When Narmada Bachao Andolan's Medha Patkar broke her 21-day hunger strike, a journalist asked her whether "pressure tactics" like indefinite fasts should be used to influence decisions. She replied that her hunger strike came at the end of a long struggle in which all democratic channels had been exhausted, adding, "It was a moral appeal. Just as Gandhi showed this path to gain freedom, in today's context it is a struggle for people's lives and livelihoods and their right to development benefits without getting destroyed in the process. It is a kind of freedom struggle."
Sharmila Irom, a Manipuri poet, has been on hunger strike for the past five years. Speaking recently from her bare bed in a prison cell, she intoned, "It is my bounden duty...I will not eat until the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is repealed..." (She has been thrown into jail on the charge of attempted suicide, and is being force-fed.)
While the media's attention was more on the Narmada activists, an equally determined group of people - the 39 survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy - camped at the pavement off Jantar Mantar in Delhi for a month seeking justice. Six of them went on a hunger strike, which was called off only after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to look into their demands.
Increasingly, several activists and groups are again adopting non-violent 'Gandhian' ways to get their voices heard. Both the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Bhopal gas tragedy survivors' movement deserve credit for sustaining people's struggles for basic survival and democratic rights for over two decades now. Unlike the militants or even the Naxalites, several Dalit and women's struggles, ecological and artisans' movements, slum dwellers and factory workers' agitations have chosen the non-violent route towards genuine democracy.
Of course, the Indian State has often reacted as the British did, and sometimes worse: browbeating, arrests, brutal crackdowns, refusal to negotiate, even threatening to label a hunger strike as a crime ("attempt to suicide").
But contemporary grassroots leadership in India has drawn world attention to the power of non-violent struggle. However, most people hold fairly confused ideas about the very meaning of non-violence. Is non-violence a tactic, or a philosophy? Is a hunger strike, for that matter, a mere political stratagem, or does it have deeper ethic-philosophical implications?
When Gandhi spoke of non-violence as a powerful, active force ("the activest force of all"), and a weapon of the strong, he was referring to its capacity to change people's hearts. When he launched a satyagraha (literally, truth-force, extended, in the Gandhian lexicon, to `a non-violent, truth-based resistance campaign'), the aim was to influence people by drawing them to reflect on their own actions, and those of others. He undertook satyagrahas - including 10 public hunger strikes - around issues like untouchability or Muslim-Hindu unity, with an aim to reform Indian society, expose the "immoral" British government, create a sense of empowerment in the common people and establish the foundations for an independent India.
Clearly, he conceived of ahimsa (non-violence) as a way of life, not just a handy tactic. Non-violent struggles are directed against wrong - not the wrongdoer. They aim at conversion, not coercion. The workings of ahimsa are largely invisible precisely because they work through the heart and in the inner being. Thus, while a non-violent campaign might be widely noticed, how exactly it works might not be so apparent.
When `non-violent' forms like a dharna (sit-in) or hunger strike are used, they may or may not be linked to such an underlying philosophy. For Gandhi, pubic fasts (which extended for days and sometimes weeks) were but moments in a lifelong process of self-purification, involving voluntary suffering, rejection of emotions like anger, awakening love and respect for the opposing party, and humility rather than overweening arrogance. Above all, these were acts of faith in a common humanity, the goodness and perfectibility of human beings, and the power of 'truth': "... a mechanical act of starvation will mean nothing. One's faith must remain undimmed whilst the life ebbs out minute by minute".
Gandhi asserted that a fast should be the last resort, not to be engaged in casually. He often discouraged supporters from joining in 'sympathy' fasts. Overuse - or abuse - of a tool spoils it, blunts the edges, dilutes its power.
Today, dozens of public fasts are a routine occurrence in India, but most attract little attention. Be it Delhi councilors against sealing shops, or Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for construction of the Narmada dam, these 'hunger strikes' failed to strike a chord with the public. The long endurance and commitment of the Narmada and Bhopal activists, on the other hand, inspired widespread sympathy for their cause.
Waging a non-violent struggle is indeed the need of the times. Gene Sharp, contemporary proponent of 'strategic non-violence', considers non-violence the only weapon that can be used effectively even against violent dictatorships.
Nafisa Bee, 48, a survivor of Bhopal (gas leak from the Union Carbide factory in 1984), sees it as the only way to the future: "My son has TB, husband cannot work, I have chest pain and burning eyes since the night of the tragedy. All these years we have been drinking poisoned water, and did not know it, until it was tested one year ago. I walked 800 km to Delhi to protest, because if we do not protest, our children - and grandchildren - will have to keep drinking this poisoned water."
Nafisa, along with 38 other people, was arrested at the dharna site one day, detained and then released. Nafisa and three other women suffered injuries due to police brutality. But she rejoined the dharna, undeterred. She would sing "Sar par hai kafan, haath mein talvar" (a shroud on our heads, a sword in our hands).
The recent victories of the Bhopal and NBA people might be partial - and fragile. But these are precious victories. Many years ago, Gandhi spoke of the imperative to build up an army of non-violent volunteers. When asked how individuals or communities could be trained in the difficult art of non-violence, Gandhi answered, "There is no royal road, except by living the creed in your life...Of course the expression in one's own life presupposes great study, tremendous perseverance, and thorough cleansing of one's self of all the impurities."
Philosophical non-violence has several variants, defined significantly by proponents like Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Aung Saan Suu Kyi and Petra Kelly. Buddhists and Jain beliefs, indigenous peoples' worldviews, Quakers, peace movements across the globe, and multiple ongoing pro-democracy struggles provide diverse resources for refining the concepts and practice of non-violence.
The implications for transforming, and resolving, conflicts - not only in India but also in the rest of the world - are enormous. It's wonderful that many people today are trying to use the weapon of non-violence in the way Gandhi envisioned it ought to be used.
(The author teaches a course on "Philosophical Non-violence" at the Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi.)