Monday, December 14, 2009

Fast unto death or Fad Dieting?

K Chandrasekhar Rao's 10 day fast unto death has resulted in the possible formation of a new Indian state, a near complete standstill of legislative activity in AP, significant loss of public property and an epidemic, all over north India, of similar demands for statehood. The media debate has centered around whether the Congress government has acted in haste in accepting the demands of the agitating TRS cadres. Obviously there is also some debate over whether a new Telengana state will be viable and on the fate of Hyderabad. My own view point is that the attempt to divide a reasonably well-governed state along ethnic lines is the beginning of a dangerous trend that may eventually shake the very foundation of the Indian state.
But what I'd like to touch upon is the whole idea of the political fast and the role it has placed in this case. The TRS chief was arrested before his fast under section 309 of the IPC which covers any attempts to take one's own life but his fast continued. He was then shifted to Nizam's Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad where he even though he recieved attention his medical condition kept deteriorating. At this point his worsening condition began to consume the entire nation and national leaders of all hues came out with statements saying K Chandrasekhar Rao's life should not be martyred to the Telengana cause. The general public was bombarded daily with images of a visibly weak Rao and more importantly the damage to public property by rampaging supporters of the Telengana movement. It was here that the Chandrasekhar fast differed from say the kind of fast that Mahatma Gandhi used to undergo. Gandhi never undertook a fast unto death to force the British to leave India. Bapu's fasts were not about using the potential of his possible death to achieve his political aims, and he definitely would never have accepted any Telengana state that came into being after all the rampaging and violent demonstration that took place. His fasts were about penance and forcing his supporters and well-wishers to look inwards at their own actions. But comparisons to Gandhiji are probably unfair.
However how many of us have heard of Irom Charu Sharmila? This 37 year old civil rights activist and poet from Manipur has been on fast since November 4 2000; yes that's right, 2000, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 which gives the army extensive powers and immunity in areas the Indian government deems 'disturbed areas.' Now I will not debate how justified Ms Sharmila's demands are. But given the extensive nature of the powers given to the Indian army there is every likelihood of it being misused. But more importantly we must compare the kind of media attention accorded to Chandrasekhar Rao and that given to Irom Sharmila and wonder why the difference? Why the alacrity to act and why the clamour of politicians to support a cause that has not even been debated much in the public forum?
Whatever the outcome of the Telengana agitation, Irom Sharmila atleast deserves a fraction of the media attention that K Chandrasekhar Rao got.