Hunger strike as free expression

Last year, Anna Hazare, a 74-year-old Indian anti-graft campaigner, undertook a “fast-unto-death” as a way of pressuring the government to enact anti-corruption legislation. Should a hunger strike be protected as a form of free expression? Manav Bhushan and Katie Engelhart offer contrasting views.

In April 2011, Anna Hazare, a 74-year old Gandhian activist from central India, began a public hunger strike in New Delhi. The move was a reaction to a number of corruption scandals involving Indian officials that had recently gone public. Hazare demanded that parliament pass strong anti-corruption legislation. Five days later, the government relented and began drafting a new law. But the process soon stalled. Four months later, Hazare undertook a second “fast-unto-death”, this time demanding the creation of an independent anti-corruption watchdog.

Shortly after Hazare began his fast, he was arrested by the government, which cited law and order concerns. However, when thousands gathered in his support (in the largest mass movement seen in India since the 1970s), Hazare was released and allowed to stage his hunger strike at a New Delhi fairground in full media glare. As Hazare’s weight dropped, officials scrambled to formulate an anti-corruption bill. Sure enough, after twelve days, the Indian parliament adopted a compromise resolution – and Hazare called off his fast.

Government officials have since dismissed Hazare’s activity as blackmail; one MP called it “a dangerous precedent for a democracy”. In December, 2011, Hazare threatened to re-start his hunger strike; he argues that India’s new anti-corruption bill is still too weak.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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