Power and the Powerless in India

June 10th, 2011

The powerless have few tools to use against the powerful. Sometimes the powerless are a minority. Sometimes they are a majority. Suffrage, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are tools civilizations have developed to give powerless people more power. But the other side has its own tools, which the powerful use to perpetuate their power. Corruption and nepotism are the most obvious examples. These tools are not only used by theocrats and autocrats. They are used in democracies too, and they erode democratic systems by concentrating power in the hands of a few, depriving the powerless of their voice.

In the face of deprivation, the powerless have few tools to respond. Sometimes they turn to protests—as we have seen this Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. Sometimes protestors turn to violence, as we now see in Libya.

Another of these tools is the hunger strike, which is a very specific form of peaceful protest. It is self-destructive, but often effective. Its success rests on two main factors: publicity and the sympathies of both supporters and adversaries. India’s Mohandas Gandhi most famously used hunger strikes or highly publicized fasts to protest colonial rule by the British. But they are actually quite universal. Hunger strikes have a long (legal) history in Ireland, where as early as the 8th century villagers would air grievances and settle disputes “by fasting on the doorsteps of wrongdoers until they were publicly shamed into doing the right thing.” Thomas Ashe, an IRA leader, died during a hunger strike in 1917 while in a British prison, which sparked a following among other IRA inmates. The British eventually released 89 strikers to avoid creating more political martyrs.

Now, in India, there are two men—Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev—who are using twin hunger strikes to protest the rampant corruption scandals in India. It is a worthy cause. They have used the tool before: in April they protested corruption and their pressure compelled the government to form a committee with the intention of creating an anti-corruption watchdog. While the new committee has met regularly since, the activists are not satisfied with India’s limited progress and have taken up another hunger strike to compel the government to draft new laws.

Their protest has become a nationwide sensation. There is near-nonstop TV coverage of an orange-robed Ramdev surrounded by supporters, and tens of thousands of others have joined the protests by gathering and fasting in other cities.

These men and the protestors who follow them are seeking genuine reform of a system in which powerful individuals exploit their authority. Ramdev is angry not only with India’s pervasive corruption, but also with his government for failing to act against Indians who are stashing money abroad. Global Financial Integrity (GFI) has estimated, India has lost nearly $464 billion in illicit financial flows since independence. According to the BBC, Ramdev has demanded the “billions of dollars of suspected bribe money held overseas be returned to India,” has called for the use of hanging until death for those convicted of graft, and believes those guilty of corruption should have their hands cut off.

The grievances of the protestors are legitimate. But Ramdev’s demands take an extreme position. Most obviously his position on the death penalty for corrupt officials is extreme to the point of outrageous. More subtlety, his demand that the government “bring back” illicit financial flows is implausible. As Dev Kar, GFI’s Lead Economist, has noted: “getting the money back from various tax havens…is sensationalism with scant regard for the legal and other challenges involved. Illicit assets are typically lodged in secrecy jurisdictions…and banks would not permit any government agency to go on a ‘fishing expedition’ by allowing them to trawl through their accounts in search of illicit funds.”

In August of 1939, Mohandas Gandhi wrote the following passage in a newspaper:

The hunger strike has positively become a plague. On the slightest pretext some people want to resort to a hunger strike. It is well, therefore, that the Working Committee [of the Congress party] has condemned the practice in unequivocal terms, so far at least as a hunger strike for a discharge from imprisonment is concerned.

He was not distancing from his own hunger strikes—which he saw as a spiritual tool. Rather he made the statement when Congress party members indulged in a spate of hunger strikes inspired by grudges.

There is such a thing as an overly forceful response. On one hand, injustice demands extreme positions. They demand attention and attention drives results. On the other hand, there is such a thing as a position that is too extreme. This is an example of the latter. By demanding untenable solutions the activists are forcing the Indian government to choose between an impossible position and the status quo. The consequences are obvious. Neither will work for India.


Written by Ann Hollingshead

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