Thoughts on economics and liberty

Calling upon India to criminalise coercive fasts-unto-death

I'm posting here the comments from Bhagwad (and my response) in relation to my call to Hazare to stop subverting the constitution of India to achieve political (policy) goals. I wrote: I therefore encourage Anna and his supporters to form a political party and contest elections and then, once they have a formal mandate for change, bring about the reforms they have obtained people's authorisation for (subject to preserving the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution).

Bhagwad Jal, a blog friend (we've never met), believes that everyone has a right to coerce the Government to anything, and that suicide is our birth right.

Here's what he has to say

We've discussed this before. My view is that self harm should certainly be allowed. My body, my rules. If at all we take property rights seriously, then a person has to own their body. A man may have nothing – not food, no clothes and no house. But they always have their body. It's the one thing a person owns without doubt and without restraint. It's the only thing they have real control over. To say a person doesn't own their body is repulsive and unjust since they and only they suffer when their body is not working properly.

Hazare has every right to fast to death. Let the government not listen if they don't want. No one is forcing the government to pay heed.

n fact, I'll go one step further. So strong is a person's ownership of their body, that whether the government "legalizes" it or not is immaterial! In their heart, everyone knows that their body belongs to themselves regardless of what the "law" says. Which is why no one who commits suicide ever thinks "Damn…this is illegal!" Which is why no one really listens to laws which tell them not to drink…even in private.

You think if the govt. came out with a law saying people don't own their body, anyone would care? It's a natural law beyond the purview of parliament or any man made structure. It's a deeply rooted natural way of things.

Incidentally, if you term fasting to death as "coercion," what about strikes which threaten to disrupt the economic system in which we live? I'm not talking about forced strikes and breaking cars etc…I'm talking about basic non cooperation.

Unless someone takes a gun to the govt's head and forces them to do something, it's not real coercion. Many "fasts unto death" have been initiated in India's history. The vast majority of them have been safely ignored….as they should. Rarely is an issue of such importance that people sit up, rally round and take notice. Such issues cannot be manufactured. They come when they come and you can't do anything about it.

Now, here was my response

Dear Bhagwad

Ownership of one’s body is a piece of absurdity that makes no sense from any angle. One rents one’s body till one is alive. But that is NOT relevant to the discussion here.

Note I’m not asking that suicide be made a criminal act. That it can’t be prevented through law should be obvious. Instead, it requires the creation of a social insurance health system that identifies and assists suicidal people. I’ve explained at length in DOF.

However, Hazare’s was not suicidal act in that typical sense (normal suicide is a consequence of mental distress, but Hazare’s was not a case of mental distress but a case of deliberately causing others mental distress). Such threatened suicide is used precisely like a bargaining chip: a commercial transaction. You do this or I will kill myself at great emotional cost to the entire nation. Even ordinary suicidal people might try a bit of this strategy before actually taking their life. But they don’t aim to bring down an entire nation to its knees through their suicide.

Hazare-type suicide threats are different since these impinge deeply on emotions of millions of people, and put extra-constitutional pressure on governments to do things they would have otherwise not done or done differently. Instead of using the hustings to create laws, this technique uses the streets to make laws. That is grossly improper. I am calling for a specific prohibition of this kind of emotional stunt.

Gandhi invented this technique for specific purposes and mostly used it to douse communal violence. Hazare and many others of his ilk have used this technique to short-circuit the constitutional process. It has the same goals as a terrorist act: a coercive method to force an ENTIRE COUNTRY to do something.

The point about strikes is well taken. That is actually illegal particularly where violence harms others. But I trust you are aware that “peaceful” strikes (e.g. stop-work strikes) need to be regulated as well because they force someone (employer) to pay someone (employee) for a service they have not provided. This is a breach of contract, and the direct action, even if non-violent, is essentially criminal (asking something for free: Note that dissatisfied workers always have the option to resign and leave – but they don’t do that: instead, they COERCE the employer if they don’t like a particular wage: that is basically a criminal act).

I’m saying here that it is the intent to blackmail (and the Anna has repeatedly said that he is happy to blackmail the government) that is criminal.

When you or I fast for a few days we do so peacefully at home, not with the intent of blackmail. It is when the fast is undertaken to coercively subvert the constitutional processes of India, then force-feeding is absolutely necessary.

