Deep Read: The power of the hunger strike

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare greets a supporter as he sits in front of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, on the seventh day of his fast at Ramlila grounds in New Delhi. (Reuters)

Veteran Indian social activist Anna Hazare greets a supporter as he sits in front of a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, on the seventh day of his fast at Ramlila grounds in New Delhi. (Reuters)

While the hunger strike may have made its greatest political gains in the 20th century helping to expose injustice, overturn prejudice and even overthrow empires, the release of Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak last week, after a 95-day hunger strike, demonstrates this ancient form of protest has lost none of its power.

Indeed, in the digital age, the hunger strike is finding new influence.

Sarsak's release followed the release of another Palestinian hunger striker, Khader Adnan, in April and concessions made by Israel to over 1 500 Palestinian prison hunger strikers.

In May, Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja ended his 110-day hunger strike having drawn the world's attention to Bahrain's anti-government movement and jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko's 20-day hunger strike caused an international stir ahead of the Euro 2012 football championships.

In Iran several imprisoned journalists and activists are currently on hunger strike and last year veteran activist Hoda Saber died of a heart attack after just 10 days fasting. In Russia the announcement last week that the three members of the jailed activist punk band Pussy Riot were on hunger strike made headlines around the world.

The internet age provides huge opportunities for the scope and impact of the hunger strike in terms of raising awareness and support.

However, with thousands of hunger strikes being staged each month – from Belarus to Tibet, Western Sahara to Guantanamo Bay – there is also a danger that some will be lost in cyberspace.

Anyone who has seen Hunger, Steve McQueen's 2008 film about the Maze prison hunger strike, will have an idea just how horrific it is to die by starvation. The body literally consumes itself, "mining" its muscles and vital organs for energy.

Toxic ketone bodies – acetone, acetoacetate, and beta-hydroxybutyrate – are produced and death comes by dehydration, atrophication and the failure of the kidneys, liver and other organs.

A long history of protest
Unlike self-immolation, a hunger strike can last for weeks or months, slowing reconfiguring the dynamic between "powerless" and the "powerful".

By making public the very private act of dying, the hunger striker demands attention.

While most people think of the hunger strike as a 20th-century phenomenon, employed most famously in the struggles for women's suffrage and the Irish and Indian independence movement, the practice is rooted far further back in history.

Hunger strikes were practised in medieval Ireland, ancient India and by the Romans.
Even the young Tiberius staged a hunger strike to persuade his uncle, Augustus Caesar, to allow him to travel to Rhodes. Tiberius only fasted for four days but in AD 25 Rome, protesting at the curtailment of freedom of speech, Cremutius Cordus fasted to death.

In medieval Ireland, where hunger strikes were encoded in civic law, it was common practice for people to fast on the doorstep of someone they felt had committed them an injustice.

If the hunger striker was permitted to die, the person on whose doorstep the faster had died would be held responsible for the death and liable to compensate the deceased's family.

Hunger strikes were practised by some members of the clergy and according to legend even Ireland's patron saint, St Patrick, went on a hunger strike against God. After 45 days, so the story goes, God eventually backed down.

Sitting dharna
In ancient India, hunger protests were also staged outside the doors of those who strikers felt had committed an offence against them, typically debtors. The practice known as "sitting dharna", dates back to at least 400-750 BC where it appears in the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, and was only abolished by law in 1861.

These ancient Irish and Indian hunger striking traditions had their modern-day apotheoses in the Irish Republican movement and the Indian struggle for independence.

In Ireland the tactic grew in popularity after the 1916 Easter Rising. In 1920, the Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney's hunger strike attracted worldwide interest. When he died after 73 days without food, 40 000 people turned out to watch his funeral cortege and even the pope sent a blessing.

After the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923, more than 8 000 IRA prisoners opposed to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty went on hunger strike. In the 1940s hundreds of hunger strikes took place and in the 1970s the Provisional IRA revived the tactic. But it was the Maze Prison strike of 1981, in which Bobby Sands and nine other inmates fasted to death, that made the most lasting mark.

Sands and the Blanketmen went on hunger strike after the British government reneged on a deal to restore their political prisoner status.

Four days after Sands first refused food the local MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone died, forcing a by-election. Sinn Fein nominated Sands for the seat and his remarkable victory at the polls drew world-wide attention prompting the New York Times to note that Sands had "bested an implacable British Prime Minister".

In India, Mahatma Gandhi staged 17 hunger strikes in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Whilst most of these were directed against British colonial rule, his 1948 hunger strike was aimed at stopping the bloody inter-religious violence that followed partition. Although the British Government acceded to many of his demands, records declassified in 2006 show that Winston Churchill had opposed these concessions and favoured a strategy of letting Gandhi die in prison.

In his Letters to a Disciple, Mahatma Gandhi, wrote: "Under certain circumstances, fasting is the one weapon God has given us for use in times of utter helplessness".

Over the centuries the hunger strike has evolved from a method for individuals to highlight claims against each other to an effective means of political and social change.

The digital age offers a new global platform for practitioners of this ancient form of nonviolent direct action to change the world.

Stefan Simanowitz is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. www.stefansimanowitz.com

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