On Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, a chronological account of the times he fasted for a political cause.
“What about Gandhi?”
“He hasn’t had a square meal for years.”
“Nor have I. Or I could swear I hadn’t. Gandhi, my left foot.”
I saw that it might be best to let the Gandhi motif slide. I went back to where we had started.
In 1934, the same year that saw Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” released in the US, a tremendous earthquake hit Bihar. Gandhi thought the earthquake happened because of the sins of upper caste Hindus in not letting the untouchables enter temples – something for which he had been fasting and campaigning the whole of the previous year. A year earlier, in 1932…..but we jump too far ahead. When did Gandhi start the leitmotif of fasting? The first time was in July 1913 when he was still in South Africa and still in the process of figuring out his leitmotif.
Two people at his Phoenix farm had had a ‘moral fall’, he was told, one of them being his son. Gandhi was jolted into declaring he must atone for the sins of his Ashram’s inmates and proceeded to fast for an entire week; thereafter, for the next 20 weeks, he ate only once a day. His experiment must have given Gandhi an idea of how much his body could endure because later that year, to mourn the striking indentured labourers killed by the South African police, Gandhi declared he’d eat only once a day for a while. He also asked the other ashram inmates to follow his example. Both these fasts, undertaken admittedly as atonement and mourning, did not lead to significant professional mileage for Gandhi but the next one, which was in India, did.
It was 1918, Gandhi had settled in Ahmedabad, had established a commune on the banks of Sabarmati, and was active in the Indian National Congress. In March that year, the workers in the textile mills of Ahmedabad asked their masters for a 35% increase in wages. The owners offered a 20% increase. Gandhi, an independent outsider, advised the workers to go on a strike. It was the first strike in Ahmedabad’s textile history; the mill owners retaliated by declaring a lock-out. After a 2-week impasse, the lockout was raised and workers were told they could come back to work if they took a 20% raise. Many returned. It was then that Gandhi stood in front of those workers who remained striking and said, “Hereby I renounce food till such time as you get a 35% raise.” Or, words to that effect. Those who had broken ranks returned; those who had remained striking were bolstered. Four days later, the workers got a 35% increase and Gandhi broke his fast.
He undertook another, a year later, as atonement for the furious protests against the Rowlatt Act. Not only did he go on a 72-hour fast, he also asked his countrymen to follow suit for at least 24 hours. It was 14 April 1919; Jallianwallah had happened a day earlier but, evidently, Gandhi had not heard about it. Four days later, Gandhi withdrew the satyagraha that he called against the Rowlatt Act. The country had to wait another 3 years before it saw Gandhi fast again.
In the intervening three years, much happened. A woman in Berlin claimed she was Anastasia, the daughter of the slain Czar of Russia. Geneva hosted the first assembly of the League of Nations. Ireland began its war of independence and won the Irish Free State. Adolf Hitler became Fuhrer of Germany. Einstein won the Nobel in Physics. Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay discovered Mohenjo-Daro. The Prince of Wales paid India a visit and faced much riots, protests, and black flags wherever he went. The Indian National Congress allied itself with the pan-Islamic Khilafat movement of Turkey.
Gandhi launched the non-cooperation movement. The Moplah rebellion happened as an offshoot of the Khilafat movement; the brunt of the Moplah ferocity was borne by the Hindus who constituted a majority of the population in Malabar. The violence at Chauri-Chaura took place. It stunned Gandhi, who believed in non-violence at all costs, into immediately calling off the non-cooperation movement and into a 5-day fast to repent for the violence. It was February 1922. His calling off of the non-cooperation movement was so sudden that Gandhi’s popularity plummeted, so much so that a few weeks later, an emboldened government arrested him and threw him in jail, where he was to stay till February 1924.
India had let the Gandhi motif slide. Not only was his principle of Satyagraha – passive resistance through self-humiliation – no longer hot, his aspiration of Hindu-Muslim unity lay in peril. The two years that Gandhi was in jail saw, inter alia, communal riots all over the country, notably in Calcutta in 1923. A year later, the riots in Lucknow and Gulbarga, and especially in Kohat, prompted Gandhi to undertake a 21-day fast. His fast prompted several formal and informal conferences for a communal settlement but all these efforts came to naught. People all over the country continued to riot all through 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, and beyond. Gandhi went into a self-imposed political exile till 1928.
In January 1932, a few days after he returned from England from the Round Table Conference, Gandhi was arrested and sent to jail. It was from the jail in September that year that he announced the second of his fasts unto death. He wouldn’t eat, he said, as a protest against the separate electorates that were reserved for untouchables in the legislature. The last time that he had undertaken a fast unto death, it was for the striking mill workers at Ahmedabad for whom he had won their desired pay hike. This time, it was for nobody and everybody – he wanted the ‘untouchable’ candidates to be elected by a general, and not a separate, electorate. On the sixth day, Gandhi and Ambedkar agreed upon the Poona Pact and the fast ended. Gandhi got his joint electorate, the untouchables got double the number of seats reserved for them in the legislature and, more importantly, a separate electorate in a modified form of primary elections. Gandhi’s second fast-unto-death had nothing of the victory of his first.