I would call upon the Government of India to create a law on this matter immediately.





What's the essential problem with a fast unto death? Apart from the philosophical problems outlined above, this is problematic because the concept of one person one vote is distorted comprehensively.

Why is it that the vote of a non-fasting person is valued less than that of a fasting person? There is no possible reason to distinguish between the two. Both have the same option for changing the laws: USE THE ELECTORAL SYSTEM, get elected, form a majority and then change the laws.

I have worked for over 13 years now, trying to change many laws in India. Does it mean I use extra-constitutional methods? No. I still argue that I am only entitled to one method: electoral.

Had India degenerated into a tyranny, I would have also resorted to civil disobedience, even violence. But India is NOT a tyranny. There is no ground to short-circuit the social contract.

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21 thoughts on “Calling upon India to criminalise coercive fasts-unto-death
  1. Bhagwad Jal Park

    We disagree over the meaning of "force." Pressure isn't the same as "force." When you force someone, you're giving them no option to do otherwise. In most cases, for something to be called "forced," it has to involve either physical of financial coercion. Pressurizing someone isn't the same as "forcing" them.
    To give you an example, when the parents of a girl emotionally blackmail her into getting married, they're saying "Get married or we will cast you out." Are they "forcing" her or pressurizing her? In my opinion, as long as they don't drug her and take her to the marriage it's not counted as "force."
    Pressurizing someone (even the government) is an entirely legitimate way of negotiation. Hazare has every right to do what he wants with his body. He's exerting pressure on the govt. The govt. has ignored many "fasts unto death" which shows that they're not being "forced" into it this time.

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Bhagwad

    Here the force is PHYSICAL. It is DEATH of Hazare. I can distinguish physical from non-physical force. This is not non-violence, but self-violence. The underlying principle is VIOLENCE.


  3. Bhagwad Jal Park

    But the physical force isn't directed towards the govt. Only if it was directed towards the govt. can we call it "forcing" the govt.
    "Forcing" someone literally means "had no other choice." The govt. could have let Hazare die. Sure, it would be horribly unpopular and would probably lead to it getting voted out of power in the next elections. But it COULD have.
    On the other hand when you "force" someone to do something they literally CANNOT do anything else. Like when Musharraf completed a coup in Pakistan, he FORCED the govt. out. Nothing else COULD have happened. That is not the case here though.

  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Bhagwad

    Why would a government let Hazare die? That would violate its fundamental responsibility – to preserve and promote life and liberty.

    I don’t understand what you are saying. Are you saying that we have a fundamental right to suicide? No major philosopher of the state has agreed to that position because it philosophically untenable. Even Gandhi would not have agreed to that, coming as he did from a deeply religious philosophical basis.

    By the way, your understanding of force is incorrect because of the following:

    If A credibly threatens to commit suicide if B doesn’t do something, then B becomes the INSTRUMENT of A’s death if he does not do what A demands. B’s CHOICE is effectively a choice between life and death. The Government would have effectively become the instrument that killed Hazare – at least in the minds of everyone – if it had failed to agree to his demand (and not force-fed him).

    Far better to prohibit such morally questionable matters and arrest and force-feed all the Hazares of India.

    There is NO fundamental right to suicide – and no right to use it as a threat to bring a LEGITIMATELY elected government to its knees.


  5. Nitin Gulhane

    I am in not in favor of Mr Hazare's fast. However, what an honest and driven man can do? Our system is beyond repair. Incompetent bunch that gets selected thru UPSC (IAS/IPS) has destroyed India beyond repair. While Indian population routienly blames politicians for being corrupt, most politicians are a clueless bunch. Its an IxS cadre that has been causing havoc on Indian masses…thru their gross incompetency and to earn their silly crores.
    I, of course, don't have any evidence against them. And if you have, don't go running to Anti Corruption buero. Won't do you any good.
    I do not know if making a few more laws will change anything. We already have way too many of them….and you won't find many Govt officers doing time for corruption…although only an idiot and chief of Anti Corruption buero wouldn't know that corruption in govt offices is rampant in India.
    While Anna Hazare's fast won't force govt officers to lower their rates, it has raised my beleif that Indians are not low grade people. Our Govt servants and politicians might have given us a bad name, but average Indian is not a 'chor' or an idiot who loses spine at the sight of some money.
    Long live India. Down with IxS cadre.
    Note: Sanjeev, you were an IAS officer but not sure if you know how bad these IxS folks are. I fully expect you to beleive that your kind is not bad…its quite human to find faults in others.

