In India, hunger strike or fast has become a mixed phenomenon. On one side the fast/hunger strike is used as an effective political weapon to raise the consciousness of masses, as has been done throughout the world history, but on the other side, it is being treated as media fad also, to create sensational news, but overshadowing its true spirit and seriousness.
Incidentally fast or hunger strike is not India’s or Gandhian movement’s contribution to the world or Indian political scenario, though it has been effectively used in India. The real progenitors of fast/hunger strike as political weapon are Irish revolutionaries. It was during 1916-1920 that world was shaken by Irish revolutionaries soul shaking fast unto deaths, In India this spirit was imbibed by revolutionary movement first and then only Gandhian movement has appropriated it as a political weapon to arouse people’s consciousness for the burning issues.
In India, during freedom struggle Jatindarnath Das, popularly known as Jatin Das, sacrificed his life after 63 days fast, while Bhagat Singh observed a total of five months plus fast/hunger strike in three of his known/unknown struggles for political rights inside the jail from 8th April 1929 to 23rd March 1931, the day of his martyrdom. They were inspired by Irish revolutionaries’ sacrifices through hunger strikes, particularly Terence MacSwiney’s sacrifice after many days of fast in side jail. Wikipedia page gives a glimpse of Irish revolutionaries’ sacrifices through hunger strikes as under
In October 1920, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, died on hunger strike in Brixton prison. Two other Cork IRA men, Joe Murphy and Michael Fitzgerald, also died on hunger strike in this protest along with Monaghan native, Conor McElvaney who lasted 79 days before death. The Guinness Book of Records lists the world record in hunger strike (without forced feeding) as 94 days, which was set from August 11 to November 12, 1920 by John and Peter Crowley, Thomas Donovan, Michael Burke, Michael O’Reilly, Christopher Upton, John Power, Joseph Kenny and Seán Hennessy at the prison of Cork. Arthur Griffith called off the strikes after the deaths of MacSwiney, Murphy and Fitzgerald.
Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt started their first hunger strike from 15th June 1929, when they were transported for life in Delhi Assembly bomb case and were shifted Mianwali and Lahore jails respectively. They decided to start indefinite hunger strike from the very first day of their arrival in respective jails of Punjab, when they were not shown the courtesy of being ‘political prisoner’, as they were treated with respect during their Delhi jail stay from 8th April 1929 to 14th June 1929. Bhagat Singh even protested against segregating him and B K Dutt from each other, since trial of Lahore conspiracy case, dealing with murder of Saunders was going to begin very shortly, in which Bhagat Singh being was treated as one of the most focussed accused. He wrote to I.G. Prisons, Punjab about this transfer on 17th June 1929. And on the same day, he also informed him of him being on hunger strike and raised certain demands; the most important one was to be treated as ‘Political Prisoner’. On 18th June 1929, Superintendent Mianwali jail sought some clarifications from Bhagat Singh on his letter to I.G. Punjab and Bhagat Singh replied on 19th June 1929. Later when Bhagat Singh was also sent to Lahore jail, he and B.K. Dutt sent a joint letter to Home member of Govt. of India in this regard. All these three letters have historic significance in contest of their struggle for the right of political prisoners in jail.
After few days Bhagat Singh was transferred to Lahore jail, but their hunger strike remained unknown to their own comrades, since they were lodged in different jails. On 10th July 1929, when all sixteen accused arrested out of 25, against whom F.I.R. was lodged, appeared before the magistrate, they were shocked to see Bhagat Singh being brought to the court on stretcher, since his condition was bad. From 10th July all others accused in this case also joined the hunger strike. Jatin Das warned his comrades about the pains and tortures of hunger strike and told that he would not back out of it, even if others leave. Only he had the earlier experience of hunger strike as he has participated in it as non cooperation movement prisoner in Calcutta. And Jatin Das’s warning proved true, even Sukhdev like revolutionaries could not sustain it for very long time, only Bhagat Singh and few of other comrades could continue it. Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, Gadar party convict and nearing release, also joined the hunger strike, despite his old age and Bhagat Singh’s efforts to dissuade him from not joining and he paid for it by getting his jail remission cancelled, thus spending more time in prison. This hunger strike is one of the most significant hunger strikes of political nature of the world. British colonial regime tried their best to break the strike by all kinds of means, mostly oppressive and some deceitful. Congress party got involved as after 10th July 1929, media started reporting about the conditions of hunger strikers every day and they were becoming popular among Indian people every day. Jail enquiry committees, Jail reform committees etc were formed, but Govt. yielded nothing. At one time British officials accepted that they would implement some recommendations and Congress party leaders assured revolutionaries of their demands being acceded. At this assurance on 2nd September 1929, revolutionaries except Jatin Das suspended their hunger strike. Jatin Das’s condition now was irretrievable and he did not want to let British colonial regime escape the responsibility of killing him inside the jai. Bhagat Singh also resumed his hunger strike within two days, as British officials refused to release Jatin Das unconditionally, knowing full well that he was going to die. Jatin Das died of hunger strike after 63 days on 13th September, 1929. Jinnah made historic speech in Central Assembly in support of hunger striking revolutionaries on 12th &14th September 1929, a day before and a day after the martyrdom of Jatin Das, as his speech could not be completed in single day. It was Irish hunger strike martyr Terence MacSwiney’s sister, who remained in solidarity during Bhagat Singh, Jatin Das hunger strike and sent message on Jatin das’s martyrdom like her own brother’s earlier.Bhagat Singh continued his hunger strike till 4th October, making a record those days of 112 days fast in jail. Though British officials yielded a bit, but for agreed demands, Bhagat Singh had to observe fifteen day hunger strike again in February 1930. Bhagat Singh resorted to hunger strike again in July-August 1930 against jail rules and he informed Special Tribunal Lahore, whose proceedings they boycotted throughout the trial and also Punjab High court, where he filed petition against denial of interviews by jail authorities. The fact about Bhagat Singh’s third hunger strike in July-August 1930 remained suppressed till now and it has come to light only from some of his letters displayed by Supreme Court exhibition in September 2007.
