The Hunger Strike : Undertaken and Analysed

The police in India normally use their power to implicate people in false court cases and arrest them to terrorise the common people at large. The police have been long used by the administration and the upper-caste non-adivasis to subjugate the poor and illiterate tribals. Any tribal who dared to protest invariably used to be beaten up and a false case used to be registered against him. When the Bhil women of Western Madhya Pradesh began an organised movement to stop illegal sale of liquour the police typically implicated them in false cases. The women took a stand of not allowing the police into arresting them and thus made an authoritative statement in defence of the right of the poor downtrodden people of the area. For quite some time false criminal cases had been lodged against both the male and female members of the Bhil tribal organisations whenever they had agitated either for access to the forests or to prevent the sale of alcohol or when they staged a sit-in in front of the police station. Subsequently the judicial magistrate too instead of releasing the accused on bail invariably misused his judicial discretion to send them to jail. From the beginning the policy of the organisation members had been to refuse to be arrested. This finally forced the police to conduct raids to arrest people in which they were mildly successful but had to desist in the face of opposition, which could escalate into a major confrontation. The organisation members then took the decision to court arrest voluntarily and launch a “jail bharo” or fill the jails agitation to show the administration that they were not afraid of going to jail. So along with seven other accused women I finally courted arrest and went to jail refusing to take bail. Subsequently I went on a hunger strike in jail from 11th January 1998 as a last resort stating that as a dalit woman I did not find any substance in the guarantees to life and liberty enshrined in the Constitution of India and so preferred death in jail instead. My demand was that the arrested members of the organisation be released on personal bonds from jail, all the false cases lodged against the members of the organisation be withdrawn and the right of the adivasis to stage peaceful demonstrations be restored. The rest of the members of the organisation who were outside remained active during this period taking out a massive rally in support of the struggle of those inside jail in Barwah town on 13th January 1998 and then launching a sit-in in front of the Divisional Commissioner’s Office in Indore city to demand the transfer of the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police of Khargone district. The administration had on that occasion given an assurance that three false cases would be withdrawn and no further victimisation of tribals would take place in future. The Superintendent and District Magistrate were also transferred at the behest of the Election Commission and I broke my fast after eleven days. However, the administration reneged on its promise of withdrawing the false cases and this forced these women to take the drastic step of launching a mass hunger strike. Eighteen Bhil women went on an indefinite hunger strike from 2nd June 1998 to press their demands for a more just livelihood and a repression free existence for the tribals of Barwah tehsil. Apart from demanding an end to police repression and the withdrawal of false cases lodged against them these women also demanded that adequate health services be provided and action be taken against the exploitative practices of the non-adivasi people of the area. The police administration was particularly obstinate in refusing to change its repressive ways. The reason was that the organisation had effectively put a spanner into the corrupt and repressive functioning of the lower level police functionaries. The previous Superintendent of Police of Khargone district had categorically stated that he could not tolerate the fact that his staff should be scared of the organised power of the tribal women. So there was no response at all from the local administration. The strike was eventually ended on 10th June 1998 after receiving an assurance from the National Human Rights Commission that an independent enquiry would be conducted into the complaints of human rights violations made to it by the tribal women. However, even after that the cases were not withdrawn. What price the hunger strike then as an action strategy for bringing the modern state to heel. Hunger strikes have some chance of succeeding in crunch situations only when those practising it are in very large numbers and so convinced about their cause and the philosophy of passive resistance as to be able to exert moral pressure and bring about a change of heart in the oppressor. This requires a very strong moral fibre which most ordinary mortals lack. So even during India’s freedom movement when there was such a groundswell of mass protest against the British, Gandhians could rarely achieve their immediate demands let alone win freedom through hunger strikes. Of the many hunger strikes before independence the most famous instance of such an action ending in the death of the faster was that of Jatindranath Das who was ironically not a Gandhian but a bomb making expert who had been jailed for armed militancy against the British along with the great martyr Bhagat Singh for their part in the Lahore bomb conspiracy of 1928. He had demanded along with Bhagat Singh that they be recognised as political prisoners and better facilities be provided in Lahore jail to the prisoners. His demands were not met and he died after sixty-three days of fasting in 1929. Das’s death resulted in a massive hue and cry and the British had to constitute an enquiry team. The team found a lot of lacunae in the jail administration and suggested reforms, which were then undertaken. But this was a small demand compared to the demand for independence, which was finally gained only after the burgeoning mass struggles during and after World War II brought home to the British the realisation that it would be far wiser to hand over power in a smooth transition within a colonial constitutional framework that the British themselves had prepared instead of risk that it be ceased by militant nationalists. Thus the success of a hunger strike in securing an important and radical demand hinges crucially on the hunger striker going on to bear death and the demand being supported by a substantial and organised mass base. In my case and later in the case of the women we had no intention of bearing death and we went on a hunger strike with the limited goal of publicising our problems to the larger world and so withdrew our hunger strike on some small demands being met. Personally this experience of the hunger strike brought about a major shift in my life. It became clear to me that class and patriarchal oppression were deep rooted in Indian society and it required deeper political understanding to fight it. I had started off as a creche worker after somehow passing my high school examinations in search of a job to escape my grinding poverty. So I had had no formal training in social science and philosophy to be able to understand the books on complicated political theory that I began to read to improve my political understanding. This made me decide to enroll for a distance education degree course in political science along with my field work. It took me seven years to complete the degree course because my basic foundations were very weak and I also had to work in the field and bear a baby and care for him during this time. I have continued to study ever since and finished a masters course in social work and am now enrolled in an M.Phil course as a stepping stone to finally doing my Phd in the same way as the great feminist historian Gerda Lerner.

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