  6. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Nitin

    I FULLY support Hazare’s movement for removal of corruption, but note that it is not addressing even remotely the CAUSES of corruption. Hence I recommend a comprehensive reform package since Jan LokPal will achieve nothing.

    Second, I support the idea of civil disobedience but only where conditions for that exist. Such conditions do not currently exist. I’m therefore against coercive methods but support electoral methods to change the laws.

    Third, re: fast unto death – that is a fundamental philosophical issue, and I have discussed it long ago (well before Hazare’s fast) in my draft manuscript DOF. I’m merely drawing implications from the theoretical position. I also note that in India the law on this matter is applied inconsistently. That is very wrong!! Either you let people fast to death or you forcefeed them. You can’t let Hazare fast to death and forcefeed Sharmila. I believe everyone should be forcefed.


  7. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Finally, re: IAS etc. Please note in BFN I’ve clearly showed that IAS etc. MUST GO. I’ve written about it everywhere including an article in the Times of India.

  8. Bhagwad Jal Park

    I am indeed saying that we have a fundamental right to suicide. And you're wrong when you say that no major philosopher has agreed with suicide.
    Indeed, the right to suicide is the most basic right of all. Without the right to commit suicide, none of our other rights is worth having. If freedom is a value, then the suicide is the ultimate freedom. One of the definitions of freedom is self ownership. If that is so, then the right to end the ownership of the self is a natural consequence.
    The very fact that Gandhi was willing to go on a fast unto death meant that he was comfortable with the idea of ending one's own life by one's own free will.
    Also, you're making an error of causality. One is responsible for one's own actions. If A threatens to commit suicide based on whether or not B does something, then A and A alone is responsible for their choice to kill themselves. Unless you can show that A loses the power to choose whether or not they want to kill themselves, B is in no way responsible for the choice that A makes.
    Suppose a parent threatens to kill themselves if their daughter marries outside their gotra (or whatever.) Is the daughter responsible for the death of her parent? Such a position is absurd since it's the parent's choice to kill themselves which is more fundamental.

  9. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    Do you know what the ‘Life’ is? It’s not your area of working since it invariably ends into philosophy which is just ‘spiritual’ for you at least for the time being and hence out of your scope. You cannot comment on ‘Right to death/suicide’ etc. I mean your arguments could not hold any water.
    Therefore what you can think is only about the impact of one’s ‘death’ (here either as a result of Hazares fast or otherwise) on the society.
    The intention behind the Hazares death is for the cause of good. Don’t you agree? Then let it be illegal, since his illegality is to the extent of illegality from which the system itself suffers. However if the intention is otherwise it will be truly criminal and what you say should be followed.
    Hazare at once cannot bring the electoral reforms. However he intends the same. But for the time being, fed up with the system he is trying at his best to bring some good changes with the means best suited to his temperament. Whether those changes (Jan lok pal bill etc) work or not the thing is entirely different. For the time being Hazare is making use of his ‘FREEDOM’ on his body with the ‘INTENTION’ of contributing good to the society. It is the fault of the government/public if it succumbs to him or otherwise. Here Hazare is not depriving them of their freedom in taking the decision. Hazare’s intention cannot be malafide nor can he ever be blamed as long as the intentions are good.
    If one day FTI (or its equivalent) comes to power it would be only with the help of the ground work, the sensation, the awareness among the public which Hazare, Baba Ramadev etc are creating for the good. I fail to see such a ground work would ever be possibly be done by the FTI itself or it may take exhaustingly too much time. Hazare is a typical ‘sort’ of shortcut with all the possible drawbacks to this achievement of FTI or its equivalent and not a shortcut to the constitutional means which you are arguing. I am not saying that the government of Baba Ramadev, Hazar or that of FTI would be best. But since the intentions are good we must support them, no better alternative. At least it would be the ‘Ground work’ needed for change.
    Your arguments smack the lack of maturity and reality for the reasons stated in the first para of this comment. Are not you depriving the Hazare of his ‘FREEDOM’ even after knowing his ‘INTENTION’, you the votary of freedom.

