Friday, April 08, 2011

The Power of the Fast, the Power of Poetry

For the past few days, one of the "last men standing" in the name of Gandhi has been fasting in Delhi. His protest has captured the minds and hearts of millions of people across this country, sparking rallies in support and signature campaigns to add power to the very simple demand he is making: to enable a mechanism to fight corruption in politics and other public institutions. Civil society groups in most parts of the country are organizing their own protest events, going on relay fasts and drumming up support via every possible medium from Facebook to Twitter to plain old text messaging to get people into public spaces to silently and sensibly express their anger and frustration with the system and support the demand for one sort of a clean-up mechanism. In Delhi, where Anna Hazare is confronting the government with his fast-unto-death (or fast unto the death of corruption), hundreds are people are thronging Jantar Mantar and the Boat Club lawns, carrying candles and placards, singing bhajans and signing hope. While there are some who are joining the bandwagon to gain publicity for themselves and their organizations, many feel truly and strongly that this is a common fight, one that we must all join if something is to be achieved.

Maybe it's the mood of the world. People everywhere, from Egypt to Iran to Libya to the heartlands of Chattisgarh and Vizianagaram, are saying enough is enough. Enough oppression. Enough discrimination. Enough corruption. What was once a helpless frustration has turned into a determined anger (Bapu too said there are uses for anger, and we must find those uses and channel the energy that anger carries with it) that has now been catalysed into a specific movement by Anna Hazare.

Why is fasting such a powerful tool of protest? What does one person's threat to refuse sustenance achieve, and what does it symbolise? It seems to be a peculiarly Eastern way of indicating protest and inciting guilt. It lays the burden of action on the object that is being confronted--in this case, it appeals to the conscience of government to admit its guilt and expiate it by acceding to the demand of the protestor. The fast is a powerful means of activating social conscience, particularly in this time of excess. Most of us consume much more than we need, so to be brought face to face with denial for a purpose does something to us--or at least to those of us who feel some sense of outrage at injustice of different kinds.

That "fount" of digital knowledge Wikipedia, tells us that the hunger strike as a means of protest, to draw the attention of the powerful to the problems of the people, dates back millennia, and is recorded in texts dating back to 400 BC or earlier. But most of us instinctively associate the hunger strike with the non-violent activism of Gandhi, and later with those who carried on the tradition, such as Jayaprakash Narayan and Anna Hazare, and of course the indomitable Irom Sharmila.

Anna Hazare's fast comes in the wake of the exposure of some of the country's worst scams: CWG, land deals in the capital and elsewhere, 2G spectrum sale, mining contracts in Karnataka, votes for sale...and the list goes on. We are all so sick of reading about corrupt politicians yet feel we cannot do anything to stem the rot. But the proposed Lok Pal bill offered a glimmer of hope, and one that Anna Hazare is determined to force the government to make real. So we now have a face to that protest, and a means which seems within our reach. Perhaps that's why this time, the fast has sparked off such a deeply felt reaction across Indians of all ages and persuasions.

At the University of Hyderabad, students plan a candle light march on the evening of April 9.
On Hyderabad's Necklace Road, people gathered in the morning of April 9 holding candles to show their support, and began a signature campaign as well as a relay hunger strike that will go on until there is a clear response to Anna Hazare's demand.
In Cyberabad, people took time off from their high paying IT jobs on Tuesday April 5 to gather together and show their support, some fasting for a whole day, others committing to skip a meal.
Quietly, in homes, people are performing their own symbolic acts of support--foregoing a meal, adding their votes and signatures to forwarded emails and messages, talking about it and spreading the culture of resistance to corruption.

And some write. Prose and poetry. Art and Music. To fire the embers of peaceful protest and energise the hope that change can happen.

The link below is a great example of the power of words, and their capacity to make us feel and think, and perhaps also, act.

Suheir Hammad's amazing poetry performed">

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