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.

The case

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.

Author opinion

Manav Bhushan

In my view it was totally unconstitutional for the Indian government to place Hazare under arrest before he undertook his fast, and it was further immoral of them to accuse him of “black-mailing” parliament. A hunger strike is a perfectly legitimate pressure tactic that has been employed throughout history by many citizens, including Gandhi, to demand their rights in a democracy. It is a constitutionally valid, non-violent form of protest, which works only when the demand is supported by a number of people, large enough to be a threat to the government. Hence the government is obliged to listen only when it feels that the demand of the person fasting represents popular opinion. Otherwise the government has every right to ignore it. In this sense, it should be allowed as part of any functioning democracy, which allows citizens the right to protest and express their views in any non-violent manner.

Katie Engelhart

There are legitimate reasons why the Indian government moved to stymie Hazare’s protest. For starters, there is the question of law. The Indian penal code makes attempted suicide illegal. A hunger strike, which could result in death, might conceivably fall under that heading. In that case, the state had a responsibility to protect Hazare’s life: by preventing a fast-unto-death. There are also considerations about democracy and its functioning. In this case, Hazare’s cause – anti-corruption – had widespread support in India, and many were pleased with the results of the protest. But what if his cause had been more controversial? In that case, it might have seemed less heroic for Hazare to use his influence to single-handedly force the government’s hand.

- Manav Bhushan and Katie Engelhart

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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.

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