  10. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ramesh

    In the social contract we have in India, laws are to be made by elected representatives. I’m asking Hazare to contest elections and change laws. I’m not denying him the right to fight corruption.

    I have the same goal – with far clearer and viable package – but I am doing the hard yards to build a sensible political movement. Shortcuts won’t work anyway.

    The question here is not about the maturity of the philosophy I advocate (classical liberalism) – which is the philosophy on the basis of which India survives today (e.g. its constitution, democracy – ALL are purely classical liberal inventions). The question is about the maturity of “educated” Indians to think.


  11. ramesh

    Dear Sabhok,
    Utterly got disappointed with this reply. You may take sufficient time to reply but better not compromise with the quality of the comments which I think you are doing.
    Here is an example of how a matured educated You (Indian) thinks. Here it goes…
    I did not tell Hazare should make a law. Representatives make a law with the help of the expertise available. Here Hazare is emulating good representative as if electoral reforms have taken place. Hazare is not doing different other than this. I am not saying you are denying Hazare his right to fight corruption. Instead you are denying his right to how to live.
    I don’t say you have ambiguous goal instead say lacks some practical approach. I never say shortcuts work. Instead I say Hazares shortcut is never harmful as long as his universal goodness of intention remains.
    And you missed host of other important points obvious in the last comment of mine.
    Are the above thoughts of a typical Educated Matured Indian (YOU)? Horrible.
    India/world never needs such educated matured people. Let him be a cultured one. Here example is Anna Hazare to some extent with all the drawbacks and limitations.
    Here I repeat better not you unmake yourself by missing the intentional points. May be you take more time.

  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Don’t also forget that in Sharmila’s case the government has force-fed her for nearly 10 years. Her “movement” is not much different from Hazare’s.

    We need to enforce laws consistently in India. Can’t force feed one person and raise another to the pedestal as God.


  13. H Marwein

    What about a civil disobedience or noncooperation movement against payment of bribes by all citizens?Would this be work ? Most laws and institutions have failed in their fight against corruption and the Jan Lok Pal may only corrupt itself sooner than latter if given too much powers.

  14. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    H Marwein

    The problems of India, as clearly articulated in BFN (and indeed, I’m not the first to do so – there are 100s of world class economists who have said pretty much the same thing) are not related to laws and institutions but BAD laws and therefore bad institutions. By bad laws I mean bad policies that are totally orthogonal to human incentives and therefore create an inevitable pressure for corruption (among other things).

    Citizens who pay bribes are just victims of these bad laws. They can’t stop paying bribes if they have to survive in today’s India. Indeed most bribes are not paid by ordinary citizens but by big (and small) business.

    I am advocating a very simple solution that seems to find no taker!! – have a political party in India that will CHANGE these bad laws and align them with human incentives and common sense.

    We betray the worst diseases of thinking (i.e. we think poorly and in a shallow manner) and expect results. We need to understand Adam Smith, to begin with. For 250 years his book has been lying around, and few (virtually none) in India have cared to understand it. But that book clarifies the rules of the game of modern societies. There are no shortcuts such as civil disobedience movements.

    Adam Smith did not advocate civil disobedience as a solution. Nor did Hayek. etc. They advocated clear headed thinking.


  15. H Marwein

    *There are many  good laws in this country but in many cases  the people and the system do not allow such laws to operate properly. All  Laws are in a democracy  based on some general will and commons sense.   we cannot fault the laws. The constitution of India  is an example of a very good law but how many times has it been subverted by the people and the system that operates it. I do not believe  that institutions are not functioning properly due to bad laws. It is the people who are responsible for their subveversion to serve one interest or another. It requires a vigilant and vocal public  and press to mitigate the abuses of power and corruption in a democracy,  be it the USA or India.
    Secondly in India, the ordinary citizen is the most harrassed by the system and unless he is willing to bribe, he will find it very difficult to even get ordinary things done. eg a driving license, electricity connection etc etc. This is what hurts most ordinary people not the looting by the high and mighty. I dont believe that a political party by itself can change the corrupt system just  by changing  "Bad Laws" and aligning them to commonsense and incentives. This view is limited and does not address the entire gamut of issues involved in corrupution in India vi., changes in electoral laws, state funding of elections, education, civic vigilance, independent executive  institutons, ombudsman etc etc and utlimately the citizens resistance to paying bribes at all levels. 