A large section of people felt cheated, the budding social reforms hit a roadblock of indignation, and a year later, Gandhi undertook a 21-day fast as a means of self-purification – he was, admittedly, distressed over the continuing practice of untouchability. This was when he declared that the terrible earthquake in Bihar, on a scale not often seen in India, was divine retribution for the sins of the upper castes. In the same vein, a few weeks later, on being denied facilities in his jail cell for continuing his anti-untouchability campaign, Gandhi began a protest fast. His health took a turn for the worse. He was released from jail and diagnosed with appendicitis. Gandhi then embarked upon an all-India tour, collecting funds for the untouchability cause but he faced opposition from many Hindus. It was around this time that Lalnath, a Hindu leader, was attacked. In reparation, Gandhi fasted for a week.
Five years later, when the ruler of Rajkot went back on his promise of carrying out administrative reforms in his kingdom, Gandhi started a fast to induce the Viceroy to intervene. The fast ended four days later with the dispute being referred to the Chief Justice of India.
Thereafter, in 1943, a year after the Quit India movement started, Gandhi undertook a 21-day fast. This was in response to the Viceroy’s insistence that the Indian National Congress was responsible for the disturbances of 1942 and that Gandhi admit to it; in response, Gandhi fasted.
Five years later, India became free of the British. The ensuing charnel houses that erupted all over the country tested Gandhi’s cherished dream of Hindu-Muslin unity. He wasn’t in Delhi when the tri-colour went up on the ramparts of the Red Fort. He was touring in Bengal trying to fight the raging fires. Ultimately, in Calcutta in September, Gandhi, who was now almost 78 years old, started his third fast unto death, declaring he’d eat only if the carnage stopped. The city was shocked and four days later, people from various parties handed Gandhi a signed declaration forsaking rioting and violence.
It was a short-lived respite; troubles started again. Three months later, in the coldness of January 1948, the Mahatma declared his fourth and last fast unto death. This one lasted six days and was broken after people promised they would not quarrel and kill.
A few days later, Gandhi was killed. He had led the country to freedom, and he had watched it turn determinedly away from his ideals of Satyagraha. His four fasts unto death were all undertaken not against the government of the time but to persuade his countrymen to adhere to social justice.
Dateline of the fasts unto death
- In 1918. For an increase in the wages of mill workers in Ahmedabad. Lasted four days.
- In 1932. For joint electorates for the entire Hindu populace rather than separate electorates for untouchables. Lasted six days.
- In 1947. For communal harmony. Lasted four days.
- In 1948. For communal harmony. Lasted six days.
Dateline of all fasts
- July 1913, South Africa. As atonement for a moral fall of two Ashram inmates. Fast for 1 week; thereafter, 1 meal a day for 20 weeks.
- Late 1913, South Africa. During the Miners March. When striking indentured labourers were killed by policemen, Gandhi ate one meal a day for some time and asked others to follow suit. The first of his public fasts.
- 15 March 1918 to 19 March 1918, Ahmedabad. For raising of wages of mill workers. Resulted in an arbitration mechanism being put in place for labour disputes, and in the formation of the first of Gujarat’s labour unions, the Ahmedabad Labour Association.
- 14 April 1919, Ahmedabad. A 72-hour fast, as atonement for the violence during the anti-Rowlatt Act protests. Asked countrymen to fast for 24 hours.
- February 1922, Bardoli. A 5-day fast to atone for Chauri Chaura.
- 17 September 1924, Delhi. A 21-day fast against the anti-Hindu violence in Kohat in the North West Frontier Provinces.
- 12 September 1932, Yerwada jail. A fast unto death against separate electorates for untouchables. It culminated in the Gandhi-Ambedkar Poona Pact where a common electorate for all Hindus was agreed upon, provided the untouchable had seats reserved for them in the legislature and provided there was a primary election – before the main election – where the untouchable would vote for other untouchable who would then stand for elections on the reserved seats.
- May 1933, Yerwada jail. A 21-day fast for self purification and over his distress at the continuing practice of untouchability. Released from jail after a few days, he continued to fast until the 21 days were over.
- 16 August 1933. Facilities in his jail cell for Harijan work. Released from jail.
- 7 August 1934, Wardha. A 1-week fast in reparation for the attack on Lalnath, a sanatanist; the sanatanists were opposed to Gandhi’s untouchability cause.
- 3 March 1939, Rajkot. A fast against the breach of faith by the ruler of Rajkot who had promised to carry out administrative reforms in his territory but retracted on his promise. The fast ended four days later when the dispute got referred to the Chief Justice of India.
- 10 February 1943, Poona. A 21-day fast as a response to the Viceroy’s insisting that Gandhi admit to being responsible for the disturbances of 1942 and give an assurance that they would not recur.
- September 1947, Calcutta. A fast unto death for communal harmony. Ended when Gandhi received a signed declaration from several parties.
- 13 January 1948. A fast unto death for communal harmony. Ended on January 18 after assurances from various groups.
The material in this article is sourced primarily from the following two books:
- Mohandas by Rajmohan Gandhi
- The History and Culture of the Indian People, volume 11 (Struggle for Freedom)
Also from the following websites: