reputation of being the most corrupt state. So much so that their most powerful politician, Sharad Pawar, had to sit out of the government committee on Lok Pal as a first condition.

In the meanwhile it is perhaps important to know amongst the hoopla of the fight against corruption by self-elevated giant spiritual leaders there were seven relative dwarfs: the seven Gandhians included six freedom fighters (they would have been less than thirty when Gandhi was shot). These were: Shambhu Dutta (92 years, has been trying to introduce the Lokpal bill for the past 15 years), R. Saradamani Devi (84 years), K.P. Sahu (79 years), Murari Lal Gupta (94 years), Govind Narain Seth (78 years) and Amarnath Khanna (89 years).

We wonder where they were positioned, if they were positioned at all, before the TV cameras.