  16. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear H Marwein

    I regret that I differ from your distinction between “laws” and “system”. You claim that laws are good but system is bad.

    I suggest that the system is merely based on laws. Institutions are rules of the game, and that is the system. The laws ARE the system.

    I have shown in BFN that the laws of India COMPEL people to be corrupt. When a law is designed without reference to issues that will arise during its implementation it is a bad law.

    The West spends a HUGE amount of thinking on the entire package, not just the “law”. That even then it fails is because it has not thought deeply enough. The problem with India is that the laws are BAD. They create the system we see.

    I have shown in BFN which laws need to change and why – and then the system will change.

    People are ALWAYS rational. They respond to incentives.


  17. Jitendra

    completed against your opinion expressed here. You say that "In the social contract we have in India, laws are to be made by elected representatives."
    You talk about freedom, liberty of a human and forget that when the laws and system is toothless and totally rotten to the core on the one hand and the other side is most illiterate and poor citizens, this electoral system and its people have sinked in so much that "the current election and its people will never ever be able to make a strong law which will hang them".
    This country need a citizen empowered methods to make laws, it is as simple as that. The selected, educated and actful citizens who want the country to come out this mess, has to take the step forward and they have done so…
    Even if one has iota of interested in India, he should support this cause like Anna Hajare and the current method of achieving this.!
    If a person, no matter how much educated he is, how big the thinker he might be, does not agree to this, I sincerely hope they should never exist in the country or in this world.

  18. Sanjeev Sabhlok


    Leaving aside your extrapolations at the end of your msg, let me state clearly that the Indian democratic system IS NOT DEFUNCT. Yes, it has lots of problems and lots of bad laws but India is a functioning democracy.

    The way to change the laws (and LokPal is the LEAST of the changes that need to be made), is for people to contest elections and get the people’s mandate to change the laws.

    Anna Hazare resorted to extra-constitutional pressure by threatening to commit suicide. He has no right or business to do that. He should contest elections, get elected, and change the laws.

    That is what I’m working towards – but I’m struggling to find the right kind of leaders. So few understand what has to be done to change India’s governance. If you are SERIOUS then please at least read BFN and then let’s discuss. That’s the MINIMUM package of reforms India needs.

    Jan LokPal bill WONT’ MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE. I guarantee that. Further the method used by Anna Hazare must be prohibited, since it totally distorts democracy. Let him contest elections.


  19. Jitendra

    In what sense , you see the democracy functioning ? I do not see them functioning. merely, by having the structure, a country does not become democratic. How many of the democratic institutions are functioning in the rightly manner?
    political, judicial, police,education,healthcare, basic infra, agri…where do you see this working ?
    A idea to have leaders who will fight elections and make laws to improve the situation, I call this living in a beautiful dream. I hope It becomes a reality but as I understand the practicality of current environment, It will not happen that way.
    Until and unless, the majority of common citizens does not take the ownership and stand for the country, things will not change.
    Striking out any suggestion or improvement is quite easy something similar to bombing an idea.
    Why do not you provide the inputs which will prevent the Jan Lok Pal bill from being ineffective? I know there are flaws and I am writing those positive steps to contribute my bit. what about you?

  20. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Jitendra

    If you believe that Indian democracy is non-functional you are right, but it does all the things that the Constitution says. We are grateful to Edmund Burke and Thomas Macaulay (among others), for writing the laws and principles which underpin the Indian democracy.

    The fact that after Ambedkar (and Rajaji) virtually no one in India understands what it means to be a liberal democracy has created all the problems.

    I disagree that a liberal political party can’t come to power. It can – if people like you decide that this has to be done. Fatalism is no solution. Engagement with politics is the answer.

    Have you read the 1000s of pages of my writings (since 1998) which explain the path India needs to adopt? Why do you expect me to waste time on the Jan LokPal bill which CAN’T fix India’s problems? I have better things to do, particularly since you (and most Indians) refuse to read even a few hundred pages of BFN and try to understand WHY things are so bad.

    I’m interested in leaders who UNDERSTAND, not those who have SHALLOW mental capacity and can’t think deeply enough to see the causes of the problem.

    Lok Pal betrays extremely shallow thinking. No point spending time on its “improvement”. I’ve said so many times.

    Let’s work towards SERIOUS reform, not cosmetic lipstick.


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