Despite Bhagat Singh and his comrades valiant fight inside the jail for securing rights for ‘Political Prisoners’ as special category, they were not given this status, neither after transfer of power in 1947, this right has been acceded by different Governments in India, despite thousands of opposition workers being imprisoned in 1975-77 emergency. In fact despite first Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s own strong disliking of British colonial laws like Indian Sedition Act, the whole Indian Police Act (IPC) and Criminal Procedure Act (CRPC) and many more British colonial laws are still intact in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I wonder that why social movements like launched by Jai Prakash Narain(JP) , whose name has now been dumped by media in favour of Anna Hazare, or the latest one by Anna Hazare have ever demanded the removal of colonial period laws from statue books of ‘Free’ India! It just proves the point made by Bhagat Singh in one of his writings that –what difference it makes to Indian people if in place of Lord Reading or Lord Irwin, Purshtam Das Thakkar or Tej Bahadur Sapru rules India, as long as the living conditions of people remain the same. So new rulers of India and Pakistan retained most of anti people oppressive colonial laws like Sedition law on statue books after 1947 and till date no movement has been launched to get these laws abolished or only new breed of Bhagat Singh’s have to perform the remaining task of getting rid of colonial vestiges, being used in much worse form of mixing this with feudal oppressive tendencies of Indian political and bureaucratic class!
In post 1947 India, Potti Sriramulu , a freedom fighter himself gave up his life for the creation of Andhra Pradesh through hunger strike and in Punjab same Darshan Singh Pheruman did the same for the creation of Punjabi suba or present day Punjab. I doubt anyone using weapon of fast/hunger strike has got the same spirit and sincerity as Irish revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh, Jatin das,even Mahatma Gandhi, Poti Sriramulu or Darshan Singh Pheruman like freedom fighter had! Question also arises why Irom Sharmila’s ten year old hunger strike does not appeal to our middle class and media, because this is against colonial type laws! And what is the difference between D K Barooah’s call during Emergency that ‘Indira is India and India is Indira’ and between retired IPS officer Kiran Bedi’s call-‘Anna is India and India is Anna’?
Post Script: After this article was written and published in ‘Hard News’ Delhi, many more instances of hunger strikes by revolutionary Indian freedom fighters came to mind, some of which are very significant and I curse my memory for failing me at the time of writing. It is still possible that more such cases of martyrs through fast unto death may still be lying in the dumped records of history, which is never cared much in India.
One such instance was as early as 1919, when Ram Rakha, a Gadarite revolutionary serving life term in Andamans and Nicobar prison ( Kala Pani), martyred his life through hunger strike. In fact Andamans and Nicobar prison has long history of cruelties committed by colonial British regime. Hunger strikes started here as early as in 1912. First wars of Independence-1857 prisoners were brought here long ago. In 1933, two major hunger strikes took place here. First by seven political prisoners from Bengal lasted for about a week from 3rd to 9th January, but the second started on 12th May 1933 lasted long and it took toll of three lives, which was joined by as many as 55 prisoners, including those from Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Socialist Republican Association(HSRA). Most notable sacrifice occurred of Mahabir Singh, close comrade of Bhagat Singh, who joined hunger strike on 12th May and was tried to be force fed just five days after on 17th May, it was very violent act on part of British colonial officials, as Mahabir Singh resisted and this violent feed resulted in his death on 18th May at 12.24 a.m. Tragedy of this sacrifice was that Mahabir singh’s family in Etah in Uttar Pradesh was not even informed and his body was thrown into sea. It was a small news in some Allahabad Hindi paper, which made the family aware of Mahabir Singh’s death. It was a killing at the hands of colonial regime, as was in the case of Jatin Das in Lahore jail on 13th September 1929, earlier, who was also force fed. In May 1933 Andamans hunger strike two more prisoners sacrificed their lives in hunger strike. These were- Mankrashna Nama Das of Mymen Singh on 26th May and Mohit Mohan Maitra of Calcutta on 28th May, 1933.Only a protest meeting in Calcutta on 30th May could bring the news of these sacrifices to the nation.
