Mahatma Gandhi & his fasts



Some one asked an interesting question on Quora the other day:  Is there any fast that Mahatma Gandhi took that did not succeed in its objective? It was a good cue for me to go find out more and put my thoughts on it together. 

Let us understand first that for Mahatma Gandhi, fasts were “…a potent weapon in the Satyagraha armoury. It cannot be taken by every one. Mere physical capacity to take it is no qualification for it. It is of no use without a living faith in God. It should never be a mechanical effort or a mere limitation. It must come from the depth of one’s soul. It is, therefore, always rare…” (Harijan, 1939). They were not conceived in haste nor used arbitrarily.

Having said that, over his life time Mahatma Gandhi conducted 17 recorded fasts. Some of them were as acts of penance, most of them were meant to raise an issue, push a point. As he says in the Harijan (1946)

(fasting) is…fierce and not altogether free from danger. I myself have before condemned fasting when it seemed to me to be wrong or morally unjustified. But to shirk a fast where there is a clear moral indication is a dereliction of duty. Such a fast has to be based on unadulterated truth and ahimsa (non violence).

He never saw fasts as ‘blackmail’. In fact writing in the Harijan, he showed recognition of the fact that fasts can be used for coercion. He showed his disdain for the tactic by writing

Of course, it is not to be denied that fasts can be really coercive. Such are fasts to attain a selfish object. A fast undertaken to wring money from a person or for fulfilling some such personal end would amount to the exercise of coercion or undue influence. I would unhesitatingly advocate resistance of such undue influence. I have myself successfully resisted it in the fasts that have been undertaken or threatened against me.

And if it is argued that the dividing line between a selfish and unselfish end is often very thin, I would urge that a person who regards the end of a fast to be selfish or otherwise base should resolutely refuse to yield to it, even though the refusal may result in the death of the fasting person.

If people will cultivate the habit of disregarding fasts which, in their opinion, are taken for unworthy ends, such fasts will be robbed of the taint of coercion and undue influence. Like all human institutions, fasting can be both legitimately and illegitimately used.

Coming to the point on the success of the fasts, we also must recognise that, as with everything else in his life, Gandhi (his conscience rather) was the sole arbiter of what he considered to be correct or a success. Thus for instance, his fast in Ahmedabad in 1918 was ‘successful’ considering that the mill owners agreed to arbitration and pay rise, he lamented “They (mill workers) have not won their masters’ hearts, as they were not innocent in thought. They were only non-violent in deed.”

In 1939 Gandhiji fasted to protest against the ruler of the princely state of Rajkot who had revoked a set of political reforms. The ruler ignored Gandhi who then asked the British Viceroy to intervene. He then himself identified that the fast was a dismal failure and he left empty handed. In a remarkable article he wrote in the Harijan,

“There can be no room for selfishness, anger, lack of faith, or impatience in a pure fast. It is no exaggeration to admit that all these defects crept into my Rajkot fast … I had in me the selfish desire for the realization of the fruits of my labor. If there had been no anger in me, I would not have looked to the Viceroy for assistance.”

The point is that Gandhiji applied principles & success metrics that most of us cannot imagine. He called off the Non Co-operation Movement because of the incident in Chauri Chaura leaving a lot of Congress leaders stunned. Looking therefore to a list of his fasts and labelling them success / failures in the ‘normal’ sense of the terms is a pointless exercise.

In the long term of course the two biggest causes for which Gandhiji fasted most often; (1) Hindu Muslim amity and (2) mistreatment of dalits, offered only temporary relief. We see the issues even in present day Indian society. These, from our parameters, may be considered to be failures.