Fasting: India's new politics of blackmail?
Mahatma Gandhi's protest fasts became the benchmark for non-violent agitation. Suddenly, fasting is all the rage again. These days Indian politicians and protesters are almost queuing up to fast to press their demands. But many believe fasts in India are now often disingenuous and devalue Gandhi's legacy.
As former Indian minister Mani Shankar Iyer says: "Gandhi was a master of asymmetrical politics. In his hands the fast became a powerful political and ethical statement. When turned into the politics of blackmail, it loses it ethical purpose."
These days, when Indian politicians fast - think of feisty Bengal leader Mamata Banerjee opposing a car factory on farmland; and more recently, Telangana leader K Chandrasekara Rao demanding the creation of a new state - they do so with the covert threat of violence. As they "stop" taking food, their supporters flex their muscles and make menacing noises about the storm ahead if their demands are not met.
Fasting politicians lost their credibility a while ago. I remember one comic book fast many years ago in Calcutta in which a national politician would break off for a juice or a snack in a little tent at the back of the podium. This week, an Andhra Pradesh politician ran away from a secure hospital even as he "fasted" against the proposed new state of Telangana.
Blackmail and fear are driving political negotiations in India today. Politicians, community and sect leaders provoke supporters to burn property and if necessary, kill, to further their interests. If the violence fails and the state doesn't respond, then leaders go on a protest fast, holding out the threat of more violence.
The state, of course, should take much of the blame for allowing such sordid politics. Take Telangana, for example. Despite wide political consensus, successive governments have sat on the demand for a new state for the past four decades. Then opportunistic politicians come along and, in effect, hold the state to ransom. Procrastination and, as social worker Medha Patkar says, "the state's cat and mouse game", lead to such politics.
Ms Patkar, who has fasted against big dam projects, says such protests can have meaning. "Every fast has broken the ice, broken deadlocks, taken things further, contributed to our own empowerment and the involvement of people with us." Do India's politicians have such noble intentions, many wonder?
Some also feel that even as the state succumbs to this politics of blackmail - the government says it had to say yes to Telangana because Mr Rao's condition was deteriorating - it appears uncaring about the fate of a woman who has been fasting for nine long years.
Irom Sharmila, the brave 37-year-old from Manipur, wants a draconian law repealed in her state. She has been arrested, re-arrested, force-fed by the state. Ms Sharmila doesn't hold out threats, and her supporters don't talk the language of violence. Even her critics say her demand has immense merit. But when the state gives legitimacy to the politics of fear and blackmail, people like Ms Sharmila don't stand a chance.