Praja Mandal leader Sewa Singh Thikriwala resorted to hunger strike in Patiala jail in December 1934 against the cruelties of Maharaja, supported by British colonialists in Punjab’s Patiala feudal state, ruled by notorious debauch Bhupinder Singh, grandfather of present Congress leader Captain Amrinder Singh and grandfather in law of former foreign minister Natwar Singh, who had more than three hundred women in his harem, as per Diwan Jarmani Das’s book ‘Maharaja’. He sacrificed his life on 20th January 1935 observing hunger strike. Former President Giani Zail Singh was also part of Praja Mandal movement, which was against feudalism and colonialism both, and was dragged behind a jeep by Maharaja of Faridkot at that time.
The examples of selflessness and sacrifice, set by revolutionary freedom fighters of India during freedom struggle is not matched by post 1970 struggles in India, except some exceptions like Irom Sharmila of Medha Patkar like people occasionally. in pre 1970 period Potti Sreeramulu and Darshan Singh Pheruman like people imbued with freedom struggle spirit, sacrificed their lives by fast unto death and exposed many such leaders like Master Tara Singh and Sant Fateh Singh, who would create euphoria by their hunger strikes and then run away at the last moment without getting their demands conceded.
Some photographs of the martyrs of hunger strikes/fast unto death in pre and post independence India should make serious minded people think not to treat hunger strikes/fast unto death lightly.
Visiting Professor, The University of the West Indies,Trinidad &Tobago, on deputation from JNU, New Delhi. Prof.firstname.lastname@example.org mobile 1868-3692687
Bhagat Singh & B. K. Dutt’s letter to Home Member, Govt. of India-24th June 1929
WE, BHAGAT SINGH AND B. K. DUTT, WERE SENTENCED to life transportation in the Assembly Bomb Case, Delhi . As long as we were under trial prisoners in Delhi Jail, we were accorded a very good treatment from that jail to the Mianwali and Lahore Central Jails respectively, we wrote an application to the higher authorities asking for better diet and a few other facilities, and refused to take the jail diet.
Our demands were as follows:
We, as political prisoners, should be given better diet and the standard of our diet should at least be the same as that of European prisoners. (It is not the sameness of dietary that we demand, but the sameness of standard of diet.)
We shall not be forced to do any hard and undignified labours at all.
All books, other than those proscribed, alongwith writing materials, should be allowed to us without any restriction.
At least one standard daily paper should be supplied to every political prisoner.
Political prisoners should have a special ward of their own in every jail, provided with all necessities as those of the Europeans. And all the political prisoners in one jail must be kept together in that ward.
Toilet necessities should be supplied.
We have explained above the demands that we made. They are the most reasonable demands. The Jail authorities told us one day that the higher authorities have refused to comply with our demands.
Apart from that, they handle us very roughly while feeding us artificially, and Bhagat Singh was lying quite senseless on the 10th July, 1929, for about 15 minutes, after the forcible feeding, which we request to be stopped without any further delay.
In addition, we may be permitted to refer to the recommendations made in the U.P. Jail Committee by Pt. Jagat Narain and K.B. Hafiz Hidayat Hussain. They have recommended the political prisoners to be treated as “Better Class Prisoners.”
We request you to kindly consider our demands at your earliest convenience.
– By “Political Prisoners”, we mean all those people who are convicted for offences against the State, for instance the people who were convicted in the Lahore Conspiracy Cases, 1915-17, the Kakori Conspiracy Cases and Sedition Cases in general.
B. K. Dutt
( From ‘Selected Writings of Bhagat Singh’ edited by Shiv Verma)
Jatin Das’s dyeing photo in Jail-The Tribune-Lahore-15-9-1929
Subhash Bose after Jatin das martyrdom
Jatin Das’s father performing his last rites in Calcutta
College Volunteer Core member Jatin Das
Gadarite revolutionary Ram Rakha, died during hunger strike in Andamans jail-1919
Mahabir Singh, sacrificed his life through hunger strike in
Andmans jail-18th May-1933
Sewa Singh Thikriwala, who martyred his life by hunger strike in Patiala jail on 20th January 1935, against oppression of Maharaja Patiala Bhupinder Singh and British colonilists
Darshan Singh Pheruman, who sacrificed his life through hunger strike on 74th Day of fast -27th October, 1969 for including Punjabi speaking areas left out of New Punjab state created out on 1st November 1966. He was twice rajya Sabha member of Congress party.